Where Are The Women In Computing? | Planet Money | NPR
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Where Are The Women In Computing? | Planet Money | NPR


Computer science today is a male-dominated field. We know this. I’ve been meeting these women — women whose names we should know too — badass computing pioneers — women who are now in their 70s and 80s but who programmed some of the first digital computers back in the days when software was written in machine language — in binary. So how did women go from being the center of the computing world — the pioneers of the industry — to being sidelined? I think the answer lies somewhere in this graph. It’s a graph of the percentage of women studying computer science. And it compares those numbers to the numbers of women studying medicine and law and physical sciences — and you know the number of women in all these fields are all going up — but then, something big happens — something that changes the course of computer science. And what’s amazing about that is you can actually put your finger on the moment where this changed. It was 1984. There was no grand conspiracy in computer science that we uncovered. There was no sign on the door that said “girls keep out.” In 1984 you couldn’t succeed in a computer science program without having had a home computer. And this bled into the workforce. Even if you weren’t studying computer science but you wanted to work on it, you needed the experience of using one, of playing with one. Early home computers popped up in the places that were already the world of boys. [Commercial: “This morning, Brian Scott made a career decision. “He decided to be an astronaut. “His first giant step: learning to use an Apple.” Jane Margolis is an education researcher who’s now at UCLA. And she has a theory about this. Take this one student Jane interviewed named Lily: She was the one who was really into computers in high school. But even though she was the one who was really into computers, the computer was placed in her brother’s room. Once you have something like this happening, it reinforces itself. Computers are for boys. They are boy toys that boys use to do boy things. And this became a narrative, this story we told ourselves. Margolis had some idea about how this had happened. But she wanted to figure out how to stop the clock — how to reverse this — how to find a way to get women back in. Margolis did her research with a guy named Allan Fisher, who was the dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon at the time. To give girls a chance to make up for what they missed in those years when boys were messing around with computers in their bedrooms, Carnegie Mellon added an intro course for students who didn’t have a lot of informal computer science experience. They started paying a lot more attention to teaching. And it worked! By 2000, 42 percent of the computer science students at Carnegie Mellon were women. And the dropout rate for men and women was basically the same.

33 Comments

  • Riyad

    well, now since everyone has a personal computer everything should go back to normal naturally.
    and people could stop moaning about the need for 50/50 of male and female ratio everywhere

  • SpaceManDawn

    So if the problem is with parenting, and not institutions, then stop using divisive language and buy your daughter a damn computer.

  • zdrux

    Wait wait.. so women worked in I.T. long ago and they're suddenly pioneers? And now they're being pushed to the sidelines bvy some magical force? Why not have a daughter and force her to take computer science to fix the issue instead of blaming others?

  • Jonathan Buchner

    I don't understand the video. The video presents Jane's argument as "around 1984 parents and the general consensus that computer were boy's toys gave boys more access to computers, which allowed boys to have a necessary computer familiarity to be successful in computer science classes. But by creating more basic computer science classes, one university increased the amount of Women taking cs classes." This argument is an oversimplification that I think misses key issues for women entering into computer science. On another note, I like discussions like these and learning about the study, but the disproportion of videos that discuss women's issues is alarming to me.

  • SirCutRy

    That is a good and fair solution, unlike affirmative action.
    One thing I would like to point out is that just programming a computer wouldn't have made you that famous. The reason people like Charles Babbage and Alan Turing became famous is because they invented whole new subfields of computer science and logic. Turing also became famous because of his involvement in WWII in figuring out the Enigma code to decipher German messages, and for being prosecuted for being a homosexual.

  • Javier E Castillo

    So who doesnt have computers or smart phones now? hahaha poor rational. Apparently at NPR they don't take intros to Statistics nor understand correlation does not equal causation.

  • Javier E Castillo

    The women make their own choices and overwhelmingly choose the Arts, Psychology, Health and Social services. Not many people crying over the lack of male nurses, elementary school teachers let alone complain over number of Female carpenters, construction laborers, electricians etc. Only in business, sports, and STEM.

  • Leon Rivera

    ?? so just because of one boy in a computer commercial that separated us… dumb to me I would of went more home gaming consoles with years of pushing toys to boys and selling electronics as toys instead of the argument that a home computer was in a girls brother room… I really don't get it but whatever

  • Carutsu

    Can we fucking stop this bloody subject? You've been beating this subject to death for 5 fucking years. Leave us alone already

  • Paul Marado

    Trump won Npr. He's running the country as we elected him to do. Get over it Npr. No more transgendered issue. He blocked muslims and we support him.

  • vibhupande

    This is such a shallow way to treat a topic. I remember from the technology demos of 60s and 70s (at institutes like Xerox PARC, which were the genesis to many modern computing concepts/technologies), the men already outweighed women in the field of computing. When the 1984 Apple came out, the percentage was already very skewed. ARPANET/MILNET also came from military research, which was mostly a male domain.
    The decline of women in computing probably happened in the Post-WWII/Cold War era – I don't know enough to support this claim (probably the war efforts drove women to the household like they drove men to battlefield and technological research), but am certain that the singularity deduced from the graph is a wrong understanding.

  • Laron Lemon

    Gender stereotypes have been reinforced by mass marketing strategies. However, I would assert this has as much to do with biological disposition, as it does with cultural influences. Women tend to search for degrees and jobs that are more conducive to raising children, that do not require relocation, and are less risky.

    Example: I have four older sisters, three of which WANTED to be a stay-at-home moms. The eldest is a medical laboratory scientist, the second is a high school graduate, the third is a certified CPA, and the fourth is a Manager for an online school (MBA- business management). All four are incredibly intelligent women capable of just about anything they set their mind to (STEM or not). The first three pursued degrees and careers that allowed them the opportunity to leave to create a family. Thoughts?

  • MisterZ3r0

    I may not necessarily agree with the implicit assertion of institutional or general sexism in the field, if that assertion is even being made, but I don't deny individual cases of sexism of course, I still think it is a worthwhile endeavor to take a look into the reasons why there is significantly lower number of women in the CS field than other fields. I believe everyone benefits, and the field further develops, when all segments of the population participate and contribute to the field. Diversity, expressed culturally, intellectually, sexually, etc., is beneficial for everyone.

  • jerrylwinston

    This doesn't make sense. The success achieved in 2000 came from students born before 1985, while female participation in the industry was at an all-time high. These girls had mothers and aunts in the industry. The remainder of the graph varies inversely with the general availability of home PC's and personal laptops. The information presented here does not support the assertion access is responsible for the disparity.

  • AnotherSettlementNeedsOurHelp

    Why do you care what gender someone is? Aren't we meant to look past it in everyday life? Why are the people who claim to be the most against sexism always ones who demonize men and blame them for all your problems? I've never seen a single female construction worker and I've never seen any feminists protest against that or blame it on hiring discrimination. No, you're too busy complaining about men spreading their legs too far apart on public transport or getting unwanted compliments.

  • EC Kuhl

    Personally I don’t see why having gender equality in a workplace is so important. I’ve worked in places that were mostly men (math-centered) and in others that were mostly women (business-centered) and they didn’t seem too different to me. General culture made a bigger impact (atheist/liberal and Baptist/conservative), and neither had equal parts of both.

  • Robert Peters

    What happened in 1984 to make women shy away from the world of computer science? Revenge of the Nerds.

    Pre-1984 computers were seen as electrical type writers. Post 1984 Revenge of the Nerds associated computers, sci-fi and other nerdy hobbies as uncool and women dropped out of computer science in droves.

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