Women in Computer Science

Being a woman in computer science, I can't deny that I've seen some sexism over the years. Not the blatant "you can't do this" sexism that was prevalent thirty years ago, but rather subtle assumptions from people within the industry.

I've noticed, for example, that if I say that I work for Google and a male friend says he works for Microsoft (most of my friends in Seattle work for Microsoft), someone is much more likely to ask me what my position is - that is if they haven't just assumed outright that I'm in HR or marketing. When I say I'm a Software Engineer, many people are visibly shocked and almost skeptical.

A few months back, I went to an event where all of the 16 guys there happened to work for either Microsoft or Amazon. Guy #1 says to me after introducing himself, "So I assume you don't work for Microsoft." Guy #2 says "It must be great for you to meet all these techies... at least you have someone fix your computer." Guy #3 proceeds to explain to me what "beta" means. Thanks, boys, but I work for Google, I can fix my own computer, and I know all about "beta" ;-).

In truth, I really don't get offended by this kind of sexism; statistically, women in the US are much less likely to go into engineering and it would be difficult for anyone to be blind to this. The question is, why are there so few women in Computer Science and what can we do to change it? Actually, let's start with this: is the percentage of women in Computer Science that low (given our society, the times, etc)?

The Male / Female Ratio in Computer Science

I believe Computer Science is currently around 15% female. That figure alone doesn't worry me (hey, times change, it'll grow, right?). The problem is that the number has actually declined since 1980. Yikes.

Furthermore, I've been told by several people that parts of asia actually have very close to a 50/50 ratio. Why does the US lag so much?

Additionally, recall that fields such as medicine and law were at one point in time a male dominated field, but now have at least as many women as men - if not more.

So while things have gotten better in other fields or in other countries, it seems to have gotten worse within the US. So, yes, there is a problem... and time isn't just magically fixing it.

Why Aren't Women Drawn into Computer Science

This is a big question with many possible answers, but one important one is that women tend to be drawn to more social fields. From a young age, girls are taught to work together whereas it's seen as more "ok" for a boy to show off. As girls get older, it's almost difficult for them not to be social. Think of the uber-nerdy anti-social guys you know: how many women are equally anti-social? I can't think of a single one. Computer Science has an impression of cube monkey staring at their computer all days, and, if you're lucky, talking to those uber-nerdy engineers. That's just not that attractive of an industry to women who emphasize social interaction.

What can we do to change it?

Wish I knew... here are a few of my thoughts though with respect to this:

  • Women in Computer Science clubs: I'm honestly not sure how I feel about those clubs. Personally, they're not for me. I don't feel any need for this support network, and I worry that they promote a victim mentality to both to the women in the clubs as well as to men. But, perhaps if other women need this support network, then ok...
  • Developing an awareness of subtle sexism: Just because it's statistically true that a woman you meet is less likely to be an engineer doesn't mean that it's ok to make that assumption. While I'm not personally offended by these assumptions - I actually think it's somewhat amusing - it does affect the way you view women in the field. If you look at a woman and assume she's not an engineer, then you're more likely to assume that female engineer is less technical... and that's where the problem is. But, if you can consciously recognize that you make this assumption, it's easier to overcome it.
  • Turn it social: If women are less interested in computer science because it's less social, make it a more social field in college. Encourage students to work together and set up study groups for freshmen. Create social activities that people want to go to so that students meet each other. Assign team projects where different teams need to work together (for example, defining common protocols). Turn it into a social field.

Does being female hurt you in Computer Science?

There are pluses and minus. Sure, more people will know who you are, but people know you for the wrong reasons. It's probably easier to get an interview, but probably tougher to get the job (it's tougher to convince someone that you're technical if you're female). I'm not really sure how it all evens out, but here's what I will say:

Everyone will be judged prematurely for something. If it's not your gender, it's your race. If it's not your race, it's your sexual orientation, how you dress, what school you went to, what degrees you have, how much money you have, etc. At the end of the day, does it really matter what people are judging you for? Everyone's going to face prejudice; you just have to learn to shrug your shoulders and develop a thick skin.