Women in computing

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Global concerns about current and future roles of women in computing occupations have gained more importance with the emerging information age. Historically, women played a crucial role in the evolution of computing, with many of the first programmers during the early 20th century being female.[1] These concerns motivated public policy debates addressing gender equality as computer applications exerted increasing influence in society. This dialogue helped to expand information technology innovations and to reduce the unintended consequences of perceived sexism.

Gender gap[edit]

Statistics in education[edit]

In the United States, the number of women represented in undergraduate computer science education and the white-collar information technology workforce peaked in the mid-1980s, and has declined ever since. In 1984, 37.1% of Computer Science degrees were awarded to women; the percentage dropped to 29.9% in 1989-1990, and 26.7% in 1997-1998.[2] Figures from the Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey indicate that less than 12% of Computer Science bachelor's degrees were awarded to women at U.S. PhD-granting institutions in 2010-11.[3]

Although teenage girls are now using computers and the Internet at rates similar to their male peers, they are five times less likely to consider a technology-related career or plan on taking post-secondary technology classes.[4] The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) reports that of the SAT takers who intend to major in computer and information sciences, the proportion of girls has steadily decreased relative to the proportion of boys, from 20 percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2006.[5] While this number has been decreasing, in 2001, the total number of these students (both boys and girls) reached its peak at 73,466.

According to a College Board report, in 2006 there were slightly more girls than boys amongst SAT takers that reported to having "course work or experience" in computer literacy, word processing, internet activity, and creating spreadsheets/databases.[6] It was also determined that more boys than girls (59% vs 41%) reported course work or experience with computer programming. Of the 146,437 students (13%) who reported having no course work or experience, 61% were girls and 39% were boys.

According to statistics, more boys than girls take Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science exams. According to the College Board in 2006, 2,594 girls and 12,068 boys took the AP Computer Science A exam, while 517 girls and 4,422 boys took the more advanced AP Computer Science AB exam. From 1996 to 2004, girls made up 16–17% of those taking the AP Computer Science A exam and around 10% of those taking AP Computer Science AB exam.

Statistics in the workforce[edit]

Women’s representation in the computing and information technology workforce has been falling from a peak of 38% in the mid-1980s. From 1993 through 1999, NSF’s SESTAT reported that the percentage of women working as computer/information scientists (including those who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in an S&E field or have a bachelor’s degree or higher and are working in an S&E field) declined slightly from 33.1% to 29.6% percent while the absolute numbers increased from 170,500 to 185,000.[7] Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Catalyst in 2006 indicated that women comprise 27-29% of the computing workforce.[8][9] A National Public Radio report in 2013 stated that about 20% of all U.S. computer programmers are female.[10]

Benefits of gender diversity[edit]

From an economic standpoint, for a country's IT industry to withstand competition from abroad, underrepresented groups like women must play a greater role.[11]

Numerous sources state that there is a growing demand for IT workers with leadership, interpersonal, and communication skills to combat the general drop in worker retention and ineffective training. In particular, the cost of replacing a skilled technical employee has been estimated to be as high as 120% of the yearly salary of the position. Furthermore, over 50% of 900 IT leaders in the U.S. who were surveyed in 2006 cited retention of skilled professionals as a primary concern. In addition, leaders with business and soft skills are sought after to fill such positions. Qualitative studies show that many women who are interested in technology are interested in a combination of technical and non-technical work. This interest is why women are often potentially a good fit to fill these roles.[12]

On a similar note, it has been argued that the inclusion of women in computing will mitigate innovation-hindering effects such as groupthink by preventing the group from becoming too homogenized. Gender diversity has been suggested to give benefits such as better decision making, increased creativity, and enhanced, innovative performances.[12] Additionally, a gender diverse workforce will help businesses to better cater to their clients. This diversification of ideas helps businesses to bridge the gap between products and consumers since their product and service offerings will reflect the varied interests of those who pay for these goods and services.

The book Gender and Computers: Understanding the Digital Divide states that the lack of participation of females in computing excludes them from the "new economy", which calls for sophisticated computer skills in exchange for high salary positions.[13] A consequence from such exclusion will likely result in further social and gender inequality.

Factors contributing to lack of female participation[edit]

Education[edit]

A study of over 7000 high school students in Vancouver, Canada showed that the degree of interest in the field of computer science for teenage girls is comparably lower than that of teenage boys.[14] The same effect is seen in higher education; for instance, only 4% of female college freshmen expressed intention to major in computer science in the US.[13] Research has shown that some aspects about computing may discourage women. One of the biggest turn-offs is the "geek factor". High school girls often envisage a career in computing as a lifetime in an isolated cubicle writing code. The "geek factor" affects both male and female high school students, but it seems to have more of a negative effect on the female students.[15] In addition, computer programmers depicted in popular media are overwhelmingly male, contributing to an absence of role models for would-be female computer programmers.

In part to qualify for federal education funding distributed through the states, most U.S. states and districts now focus on ensuring that all students are at least "proficient" in mathematics and reading, making it difficult for teachers to focus on teaching concepts beyond the test. According to a Rand Corporation study, such a concentration on testing can cause administrators to focus resources on tested subjects at the expense of other subjects (e.g., science) or distract their attention from other needs.[16] Thus, computational thinking is unlikely to be taught either standalone or as integrated into other areas of study (e.g., mathematics, biology) anytime in the near future. The National Center for Women & IT distributes free resources for increasing awareness of the need for teaching computer science in schools, including the "Talking Points" card, "Moving Beyond Computer Literacy: Why Schools Should Teach Computer Science".[17]

Female and male perspectives[edit]

According to a 1998–2000 ethnographic study by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher at Carnegie Mellon University, men and women viewed computers very differently. Women interviewees were more likely to state that they saw the computer as a tool for use within a larger societal and/or interdisciplinary context than did the men interviewed. On the other hand, men were more likely to express an interest in the computer as a machine.[14][18] Moreover, women interviewed in this study perceived that many of their male peers were "geeks," with limited social skills. Females often disliked the idea that computers "become their life."[14] The students observed and interviewed in that study were probably not representative of students in general, since at that time, in order to be admitted to CMU Computer Science a student needed to have some programming experience. More research is needed to understand the ability to generalize Margolis' and Fisher's findings.

From a two year research initiative published in 2000 by AAUW found that "Girls approach the computer as a “tool” useful primarily for what it can do; boys more often view the computer as a “toy” and/or an extension of the self. For boys, the computer is inherently interesting. Girls are interested in its instrumental possibilities, which may include its use as an artistic medium. They express scorn toward boys who confuse “real” power and power on a screen. “I see a computer as a tool,” a high school girl declares. “You [might] go play Kung Fu Fighting, but in real life you are still a stupid little person living in a suburban way.”[19] Still, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed as far back as 2000 that boys and girls use computers at about the same rates, albeit for somewhat different purposes.

Nearly 1000 students in University of Akron were surveyed, and it was discovered that females hold a more negative attitude towards computers than males.[13] Another study assessed the computer-related attitude of over 300 students in University of Winnipeg and obtained similar results.[13]

This is thought to contribute to the gender disparity phenomenon in computing, in particular the females' early lack of interest in the field.[13]

Barriers to advancement[edit]

Research on the barriers that women face in undergraduate computing[20] has highlighted such factors as:

  • Undergraduate classroom teaching in which the “weedout” practices and policies privileging competition over cooperation tend to advantage men.
  • Laboratory climates in which women are seen as foreign and not belonging at best, and experience blatant hostility and sexism at worst.
  • Well-meaning people who unwittingly create stereotype threat by reminding students that "women can do computing as well as men".
  • Strong resistance to changing the system in which these and other subtle practices are continuously reproduced.

Just like in the pre-college situation, solutions are most often implemented outside of the mainstream (e.g., providing role models, mentoring, and women’s groups), which can also create the perception among women, their male peers, and their professors that to be successful, women need "extra help" to graduate. Most people do not realize that the "extra help" is not academic, but instead access to the kind of peer networks more readily available to male students. Many women decline to participate in these extracurricular support groups because they do not want to appear deficient. In short, the conditions under which women (and underrepresented minority students) study computing are not the same as those experienced by men.

Lack of acknowledgment and promotion of skills[edit]

Women in technical roles often feel that the skills and feedback they bring to their jobs are not valued. According to a Catalyst report called "Women in Technology: Maximizing Talent, Minimizing Barriers", 65% of females in technical roles felt that those they reported to were receptive and responsive to their suggestions, as compared to 75% of women in non-technical roles.[9] This also speaks directly to the retention of females in the industry as females will commonly leave a company when they feel that what they are offering a company is not valued.[9] The report shows the concerns felt about this by sharing the following quote from an interviewee: "I would like to be involved with more projects than I am currently involved in; I feel that I am being underutilized. I would prefer my supervisor give me an opportunity to expand my skill sets and my responsibility at work".[9]

However, it is not enough to just acknowledge skills. Women also lack the support and advocacy needed to promote these skills.[21] Women feel alone and at a loss because they lack role models, networks, and mentors.[21] These support systems not only help women develop talent and opportunities for career advancement, but they are also needed to promote women to more senior roles.[21] It can be understood that advocacy is a major player in the advancement of females into senior tech roles.

Cultural and family peer pressure[edit]

Studies reveal gender bias in early socialization at home and in school, feelings of being deficient in mathematics and science, a lack of exposure to computers, the use of computers mostly for word processing, the masculine image of computers, and the absence of the female role models all of which contribute to the underrepresentation of women, including minority women. Though most of these barriers are likely to apply to women, there may be additional historical and cultural factors that may play an essential role in their relative interest in CS and CE education.[22] Family has been of paramount importance in many communities. Some family structures tends to include extended family and several generations living in close proximity to each other. Women, especially grandmothers, play a key role in family life. Women are responsible for exposing children to their traditions and ceremonies, and teaching native languages. Many females identified family affairs to being a barrier to success in CS or CE education. When women do decide to study CS/CE, they are sometimes not appreciated within their family and community mostly because "the image of a computer scientist is of a white male."[23] Women are often stereotyped as operating outside traditional norms if they pursue degrees in CS/CE. Women who do enter CS/CE programs are sometimes seen as outcasts, plain, and/or unfeminine.

Brogrammer culture[edit]

The large number of computing-related startup companies hiring primarily young workers has created an environment in which many firms' technical teams consist largely of workers who are just out of college, sometimes giving the businesses fraternity-like cultures, leading to sexism that discourages female participation.[24] The phenomenon of fraternity-like environments among technology teams of startup firms has been termed brogrammer culture.[25]

Attracting women into computing[edit]

The majority of data collected about women in IT has been qualitative analysis such as interviews and case studies. This data has been used to create effective programs addressing the underrepresentation of women in IT.[26] Suggestions for incorporating more women in IT careers include formal mentoring, ongoing training opportunities, employee referral bonuses, multicultural training for all IT employees, as well as educational programs targeting women.[11]

The number of female college entrants expressing interest in majoring in computer science worsened in the 2000s to pre-1980's levels.[27] A research study was initialized by Allan Fisher, then Associate Dean for Undergraduate Computer Science Education at Carnegie Mellon University, and Jane Margolis, a social scientist and expert in gender equity in education, into the nature of this problem. The main issues discovered in interesting and retaining women in computer science were feelings of an experience gap, confidence doubts, interest in curriculum and pedagogy, and peer culture.[28] Universities across North America are changing their computer science programs to make them more appealing to women. Proactive and positive exposures to early computer experiences, such as The Alice Project,[29] founded by the late Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University, are thought to be effective in terms of retention and creation of enthusiasm for women who may later consider entering the field. Institutions of higher education are also beginning to make changes regarding the process and availability of mentoring to women that are undergraduates in technical fields.[30]

Another strategy for addressing this issue has been early outreach to elementary and high-school girls. Programs like all-girl computer camps, girls’ after-school computer clubs, and support groups for girls have been instilled to create more interest at a younger age.[11] A specific example of this kind of program is the Canadian Information Processing Society outreach program, in which a representative is sent to schools in Canada, speaking specifically to grade nine girls about the benefits of Information Technology careers. The purpose is to inform girls about the benefits and opportunities within the field of information technology.[31] Companies like IBM also encourage young women to become interested in engineering, technology and science. IBM offers EX.I.T.E. (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) camps for young women from the ages of 11 to 13.

Additionally, attempts are being made to make the efforts of female computer scientists more visible through events such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women conference series which allows women in the field to meet, collaborate and present their work. In the U.S., the Association for Women in Computing was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1978. Its purpose is to provide opportunities for the professional growth of women in computing through networking, and through programs on technical and career-oriented topics.[32] In the United Kingdom, the British Computer Society (BCS) and other organizations have groups which promote the cause of women in computing, such as BCSWomen, founded by Sue Black, and the BCS Women's Forum. In Ontario, Canada, the Gr8 Designs for Gr8 Girls program was founded to develop grade 8 girls' interest in computer science.

Recent efforts[edit]

In September 2013, Ada Developers Academy, a tuition-free 1 year intensive school in computing for women was launched by Technology Alliance in Seattle, and students could even apply to receive a $1000-per-month-stipend. The first half of the course focuses on HTML/CSS, JavaScript, Ruby on Rails and database fundamentals.[33]

Having started in the US, Girl Develop It is a network of city chapters that teach women from all parts of the country learn to develop software with HTML and CSS, Javascript, Ruby on Rails, Python, and Android. The organization was co-founded by Sara Chipps and Vanessa Hurst in 2010. As of 2013, it has 17 city chapters running regular courses and events.[34] The programs offered by Girl Develop It are all taught by volunteers that are employed in the technology field. Structural and content resources used to teach the programs have been developed and are offered for free both on their website and on GitHub.com.

Hackbright Academy is an intensive women-only 10 week programming course in San Francisco.[35] A Moms in Tech sponsorship for Hackbright Academy is also available for mothers who are former IT professionals and wish to retrain and return to work as a technically-hands-on lead or manager, sponsored by Facebook.

Geek Girl is an organization that was started in March 2006 by Leslie Fishlock. It is an organization that acts as a technology resource for women. The organization strives to empower women of all ages through making technology easy to understand and use. These services are provided entirely by women. Though the target audience tends to be female and the organization was founded on the goal to empower women, men are also encouraged to participate in any of the events or services the organization offers. Geek Girl hosts hosts localized events, meetups, and conferences. The organization also supports a video channel titled GeekGirl TV that provides workshops about technological tools as well as provides coverage for their events for those who are unable to attend. Additionally, Geek Girl’s website hosts a blog that provides technology-related news and information that is accessible to a reader with minimal technology experience.[36]

CodeEd is a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching computer science to young girls in underserved communities. The organization partners with schools and programs to help provide volunteer teachers, computer science course offerings, and computers. The organization was co-founded by Angie Sciavoni and Sep Kamvar in 2010. CodeEd provides courses in HTML and CSS, and provides the curriculum and course material for free under a Creative Commons Attribution license. The organization offers classes that are taught by a team of two volunteer teachers, provide lessons in one hour blocks that may be dispensed in a way that works for the receiving school, and teachers through fun and experimental projects. Code Ed currently offers services in New York City, Boston, and San Francisco.[37]

she++ is an organization that facilitates a community driven to inspire women to take on a role in the computer sciences. The organization was founded at Stanford University by now-alumnae Ellora Israni and Ayna Agarwal, who spearheaded the organization’s inaugural conference in April 2012. The conference featured female speakers who held tech positions in companies like Google, Pinterest, and Facebook and was well attended. The conference inspired its organizers to continue with and expand upon she++ and now facilitates participation initiatives through hosting additional events such as a 2013 conference, curating a video library that features inspirational stories from technology professionals, and by offering a mentorship program. The organization is run by a collection of female students and Stanford University.[38]

Nerd Girls was launched in 2000 by Dr. Karen Panetta, a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Tufts University. It is an organization that is represented by a group of female engineering students each year and encourages women to take on roles in the engineering and technology profession.The organization celebrates the coincidence of science knowledge and femininity. Participating members solve real-world problems as a group by addressing and fixing technology related issues in the community.[39] Nerd Girls has gained national attention since its launch and has been approached by media producers to create a reality show based off the organization's problem-solving activities.[40][41] Nerd Girls is sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Femgineer was started in 2007 by Poornima Vijayashanker. It was originally developed as a blog that focused on engineers, which evolved into an organization that supports women in technology careers. Femgineers is now an education-focused organization that offers workshops, free teaching resources on the topic of technology, supports forums and Meetups, an a team has been developed to continue to expand on the original blog.[42] Poornima Vijayashanker is an avid public speaker and regularly speaks at technology-related conferences and events about the technology industry and about Femgineer itself. In addition to founding Femgineer, she also founded a startup called BizeeBee in 2010 that supports growing fitness businesses, teaches technology workshops for tech-driven organizations around the country,[43] and was named one of the ten women to watch in tech in 2013 by Inc Magazine.[44]

Numerous higher education institutions have seen development of student-run organizations that focus on the advancement of women in computer science. In addition to she++ based out of Stanford University, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) supports a chapter of the organization called Women In Computing. The campus's chapter of the organization is composed of students, faculty and staff at RIT and they strive to support and further develop the culture of computing to women. This effort is not only focused on their campus, but in the larger community. They host events both on their campus located in Henrietta, New York, and within surrounding Rochester schools.[45] RIT is among a national list of schools that host a chapter of Women in Computing, which is founded in the organization Association of Computing Machinery's committee for women in computing (ACM-W).[46] Harvard University hosts the organization titled Harvard Undergraduate Women in Computer Science (WiSC). The organization aims to promote women in computing across a variety of schools and industries, educate women on the profession of computer science, and provide opportunities for women in technical fields. WiCS supports the annual conference named WECode, a conference that aims to promote women's involvement in computer science.[47][48]

Relation to gender theory[edit]

There are a number of thinkers who engage with gender theories and issues related to women and technology. Such thinkers include, for example, Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant, Julie Wosk, Sally L. Hacker, Evelyn Fox Keller, Janet Abbate, Thelma Estrin, and Thomas J. Misa, among others.[49] A 2008 book titled Gender and Information Technology: Moving Beyond Access to Co-Create Global Partnership uses Riane Eisler's cultural transformation theory to offer an interdisciplinary, social systems perspective on issues of access to technology.[50] The book explores how shifting from dominator towards partnership systems — as reflected in four primary social institutions (communication, media, education, and business) - might help society move beyond the simplistic notion of access to co-create a real digital revolution worldwide.[50]

A 2000 book titled Athena Unbound[51] provides a life-course analysis (based on interviews and surveys) of women in the sciences from an early childhood interest, through university, to graduate school and finally into the academic workplace. The thesis of this book is that "women face a special series of gender related barriers to entry and success in scientific careers that persist, despite recent advances".[51]

Computer scientist Karen Petrie, from University of Dundee, has developed an argument to illustrate why an attack on sexism in computing is not an attack on men.[52] Ian Gent, University of St Andrews, has described this idea which is key to the argument as the “Petrie Multiplier”.[53]

International perspective[edit]

A poster encouraging women to pursue technology studies at University of Valle, Cali, Colombia. It reads: "If it's not appropriate for women, it's not appropriate. Women and technology." c. 2000.

A survey, conducted by SWIFT ("Supporting Women in Information Technology") based in Vancouver, Canada, asked 7,411 participants questions about their career choices. The survey found that females tend to believe that they lack the skill set needed to be successful in the field of computing. This provides a strong base for a positive correlation between perceived ability and career choice.[54] For more information about Canada in particular, see Women in computing in Canada.

A project based in Edinburgh, Scotland, "Strategies of Inclusion: Gender and the Information Society" (SIGIS) released its findings based on research conducted in 48 separate case studies all over Europe.[55] The findings focus on recruiting as well as retention techniques for women already studying in the field. These techniques range from the introduction of role models, advertisement campaigns, and the allocation of quotas, in order to make the computing field appear more gender neutral.[56] Educating reforms, which will increase the quality of the educating body and technological facilities, are also suggested.[56]

Research suggests that Malaysia has a much more equal split that varies around the half-way mark.[57] It is suggested that this may be due to the fact that Malaysian women view careers in information technology as a means of employment rather than a status symbol. A job in the computing industry also implies a safe work environment. Strong belief by the previous generation that IT would be a flourishing sector with many job opportunities caused parents to encourage their children to take a computing career, no matter the gender.[57]

In India, a growing number of women are studying and taking careers in technical fields. The percentage of women engineers graduating from IIT Bombay grew from 1.8% in 1972 to 8% in 2005.[58] Computer science is a popular subject among female students, as it utilizes mental rather than physical strength, and allows them to work indoors. Women with a good education and employment prospects are becoming more desirable as marriage partners. However, women remain underrepresented in information technology fields, possibly due to social constraints which allow women less freedom to study, and less access to resources and opportunities.[59]

In Native American populations, Native American women face several issues that are different from Native American men who pursue degrees in CS or CE. Studies reveal gender bias in early socialization at home and in school, feelings of being deficient in mathematics and science, a lack of exposure to computers, the use of computers mostly for word processing, the masculine image of computers, and the absence of the female role models, all of which contribute to the under-representation of women, including minority women.[60] Most of these barriers are likely to apply to Native American women. Because of patriarchy, cultural value, and social norms, Native American women may have more problems studying CS/CE than Native American men. Because of patriarchal way of life that dominates children's social and educational worlds, Native American women are historically seen as physically and intellectually less capable.[60] Many Native American women also do not enter CS or CE programs because it is a white-male-dominated field. Economics plays a key role: the U.S. census of 2000 shows less education, lower earnings, more poverty, and poor health status among Native American women than the majority of the population. These economic difficulties experienced by Native American women are linked to the resources they are exposed to and the opportunities they have. It is well known that minority-serving schools, especial tribal schools, face the “digital divide”.[61]

Worldwide timeline[edit]

Ada Lovelace, considered to be the first computer programmer.

Notable organizations[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Cooper, Joel; Weaver, Kimberlee D. (2003). Gender and Computers: Understanding the Digital Divide. Philadelphia: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-4427-9. 
  • Galpin, Vashti (2002). "Women in computing around the world". ACM SIGCSE Bulletin 34 (2): 94–100. doi:10.1145/543812.543839. 
  • Light, Jennifer S. (1999). "When Computers Were Women". Technology and Culture 40 (3): 455–483. 
  • Margolis, Jane; Fisher, Allan (2002). Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262632690. 
  • Misa, Thomas J., ed. (2010). Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing. Wiley/IEEE Computer Society Press. ISBN 978-0-470-59719-4. 
  • Moses, L. E. (1993). "Our computer science class rooms: Are they friendly to female students?". SIGCSE Bulletin 25 (3). pp. 3–12. 
  • Newitz, Annalee (ed.); Anders, Charlie (ed.) (2006). She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff. Seal Press. ISBN 978-1580051903. 
  • Varma, Roli; Galindo-Sanchez, Vanessa (2006). "Native American Women in Computing". University of New Mexico. 

External links[edit]