Mind the Gender Gap: Getting Women into Computer Science Careers
Computer science is an opportune field, and it should be especially appealing to women. It offers positions with high incomes and great flexibility that are in demand nationwide—all career characteristics cited as attractive to female job seekers.
However, according to The New York Times, only 0.4 percent of all female college freshmen say they plan to major in computer science. The Times offers more statistics:
In fact, the share of women in computer science has actually fallen over the years. In 1990-91, about 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer and information sciences went to women; 20 years later, it has plunged to 18 percent. Today, just a quarter of all Americans in computer-related occupations are women.
Why is this field with such a promising outlook attracting so few female candidates? The students in the group Harvard Women in Computer Science held a weekend conference at their university recently to try to figure it out. The event featured keynote speeches and mentoring lunches with some of the top women in the industry, and students from forty US colleges attended to be inspired and to discuss why women are so underrepresented in their future careers.
One proposed reason is the perception of a programmer as a Dilbert character—which is not what most women want to be. As student Amy Yin, cofounder of Harvard Women in Computer Science, said, “. . . (A) lot of women think you can’t be social if you’re in computer science, that people will stigmatize you as a nerd, that guys will be intimidated by you, that you won’t find a boyfriend or a husband.” Her group aims to help change that stereotype.
More alarming, however, is the most cited reason: a bias against women. It may be unintentional, but when people are hiring, they tend to be drawn to candidates who are like themselves—and that is traditionally not female.
As Margo I. Seltzer, the Herchel Smith Professor of Computer Science at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said, “Underrepresentation leads to continued underrepresentation. We all need to work toward making our workplaces and communities more welcoming.”
You may be thinking: What does it matter if computing careers employ fewer women than men? It actually makes a huge difference, not only to women, but also to tech companies and the national economy.
Far more tech jobs are being created in the US than there are qualified candidates to fill them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs but only four hundred thousand computer science graduates. Women could help offset the need, but without them in the workforce, these jobs will have to be either exported or eliminated.
The dearth of women also harms technical companies that could benefit from female perspectives. Diverse teams have a competitive advantage because they can draw from different viewpoints and a mix of ideas.
Encouraging women to get into fields where they traditionally have not had a great presence has historically opened up many opportunities—just think of what happened when women took over available factory jobs during World War II. The abundance of computer science jobs should be looked at the same way.
Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook, told the San Jose Mercury News, “I really think this is kind of a Rosie the Riveter moment.”