America Needs More Women in Computer Science

Reshma Saujani with Girls Who Code students. (Photo: Jessica Scranton)
Reshma Saujani with Girls Who Code students. (Photo: Jessica Scranton)

“I remember walking into one of the classes at Stanford and just deciding not to take the class because I was one of only three women there, and I just felt so intimidated,” recalled Catherina Xu, one of the co-presidents for Women in Computer Science at Stanford University.

Incidents like this are happening all across the country, and partly due to the lack of women in the field, there is now a shortage of computer science majors — and it’s going to get even worse.

By 2024, the National Center for Women and Information Technology predicts that there will be 1.1 million computing-related job openings, and only 41% of those jobs will be filled.

And get this: The percentage of women in the field has been declining since the 1980s. The National Science Foundation found that in 1985, more than 35% of computer science majors were women. By 2014, that number had dropped down to just 18%.

Not only will jobs go unfilled if more women aren’t entering the field, but companies won’t be as successful. A 2015 study by McKinsey & Company showed that businesses diverse in gender and ethnicity tended to outperform less diverse businesses.

So why aren’t more women working in computer science? Three key factors are culture, the way women think and a lack of representation in the industry.

Laura Adolfie, the Florida STEM Chair for the American Association of University Women, believes part of the problem often starts in childhood. “When a child is born and you have a son or a daughter, they’re socialized by the parents and the grandparents. You tend to give a little girl a doll and a boy cars and things like that.” She said boys are socialized to tinker, which can start them on a path to engineering and computer science.

To combat this issue and get more women interested in computer science, Reshma Saujani founded Girls Who Code. She believes the media has a huge influence in determining girls’ career paths. “In the ’80s, ’90s and now, when you turn on the television you’re inundated from Grey’s Anatomy to Ally McBeal to L.A. Law shows that have women who are fabulous and smart and interesting — that are doctors and lawyers — and little girls raise their hand and say ‘me too’,” she said. “And the opposite thing has happened in technology.”

Enrollment numbers from the American Bar Association and the American Association of Medical Colleges show that since the 1980s, the percentage of women in both law and medical school has increased. That’s why Saujani thinks it’s so important for girls to have visible tech role models in media and entertainment:

“So we cannot be what we cannot see, and we can’t expect our girls to aspire to be something that they don’t see themselves in. And so culture, I think, is the number one reason why you have this massive decline. It’s not about aptitude. And you see this really happen around middle school when girls are more attuned to what they see in magazines, what they’re watching on television what they see on Netflix. And so I think that role models play a huge role in sparking girls’ interest in computer science.”

Another member of the Stanford Women in Computer Science organization, Daniela Gonzalez, thinks computer science is represented poorly and that keeps both women and minorities from entering the field. “I think that the way that computer science is portrayed in society needs to change. Because it’s kind of seen as this thing that’s either just for left-brained people who just want to spend their time held up in a room coding a bunch of numbers or making video games, which is cool but that’s only one part of CS,” she said. “I think of the most interesting parts of computer science that maybe aren’t talked about quite as much is the fact that it can be used to solve all of these really important problems in the world.”

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SOURCE: USA Today, Scott Behrens, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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