The Decline of Women in Computer Science

When I was in third grade, our “capstone” project was to write a book. Our teacher, an endearing 4-foot-nothing lady with white-blonde hair, walked us through the steps of brainstorming a story, developing the characters, and formulating a conclusion over several months. The subject of my book was an embarrassingly bizarre love story between “Mr. Monkey” and “Mrs. Cheese” in which the two met and had combination monkey/cheese children. I’m not sure what my parents or teacher thought of that, but they were supportive of the book nonetheless. 

What stands out the most for me about writing that book was the “about the author” section at the end. On the last page of the book, I wrote a couple sentences about who I was and what I wanted to be when I grew up.

In third grade, I wrote that I wanted to either “work with computers” or “be an interior designer” when I grew up.

The aspiration to be an interior designer isn’t all that surprising since I was a prolific artist as a young child, painting and doodling and creating every waking moment. It’s the other response that takes me by surprise when I look back at the book.

In retrospect, saying I wanted to “work with computers” probably had something to do with my family purchasing our first home computer when I was in third grade. I remember how my siblings and I buzzed with excitement the day the enormous black and white cow-printed box arrived on our doorstep. None of us really had a clue for how to set it up or even use it, but we tinkered with it and soon were using the device daily for playing games, instant messaging friends, and downloading music. This sound of the AOL dial-up certainly brings back memories.

In the nearly two decades that have passed since then, I’ve “grown up” and embarked on a career that is neither in computers nor interior design.

Then again, most people don’t become what they said they wanted to be when they were 8-years-old; interests and priorities and paths change those childish aspirations. Therefore I didn’t really give my autobiography a second thought until I stumbled upon an article at NPR’s Planet Money on the decline of women majoring in computer science compared to previous generations.

“The field of computer science is dominated by men. It has not always been that way,” reports NPR’s Planet Money, alongside a stark graph that summarizes the story of women in computer science. It shows how women were steadily gaining momentum and even parity in computer science majors up until the mid 1980s – 1984 to be exact – before starkly and swiftly dropping to abysmal numbers. So what happened?

The question must have struck a nerve because when I shared the article and chart on Twitter, it was retweeted and shared over 100 times – something that I’ve never experienced before. At first, my response was something like this:

But then it got me thinking about why it resonated with me and others. It sparked the memory of writing that I wanted to work with computers as a child and how that contrasted with the reality of my academic pursuits and career trajectory. It brought up questions of why I abandoned that dream and how computer science (and STEM subjects in general) were never really encouraged to me as a young student, despite my declared interest and later relative success in it.

I quickly learned that computer science and STEM subjects were for boys, not for girls like me.

NPR Planet Money explored one root of this issue: “This was one of the big changes that happened around 1984 - small, home computers. There were starting to be computer haves and computer have-nots. So why did Lee have this advantage and Patty didn't? Well, in 1984, ads for personal computers were really just targeted at boys…The first home computers are sold as toys. And like toys everywhere, there was a strong gender preference.”

As an intuitive, bright, and confident girl, I read between the lines, struggling to balance the conflict between the code of conduct for being female and my individual goals and aspirations regardless of my gender. Ultimately, I made it through the dark tunnel of adolescence, but not without incurring most of the scars outlined in Reviving Ophelia.

The personal computing revolution that inspired 8-year-old me to want to work with computers when I grew up is the same cause for girls not later majoring in computer science.

NPR Planet Money asked an education researcher whether these gender-based ads in the 1980s had an effect on girls and women dropping out of computer science majors and careers. “Absolutely,” the researcher said, as they discussed how in one ad, “There are a half dozen guys using the machine with only one woman in the commercial. She's wearing a bathing suit, and she's jumping into a pool.” What message does that – and the countless other similar messages – send to young women and girls?

Girls like me weren’t stupid; we were both intelligently intuitive and naively receptive to these types of messages. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that the rates of women majoring in computer science tanked in the mid-1980s and why diversity in major tech companies remains limited.

Implicit or explicit sexism in the tech industry won't end by having more gender-neutral ads for computers and technology. It will stop when we stop assuming gender is a determinant for certain roles and abilities, and when we start allowing others to pursue their interests and aspirations — regardless of who they are and what they look like.