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There Are Too Few Women in Computer Science and Engineering


Only 20 percent of computer science and 22 percent of engineering undergraduate degrees in the US go to women. Women are missing out on flexible, lucrative and high-status careers. Society is also missing out on the potential contributions they can make in these fields, such as designing smartphone conversational agents that suggest help not only for heart attack symptoms but also for signs of domestic violence.

Identifying the root causes of women’s underrepresentation is the first step towards remedies. Why do so few women enter these fields? A common explanation is that women are less interested than men in computer science and engineering. This explanation is technically accurate and is supported by both women’s and men’s own responses. However, it is incomplete in problematic ways, and exacerbates the differences it seeks to explain.

Concluding with an explanation that women currently have low interest in these fields is short-sighted. A better solution is to understand how the cultures of these fields prevent many women and girls from becoming interested in this important work. The focus on clarifying existing interests suggests that women and girls are lacking and need to change. However, we believe that changing the male-oriented image and culture of engineering and computer science will attract more young women to these fields. The status quo makes it clear that these fields and social institutions have a long way to go.

In a paper we recently published, we found that children and teenagers in the US, like adults, believe that girls are less interested than boys in computer science and engineering. Women who strongly endorse these stereotypes show the lowest interest in computer science and engineering. How do these gender stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies in this way?

Two subsequent experiments in this paper uncovered the underlying causal mechanisms. We found that women’s choices are negatively affected by stereotypes that other women are not interested in these fields. Defining a computer science activity as something that “women are less interested in than men” causes women to feel a lower sense of belonging in that activity and they become less possibility to choose it. When the computer science activity is not marked by gender stereotypes, women and men are equally interested in it.

When women hear the message, “people like you (ie, other women) don’t enjoy it,” they believe that they are not interested in the activity, and this changes their behavior. In this way, noting the differences in interests without providing the broader context of why these differences exist can itself contribute to the marginalization of women.

A more complete explanation for girls and women’s low interest includes emphasizing social and structural influences, such as male-oriented images and culture in these fields. The images students have in their heads of computer science and engineering matter. When asked to describe computer scientists, American students often think of images like those from TV shows. Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley. They think of mostly white and sometimes Asian male geniuses who are socially awkward, play video games and like science fiction.

Experiments we have done with college and high school students show that these images can have a profound effect. We compared young women’s interest in taking a computer science class when a highly stereotypic versus a less stereotypic image was seen in the classroom (e.g., when Star Trek posters versus in nature is shown). Many young women express more interest in pursuing computer science if their classroom does not reflect current stereotypes. Men and boys, on the contrary, do not move their interest as strongly as they respond to these two images.

Of course, many computer scientists and engineers don’t fit the stereotypical images. Many are socially adept with many interests and hobbies. Yet until these current images change, we may continue to see more women than men who feel they don’t fit in these fields.

Beyond student perceptions, the actual masculine culture of computer science and engineering also contributes to the underrepresentation of women. In our research, we documented that computer science and engineering have “male defaults.” These are the parts that reward, or set as the standard, characteristics and behaviors commonly associated with masculinity. Examples include reward aggression, overconfidence and self-enhancement.

At Google, women are promoted less often than equally qualified men. Google knows that this is because promotion needs to position itself for promotion. This policy is biased because women in the US tend to be socialized to not self-promote and may even receive social and economic backlash if they do. Other examples of these masculine defaults in computer science and engineering include masculine words like “dominant” and “competitive” in job ads; policies that do not pay for service and emotional labor, tasks that often fall to women; and provide networking opportunities for those who participate in sports associated with men, such as kiteboarding. Masculine defaults can also be challenging for many men and people who identify as non-binary because they force people to fit into a narrow mold.

Looking at current gender differences in interests is only the beginning. We must also consider the historical and contextual reasons for the Why these current gender differences exist. We need to remove the blame from women and girls for their current low interest, and instead focus on what society can do to create cultures that are more welcoming to women and girls. Current computer science stereotypes became ubiquitous in the US during the PC revolution. Before that, women earned a much higher proportion of undergraduate degrees in computer science—37 percent in 1984—than they do now.

Today, many women are pursuing computer science careers in countries with less male images of computer science, such as Malaysia and Armenia. Other strategies to improve computer science and engineering cultures may include counterbalancing the masculine default in tech companies by promoting norms and behaviors that are not stereotypically masculine. For example, companies can reward coaching and collective achievements. Universities can change their computer science curriculum to be more inclusive like Harvey Mudd College. Harvey Mudd has implemented more attractive pathways in computer science by creating a separate entry major for students without prior programming experience, instead of only rewarding those with prior experience. the college.

Creating more welcoming cultures is a systemic problem that is the responsibility of the tech industry and society more broadly. The key is to change the narrative that focuses on gender differences in girls and women of low interest. However, we must emphasize the role played by the perceived and actual cultures of these fields in creating these patterns. Until we change the narrative that women’s low interest is to blame, it will be difficult to make technology more sensitive and inclusive of our entire population.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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