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Why There Are So Few Women In Computer Science (Plus, Women Pioneers Who’ll Inspire You Not To Give Up)

By: UoPeople Outreach, 
January 3, 2017

In 1985, there was hope. Women in computer science received 37% of their faculty’s undergraduate degrees, reports ReadWrite. Equality hadn’t been reached, yet it seemed to be on its way.

 

But ever since then – despite progress, despite the growing need for human resources in this increasingly lucrative field – we’ve been going backwards.

 

According to ReadWrite, in 2014, only 14-18% of undergraduate computer science degrees were earned by women. And even though the numbers are climbing again, they’re climbing faster for men.

(UoPeople’s percentage of women in computer science programs today is twice the average percentage of other computer science degree programs in the US).

 

 

Why are There So Few Women in Computer Science?

Computer science is not alone. Women represent a smaller part of the academic student population in many STEM degrees – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

 

Why is this still happening?

 

1. We Don’t Do Enough to Show Girls What’s Possible for Them in Computer Science

 

According to Roxanne Taylor, CMO at Accenture, lack of technological education is the biggest barrier to female leadership in technological industries. “We need to get young women excited about math, science and technology, including computer science, long before they enter college,” she writes in Fortune.

 

Girls are often given toys that don’t develop technical skills, skills that get labeled “boy skills,” and they don’t get enough fun, interesting exposure to what a technological career could be like.

 

According to Heather Huhman, Gen Y career expert, even when K-12 schools provide science fairs, participation is far from equal. Girls “are standing on the sidelines as the boys participate,” she writes in Forbes.

 

To solve this, we need more companies like GoldieBlox, which creates techie toys girls love, and organizations like Code.org, which, according to Taylor, provides free computer programming tutorials for kids as young as kindergarten age.

 

And we need educators who “encourage young girls to pursue opportunities in STEM,” writes Huhman.

 

 

2. Stereotypes Still Make Women Feel Unwelcome in the Computer Science Industry

 

“Cultural perceptions about who is a computer scientist… is a big reason to why women are still underrepresented… according to researchers at the University of Washington.”

 

One of the biggest stereotypes is that only men can be computer scientists, which makes it challenging for women to break through, and leads to “beliefs that women simply aren’t as good as men in computer science.”

 

As a result, less women dare to enter the industry, and those that do become a rare sight. In a common scenario of people who are used to hanging out with people like them, and aren’t used to seeing other sectors of the population in their positions, men subconsciously assume that if the one woman they know in computer science doesn’t excel in the field, no woman does. Women themselves assume they won’t perform as well as men will.

 

In a situation of many men and few women in the classroom or the workplace, women’s concerns – including sexual harassments they experience from men – are often treated as no big deal.

 

3. We Don’t Highlight Enough Role Models of Women in Computer Science

 

As you can see, it’s hard to imagine what we can’t see and have never known. It’s time to introduce more girls – and boys – to pioneer women in computer science.

 

Pioneer Women in Computer Science Who Prove Women Can Do Anything

Here are a few of the women who dared to imagine what could be, and created it for all of us.

 

1. Pioneer Woman in Computer Science: Ada Lovelace, the First Computer Scientist

 

As a woman in the 1840s, Ada Lovelace wrote “the world’s first machine algorithm for an early computing machine that existed only on paper.”

 

According to, Computer History, Lovelace “has been referred to as ‘prophet of the computer age,’ because she was “the first to explicitly articulate” that idea that machines can be served for more than mathematics. Her “idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules and that numbers could represent entities other than quantity mark the fundamental transition from calculation to computation,” reports Computer History.

 

2. Pioneer Woman in Computer Science: Grace Hopper, the First Lady of Software

 

According to Space.com, Grace Hopper co-created “the first all-electronic digital computer, called UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer),” which was critical for NASA’s Apollo space missions. The website adds that Hopper “also created the first computer compiler (which translates source code from one language to another)” and “a new programming language,” FLOW-MATIC, which became popular at the time.

 

According to Amazing Women in History, Hopper, who was a United States Navy admiral, believed that “programming languages should be as easily understood as English… It is largely due to Grace Hopper’s influence that programmers use ‘if/then’ instead of 1s and 0s today.” She also impacted computing slang by making the term “debugging” a popular term for overcoming computer challenges.

 

 

3. Pioneer Women in Computer Science: The 6 Women of ENIAC, Programmers of the First Digital Computer

 

The invention of ENIAC, the first digital computer, was so important, it got its own official ENIAC Day (February 15). The creation of the project was conducted by “the US Army in Philadelphia as part of a secret World War II project.”

 

It was highly innovative – “the first all-electronic, programmer computer,” reports the ENIAC Programmers Project – yet the press announcement that celebrated it in 1946 forgot one little detail – the “six brilliant young women [who created it and]… learned to program without programming languages or tools (for none existed) – only diagrams,” according to The ENIAC Project.

 

Remember the names of these trailblazing women, as history finally acknowledges them: Betty Jennings, Fran Bilas, Betty Snider, Marlyn Wescoff, Kay McNulty and Ruth Lichterman.

 

 

How the University of the People is Helping Close the Gender Gap for Women in Computer Science

The University of the People is dedicated to help empower women everywhere.

 

Our percentage of women in computer science programs today is twice the average percentage of other computer science degree programs in the US – and we plan to keep increasing it.

SEE WHAT UOPEOPLE CAN DO FOR YOU!