Women and Computer Science

Article by Melissa Dy

Only 18% of all computer scientists were women as of 2013, and according to a 2008 study by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, men are 2.7 times more likely to hold high-level positions than women in the field. It is an open secret: computer science is a boys’ club.

Yet consider the little known fact that the world’s first computer programmer was a woman, Ada Lovelace, who wrote algorithms for and designed the Analytical Machine alongside Charles Babbage. Though the machine was never built, their designs were used years later to build the first computer. Over a century after Lovelace was born, six women programmed the ENIAC, the first electronic programmable computer—a huge success. But as a testament to the fact that history is written by the victors, the press only acknowledged the men who built the machine and failed to credit or even mention the vital female programmers without whose work the machine would not have functioned. So it is clear that the factors responsible for the current gender gap in the field have more to do  with socially constructed obstacles such as the reluctance to recognize women’s contributions as opposed to biologically created incompetence.

Unfortunately such obstacles have only increased in number over the years in the realm of all science and technology careers. While it is difficult to empirically isolate these obstacles and the gender bias from other factors, a groundbreaking experiment conducted by Yale has managed the feat. In the experiment, two groups of scientists were presented with application materials from a student wishing to pursue a lab manager position. Both groups received the same application—the only difference was the gender of the applicant. The results were shocking and found the “female” applicants were rated significantly lower than the “males” in competence, hireability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student even though it was the same application. What happened to the meritocracy that the fields of science, technology and engineering pride? On top of this, according to a 2008 Harvard Business Review research report, 63% of women in these fields have experienced sexual harassment. Speaking up is also made difficult when sexist dogmas are used to shut down facts and when workplace culture is set up so that alleging sexism is tantamount to admitting or excusing personal shortcomings.

Besides this uphill battle, another reason women are reticent to building careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, according to a report by the Girl Scout Research Institute, has to do with a tendency to want to help people and skewed perceptions about the ability of STEM careers to do so. If more women learn early on that STEM careers can still help them achieve their goals of helping and serving, more will choose STEM. Additionally, the advent of Personal Computers (PCs) in 1984 and their gendered marketing as toys for boys meant a huge edge for men over women in terms of exposure and this edge has carried on into the 21st century. Fortunately however, an increasing number of organizations such as Girls Who Code, are working towards early exposure to STEM fields in order to mitigate the problem.

The gender divide is prevalent at ISM too. IB Computer Science student Adelle Dimitui shares she’s “always been curious about technology and computer programming because of their significance in innovation” and her curiosity traces back to taking apart electronic toys and looking at code as a child but she says, “they were always fields that I thought I’d never get the opportunity to learn about.” Another student, Jin Sun Park, reveals, “I was the only girl in my computer science class at that time, and I felt intimidated for the first few months but I stuck by computers and realized that with hard work and passion I could fight the prejudice.”

These ladies should be commended for persevering against the entrenched bias in the field, but not expected to. It does not need to be an unequal opportunity race. Jin Sun says the STEM community has a responsibility to reach out more to women in the field, and that “coding classes should be integrated into the school curriculum at an early age so that everyone can gain equal exposure to the subject.” This would encourage more women into the field later on.  Adelle says that more women in computer science can only be a good thing, and that “computer science is a great medium for girls to apply their creativity and problem-solving skills to, while learning about a field that’s intellectually exciting and high-in-demand in the real world!” That computer science was pioneered largely by women should also be enough evidence to prove women’s impressive potential in the field.