The Status of Women in Computer Science


Humanity has concurrently developed computer technology and progressed in the area of women’s rights during the course of this century. Although women are making progress and gaining equal treatment from society, there is a large gap between the numbers of men and women participating in the field of computer science. According to the 1996 CRA Taulbee Survey, only 16% of the Bachelors degrees in Computer Science were awarded to women. Women received 20% of the Masters degrees, 12% of the Ph.D.s, and were 16% of enrolled Ph.D. students. In addition, 19% of assistant teachers, 10% of associate professors, and 6% of full CS professors were female in the universities surveyed. These numbers show that “the percentage of women in computer science [is] smaller than the percentage of women in the general population” (Pearl). The lack of female computer scientists can be attributed to the negative effects of cultural stereotypes, barriers in the educational system, and the small number of female role models for young women; outreach programs, increased awareness of the problem, and a changing economic climate may increase the percentage of women in computer science.

The most prominent stereotype which negatively affects girls implies that they will perform poorly in science because they are not genetically equipped for logical pursuits. There is an ongoing debate concerning the math and science gender gap; are boys better at science because of their gender, or their developmental environment? It is impossible to say whether or not boys are innately better at math and science than girls. As Jo Sanders puts it in a Los Angeles Times round table discussion:

I’m always amused at the certainty people have of innate sex differences, considering that such a thing is unknowable. When we’re prepared to raise children in individual boxes with no environmental influences whatsoever then we will know what is innate and what isn’t. In the meantime we have to assume that since we know a fair amount about environmental influences that shape expectations and behavior, at least a lot can be laid at that doorstep.
Since innate gender differences cannot be perceived, we have to work under the assumption that a person is skilled or unskilled in logical pursuits because of their environment. An article in the Wall Street Journal supports this argument. “[T]here is no compelling evidence that the math-science gender gap springs from a difference in native aptitudes. By contrast, a large body of research documents how parents, teachers and fellow students turn girls away from math and science” (Stipp). Girls may be learning that they can’t excel in math from their parents and the gender-biased messages present in their environment.

Cultural Stereotypes

Parents often propagate stereotypical gender roles by giving traditional toys to their children. Children gain most of their practical knowledge by playing with toys. From infancy, girls are given different toys than boys. Parents give their daughters dolls or cooking sets, and their sons Lego blocks or video games. According to Spertus:
Not only are there differences in varieties of old-fashioned toys given to children, but these biases are carrying over into the realm of computerized toys and games. These games are both based on traditionally male interests, such as war and sports, and are marketed toward boys.
Pearl agrees in “Becoming a Computer Scientist”, saying:
The earliest computer artifacts that children encounter are not gender neutral. Recreational and educational software programs reflect the gender biases and stereotypes of their designers, and studies reveal that educational software is generally designed to appeal to boys.
Thus, girls are less likely to be exposed to computers at an early age, and the games they do encounter are likely to be violent or male-oriented. Girls are often uncomfortable with male-biased games or educational software. Studies show that “[c]hildren using software designed for the opposite sex are more anxious after they interact with the program, and that anxiety leads to lowered scores in the subject the program was intended to teach” (Frankel). A girl who dislikes computer games will probably not want to use computers at all, and this may terminate any chance she had of becoming a computer scientist. Even girls who maintain an interest in computing, despite their dislike of games, may not do as well in college computer science classes.
Girls’ lesser usage of computer games could be a factor in their being less positively disposed toward computers and in their lack of interest in computer courses, particularly as students who have played computer games are more likely to do well in their first college computing course. (Spertus)
The bias in children’s toys would appear to be potentially harmful to girls who would become computer scientists.

Low confidence in their mathematical ability may also influence girls not to pursue a science-based career. According to studies, “math grade point averages for boys and girls are virtually identical…[but] females generally [have] less self-confidence and more anxiety about their [math] skills” (Cottrell). This statistic shows that even though girls and boys perform equally in math, girls are influenced by societal stereotypes that say they can’t possibly be as good as boys in math. This leads to an alarming lack of self-confidence in their mathematical ability. Girls who think they are poor at math would not want to enter a field that is science-based. “The careers that children imagine for males and females are influenced by sex stereotypes. These stereotypes affect the careers that children picture for themselves” (Spertus). Computer science in itself is stereotyped, as well. The image of the male “nerd” with acne sitting up all night tapping away at the computer is the classic picture of the successful programmer; who can blame girls for not wanting to fit the image, when they also have to be pretty in order to be accepted into society? Cultural stereotypes seem to be an overwhelming factor in the reason that females aren’t interested in computer science.

Educational Barriers

The educational system is not immune from the cultural influences pervading our society. In fact, schools can amplify the problem and present many barriers to young women. According to Frankel, “females experience cumulative disadvantages from grade school through graduate school and beyond.”


In the precollege years, girls are more prone to be insecure, especially when it comes to computers (Frankel). Teachers may aggravate the problem by unconsciously giving more attention and support to boys in class.
[T]eachers are more likely to call on boys to answer questions or use computers, they respond more quickly to requests from boys, and they are more likely to take over and complete a task in response to girls questions….[B]oys received no negative feedback in any activity during math lessons, while girls received rather a lot. (Cottrell)
In addition, the informal and unorganized state of elementary school computer science classes may be an uncomfortable learning environment for girls. Without teacher intervention, “males dominate the school computers” (Cottrell) and girls may not have the opportunity to even use the computers, let alone become comfortable with them. Also, girls may not learn as well in a school environment where:
there is often a low budget for computer science and no curriculum. There are neither goals nor minimum standards established for both teacher training and the material to be covered. There is still great variation in instructors backgrounds and levels of competence. (Frankel)
By the time girls reach high school, they may have very little experience in computer science, and even less exposure to adult females in the field. “Role models are important even to precollege women. Without sufficient role models, high school girls may end their mathematics and science training prematurely, thus precluding a major in science or engineering before they even begin college” (Pearl).


During the undergraduate years, women are confronted with a computer science program that encourages “highly focused, almost obsessive behavior as a key to success” (Frankel). They may feel unprepared and experience the “impostor syndrome”, the fear that they are inadequate and don’t belong in computer science (Leveson). Low self-confidence can in part be attributed to the shortage of female role models and an unsupportive computer culture. Females may drop out of the computer science track simply because they don’t belong to the computer “nerd” elite.
This “hacker elite” system, along with the relatively new academic structure of computer science which may seem chaotic and confusing to students, results in many computing dropouts who are alienated by the foreign culture. The situation is likely to be more pronounced for females who, because of the differences in early experiences with computers, are less likely to be a part of the elite. (Pearl)
Another factor in low self-confidence is that instructors can act in a discriminatory manner.
Studies using videotapes and observations of the college classroom have found that women receive different treatment than men. Professors remembered the names of men better, called on them more, asked them more challenging questions, listened and positively responded to them more, etc. Both men and women teachers display this behavior. They are quite unconscious of it and are usually shocked to see it in the videotapes of their own classes. (Leveson)

Graduate and Ph.D.

Those who make it to graduate school face continued discrimination, less financial support than males, and feelings of “powerlessness, isolation, and invisibility” (Leveson). “Female graduate students report the necessity to continually fend off such inappropriate behavior [by faculty and student colleagues] in order to be allowed to concentrate on the professional issues of grad school” (Leveson). Women questioned in surveys tell disturbing stories about the discrimination they have had to deal with.
When I was in graduate school, the professor in automata theory introduced the topic of decomposition by saying: Machines are a lot like women — many forms for the same function (wink wink).’ As the only woman in the class, you can imagine that I felt terrific. And all of a sudden the guys sitting next to me sort of tensed up — instead of a fellow student, his remark had made them see me as something else, something kinda dirty. (Spertus)
In addition, “women experience academic isolation” because their work is often not taken seriously, their mentors and advisors neglect them, or they are not in leadership positions in research groups.

The few women who persevere and receive their Ph.Ds hold fewer faculty positions than men. They are also less likely to get funding for their research or have their work published. Women holding either academic or industrial positions receive less pay than their male colleagues (Leveson). According to the National Science Foundation:

women are 6 percent of engineering faculty…and are far less likely than men faculty members to be employed in research universities….[They] are much more likely than men to teach part time….less likely to be tenured or on a tenure track…and hold fewer high-ranked positions in colleges and universities than men….Women are less likely to be engaged in funded research, to be a principal investigator…, or to have published books or articles in the previous 2 years….[A] substantial salary gap [of $13,200] exists between men and women with science and engineering doctorates.

Lack of Role Models

Because there are so few female faculty members in Computer Science departments, there are fewer role models for young women, and the insidious cycle continues.
Thus, we need to consider why women stop their training earlier than men: too few women with bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science translates into too few women in both industry and academia. Moreover, because of the documented positive effects of same-sex role models, it is also important to consider why women drop out in higher numbers than do men even later in their academic training: too few women with doctorate degrees results in too few women faculty members. This in turn means inadequate numbers of role models for younger women in the process of becoming computer scientists. (Pearl)

Social Solutions

This cycle may seem unalterable, but there is hope. Prestigious computer science departments, such as those at Stanford and MIT, and special interest organizations like the Computer Equity Expert Project, have conducted surveys and formulated proposals. The solutions are centered around both increased awareness and outreach programs. Solutions that address increased awareness include the establishment of annual conferences for women in computer science, better communication channels in all levels of academia, the reduction of discriminatory or inappropriate behavior, and increased access to resources for all students. Outreach programs could include mentoring programs for precollege and undergraduate students, the improvement of the quality of CS classes in elementary and high schools, and the establishment of networks of female computer scientists which could serve as recruiting centers and support groups (Cottrell, CPSR, Frankel, Leveson, MIT, Morse, Pearl, Spertus).

Economic Factors

In addition, the advent of the Internet has substantially changed the economics of the computer science industry, and this change may encourage more women to enter the field because of several factors. The Internet has created a vast explosion in the demand for trained computer scientists. Studies conducted early this decade predicted a shortage labor even before the Internet explosion.
[D]emographic trends in the U.S…suggest a significant decrease in the number of white males entering college during the next decade. At the same time, the number of jobs requiring scientific or engineering training will continue to increase. Because white males have traditionally constituted the vast majority of trained scientists and engineers in this country, experts have predicted that a critical labor shortage is likely early in the next century. (Pearl)
Currently the computer industry is scrambling to find a supply of computer scientists and programmers because CS enrollment has decreased.
There have been shortages of skills before,…[b]ut this is among the worst in a long time….Colleges and universities have failed to train more computer-science students….On top of that, college grads with computer-related degrees are getting scarcer. U.S. colleges and universities awarded about 35,000 degrees in computer science in 1994….This marks a drop of about 15,000 from an all-time high in 1986, according to the National Center of Educational Statistics in Washington. Computer vendors, systems integrators, outsourcers, and consulting firms compete for the same people….[The] talent shortage is in part a result of the success of [the Internet]. (McGee)
This has created a shortage of computer scientists which can really only be filled by an untapped resource; the female population. According to theories of economics, “[l]abor markets do not adjust instantaneously. When there is an increase in demand, wage rates do not adjust right away” (Miller 653). This is illustrated in Figure 1 and Figure 2. At the original demand (D) for computer professionals, there was a particular supply (S) and an equilibrium wage rate (W1). The Internet changed the demand to D’, and the new wage rate would have been W2. However, it takes time for the market wages to adjust to a new economic situation. Therefore, the wage rate is between the original and the ideal (W3). At this rate, the quantity of programmers demanded will be Q3, but the supply is static or decreasing, and so the quantity supplied will only be Q4. This illustrates the shortage of computer science professionals. This economic event could help to increase the number of women in computer science because universities and firms will have to increase wages, reduce the gender-biased income gap, or provide other economic incentives (free child daycare, parenting leave, or better benefits) to fill the demand, and this would attract more women into the field.

Graph of Supply vs. Demand of Computer Programmers


It is obvious that there is a shortage of women in computer science, and the causes for this shortage permeate society. Girls and young women are discouraged from pursuing a mathematical career. They are bombarded with stereotypes through computer games and educational software that may dissuade them from computers. From grade school through graduate school they must survive in an educational environment which is indifferent to their needs and sometimes downright hostile. Female computer scientists are isolated in both academia and society and are too invisible to provide role models for aspiring younger women. Proposals to increase female participation in computer science attack the problem from a social and an economic front, but so far the implementation of these programs has been rather insignificant. However difficult it may be to solve the problem, it must be tackled, or else there could be “repercussions to our increasingly computer-oriented society” (Cottrell). Half the population will be deprived of the opportunity and knowledge necessary to advance the state of technology. Society will be deprived of the unique contributions women can make in the field of computer science.

Works Cited

1996 CRA Taulbee Survey Results.  [Online]
    Available, 1997.

Cottrell, Janet. I’m a Stranger Here Myself: A consideration of women in computing. [Online] Available, 1992.

CPSR Gender Page. [Online] Available, 1996.

Frankel, Karen A. Women and computing. [Online] Available, 1990.

Leveson, Nancy G. Educational Pipeline Issues for Women. [Online] Available, 1990.

Los Angeles Times Roundtable Discussion. [Online] Available Computing/Articles+ResearchPapers/la-times-roundtable, 1994.

McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk. Stretched To The Limit. [Online] Available, 1996.

Miller, Roger LeRoy. Economics Today. New York:
HarperCollins College Publishers, 1994.

MIT EECS Women Enrollement Committee Report. [Online] Available, 1995.

Pearl, Amy, and Martha E. Pollack, et. al. Becoming a Computer Scientist. [Online] Available 1990.

Spertus, Ellen. Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?. [Online] Available, 1991.

Stipp, David. “The Gender Gap.” The Wall Street Journal, September 11, 1992, p. B8.

Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1996. [Online] Available, 1996.

Works Consulted

McDonough, Jerome P. Web-sters’ Net-Work: Women in Info Technology. [Online]
    Available, 1997.

Morse, Susan. “Why Girls Don’t Like Computer Games.” American Association of University Women: Outlook. Winter 1995, p. 16.

Women and the Sexed Machine. [Online] Available, 1996.

Suzanne Aldrich
Web Technologist

Web technologist specializing in security, performance, and usability.


comments powered by Disqus