February 7, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Opening doors for women in computing

The computer science world was anything but welcoming to Maribel Gonzalez.

After a harrowing first year, she quit the computer science program at the University of California at Los Angeles. Until that point--six years ago--Gonzalez had excelled at math and had looked forward to a computer-centric career. But at UCLA, she felt overwhelmed by the programming experience of her mostly male peers. With no programming classes under her belt, the "sink or swim"-style courses, she said, did not suit her.

"I never worked so hard to get Cs," recalls Gonzalez, now a public-school teacher in New York. "It was a blow to my ego, and it scared me."


What's new:
Comments from Harvard's president have reignited a debate about the declining presence of women in the information technology field.

Bottom line:
Although research points to differences between male and female brains, scholars point to other factors in explaining why women have been logging off from computer careers. Meanwhile, reformers working to reverse the trend can point to at least some success.

More stories on this topic

Gonzalez' tale is at the center of a trend that is disheartening to many.

Data from the National Science Foundation shows that the female share of bachelor's degrees in computer science dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2001. And while women comprised 33 percent of information technology professionals in 1990, that figure was down to 26 percent in 2002, according to NSF. The drop is puzzling in part because women are making progress in related areas such as the natural sciences.

On the other hand, some efforts to bring women back to computing appear to be paying off. That's seen as vital for reasons including fueling the nation's tech economy and preventing male bias in the way future technology is developed. "Any sort of monoculture is bad," said Radia Perlman, a researcher at Sun Microsystems Laboratories. "You need people that can think from a different angle."

Harvard president ignites controversy
Spurred by the furor over recent remarks by Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, the topic of the declining participation of women in IT is now prominent among concerns about the future of high technology in the United States.

At a conference late last month, Summers suggested that innate differences between the genders could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

Although he eventually offered a public apology, Summers touched a nerve and sparked a protest letter.

A growing body of research suggests that there are real differences between the brains of men and women.

But a number of scholars reject the idea that women are biologically less apt to succeed in the computer science field. They point instead to factors such as the stereotype of computer jockeying as a geeky, male profession. The long hours often required with computing jobs also may deter women who wish to raise children.

Cornelia Brunner
Associate director,
Center for Children
& Technology

Cornelia Brunner, associate director of the Center for Children & Technology, argues that a societal swing toward conservative values over the past few decades has helped frame technology in masculine terms--as a powerful "magic wand," she said, rather than a tool that could help or hurt society.

"In a very, very deep way, it turns women off," Brunner said. "It puts the machine at the center, rather than its capabilities."

Closing the gender gap
While the statistics for women IT workers are bleak, they have spawned dozens of efforts to attract women to the field and encourage those already there.

One of the newest and most ambitious groups to emerge is the National Center for Women and Information Technology, a nonprofit based at the University of Colorado at Boulder that received a four-year, $3.25 million grant last year from the National Science Foundation.

The group's goal is to increase the ranks of women in the U.S. computing and IT work force from about 25 percent today to 50 percent over the next 20 years. It's already signed up an impressive roster of participants from more than 20 universities, a dozen high-tech companies and nonprofits such as the Girl Scouts.

Another focus is reforming college computer science programs to make them less about weeding out weak students and more about encouraging all comers to succeed.

Carnegie Mellon University has been something of trailblazer in this respect. In 1995, a paltry 7 percent of undergraduates enrolled in CMU's computer science school were women. Now, after instituting changes--comparable to affirmative action sans quotas--designed to attract women six years ago, women enrollment is closer to a third.

Lenore Blum
Computer science
professor, Carnegie
Mellon University

While still requiring high test scores, especially in mathematics, the school no longer puts as much weight on prior programming experience. Freshman accelerated-programming classes generally level the playing field by the student's sophomore year, said Lenore Blum, a CMU computer science professor.

"In the '90s, we selected for the geek personality," Blum said.

Gonzalez's alma mater, UCLA, is among the schools working to change the experience for computer science students. In the past several years, the California university has received grants

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The problem is worse than statistics suggest
26% might have been accurate for the number of females in my school that also had a CS major, but after I left school and started working in tech support that number fell closer to ~18%. With every new position I have moved up to since then, the % of women around me gets smaller and smaller.

I am not trying to be mean or draw conclusions based on a small set of information, but the women I have worked with have generally been the least proficient techs in any given group.

Currently, all of my co-workers are male.

Part of the reason for this is, a lot of the girls I met taking CS in school said things like I hate computers, but I took CS to get a good job

If you are not interested in technology I don't recommend perusing it as a career path.
Posted by Dachi (797 comments )
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With so few women in IT, how does anybody become an expert on the subject?
Like the previous poster, Ive noticed that the percentage of women around me has declined as I move higher in the company and towards more technically demanding work. That makes it hard for anybody to be an expert on the subject of women in IT. It certainly makes statements like 26% [or 33% or whatever] of IT professionals are women patently absurd. At least, its absurd unless you include administrative assistants, HR personnel, call center staff, and so on.

1. Women have no technical aptitude: They said this about math, too. But girls in the UK have scored higher than boys in math for several years now. I call this proof positive that mathematical and technical aptitude are culturally determined. The US is behind the times.
2. Obsession with PCs during teenage years is predictive of technical success: The amount of time that boys spend playing video games is predictive of nothing except the likelihood of entering IT in adulthood. I see a good deal of games playing among the most junior staff, but none at all amongst those who become most technically successful.
3. CS degrees are required: The best IT professionals by far have degrees in math. Behind them come the sciences and engineering. And a long way behind them come the people with CS degrees. A CS degree will give you a fast start into an entry-level position, but generally provide little of value for more advanced work.
4. Women provide a business advantage by adding diversity: Women who succeed in IT do so for much the same reasons as men: intelligence, hard work, self-confidence, good presentation skills, and determination. They may be more able than their male cohorts because of the extra hurdles they have to jump, but in most other respects they are little different from them.

Most men are clearly uncomfortable with women in IT. They want women to be soft and gentle and docile and, most of all, incompetent and dependent. Anything else provokes spite or sulky silence. Whats needed isnt more girls computer clubs or remedial math courses, but help with learning the social skills that are peculiar to a predominantly male workplace: speak up, dont hold a grudge, work hard, and take responsibility for your own skills building.
Posted by (1 comment )
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IT students in Thailand
My wife has a Master Degree in Computer Science from a Thai university. I am a computer consultant from Europe and can confirm that in Europe it's predominantly male. In Thailand it's the opposite: 80 to 90% of the alumni from the IT faculty are female. The men get the better jobs though.
Posted by (1 comment )
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Culture, not college
As CEO of a thriving software company I must say your article overlooks the in the trenches problem - the culture. The issue is that we need more women techies. Entrepreneurs are well and good, as are the math and engineering types - but all those will increase as an aggregate as techies become more female all the way around.

Techies (who used to be known as hackers before the term was distorted) are not generated in college. Anyone who hasn't spent a good portion of their teenage years doing computer stuff for fun and jumps into a CS program in college are career shoppers, they are very rarely techies. I've yet to see one of these folks be the creative lynchpin of a development team, and almost *always* the weakest link who don't touch a computer in their off time unless it is work related.

Computer science is not a field like architecture, or psychology, or nuclear physics. Unlike a great number of careers, young people can and do get a great deal of exposure to various computing concepts at a young age if they are drawn into the culture. Techies tinker, and then read - then tinker some more. On their own time. For fun.

The catalyst for a techies has long been gaming. This was true back when we were using 300 baud modems and playing Trade Wars, it was true when MUDs were the in thing on campus, and is true today. Face it, Half-Life and the like just don't target females.

When the leading video games seem fun to teenage girls (and they are socially acceptable to play), and when blogging gains in popularity, demographics will begin to change - they already are albeit painfully slow.

Again...techies are created at a young age. If we want a more diverse workforce, we have to draw the pre-teen and teenage demographics into the tech scene as this is when techies are created - not in college programs.

CNET should sponsor an all girl free blog program. Use GAP style graphics, spend time on safety concerns, but implement it remembering girls are NOT boys...but they like expensive gadgets, and buy them just the same as the fellas. Think Apple, but talk XML.
Posted by (1 comment )
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CS degrees are important
Sure kids can learn alot by 'tinkering', but they can't learn nearly as much as they can in a structured degree program.

For every kid that starts out learning on his own and goes on to do great things, there are a 1000 that go nowhere, but nearly every CS graduate has the tools to do anything they want.

The phenomenum of people getting degrees in fields that they have no passion, is hardly restricted to CS.
Posted by Bill Dautrive (1179 comments )
Link Flag
you are correct sir...
..while other kids were out playing for their baseball teams and cheerleading, I was messing around with my 286 on weekend nights. That time spent just having fun helped me learn. There will be more woman in IT in the future, because there are more women taking an interest in computing now.
Posted by lewissalem (167 comments )
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Insulting Insinuation
In this article, it said, "Another focus [of the National Center for Women and Technology] is reforming college computer science programs to make them less about weeding out weak students and more about encouraging all comers to succeed."

So, what this is saying is that in order for women to succeed, the college programs need to be made easier, and they need to pay less attention to the performance of the people in the programs.

It seems to me that this would only serve to accomplish three things...

1. Insult women (as it implies that, in order for them to succeed, things need to be dumbed down).

2. Diminish the quality of education which those going through these programs receive.

3. Diminish the value of the degree overall, as anyone would be able to get one, regardless of ability.

Posted by (1 comment )
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Women in IT
The comments are both valid and invalid regarding changing college Computer Science programs for women.

My BS CS degree is from 1986 and my MS CS degree is from 1991. For my undergraduate, I was annoyed that students, mostly white male, who failed the lower level CS classes would retake them the following semester. Thus preventing me from taking the class when I wanted the class since they had "seniority". I saw this as an accomodation for those, mostly white male students, to "help" them through the program.

I found the 2 main white male CS professors extremely supportive of me, as a woman. Equal to my male counterparts. They were very encouraging and appear to treat men and women equally.

True, changing the CS program to accomodate women appears to dismiss the programs and insult women. However, in general, these CS university programs were designed by white male CS professors. Anytime a degree program is designed by just one set of individuals ("white male geeks"), it will hurt other type's of students from being successful in the program. Whether they are women or minorities.

The IT industry needs diversity, otherwise, it will be stagnat and lack the full potenial of our resources, people. There are many aspects to IT. We need the diversity of our population to advance in all areas of Computer Science.

Until all engineering and computer science programs are designed by men, women and minorities; they will continue to favor white male students. This is also true in K-12. To be successful in diversifying our IT professionals, we must start at the elementary school level and work our way up into the college programs.

We should all work towards a stronger more diversified IT industry of professionals. It will benefit all of us.
Posted by (2 comments )
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Schools - Career Guidance and Peers
As Michael Hatley says in his comments techies tinker as a hobby and so inherently know more. I have worked in tech support and I am currently a web developer. Most college only people that I have worked with did not have the experience or intuition to be great techies.

On the other hand when it comes to business management some of the these people really shine. Maybe they should have done a Business/IT course rather than straight IT.

Coming from Ireland with a lot of single sex schools I think career guidance has a huge influence on girls choices when selecting college courses.
From women I know they were basically told to be a secretary, teacher or a house wife. All good, but not exactly the only options available. Also, since these were the options the teachers were given in their day (maybe with nun in there as well) then they don't have the skills to nurture techie talent. You need peers and mentors in the early stages to get over the initial hurdle swhen ding something new.

I would love to know the percentage of guys that drop out of IT courses because they are too tough. Is it the same as the women. I do think it is a bad idea to reduce the quality fo the education for the sake of inclusions. It's only storing up problems for the future. Quality not quantity.
Posted by ahickey (177 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"a son-of-a-bitch to program"
The first programmers were women. I believe there was a book out a few years about the team of women who programed the ENIAC but can't find it right now. Do a search for "Jean Bartik" who has been quoted as saying "ENIAC was a son-of-a-***** to program."
Posted by (7 comments )
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The first programmer was a woman named Ada Byron. She wrote the first "computer program". She wrote a plan to calculate Bernoulli numbers on Babbage's Analytical Engine.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/love.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/love.htm</a>
Posted by (2 comments )
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Sounds like it was her own fault...
for declaring major without looking to see what would be required of her.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
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Looking for diversity in the wrong places
People think that just because they have a collection of people that look different, they support diversity. That is wrongheaded. True diversity comes from a wide array ideas, not from a wide array of skin color and an equal mix of sex organs.

As for the rest, dumbing down programs is not what is needed. That will hurt the industry as a whole. Some universities, do start their students fast and expect a certain amount of knowledge coming into the program, and that is wrong IMO. But even those often offer remedial classes, to get students ready to start the degree program. Prospective students need to ask what is expected and make informed choices. CS is one of the more demanding disciplines and going in blind is a sure fire way to quit in frustration.

To anyone reading this who is thinking about getting a CS student, make sure your math skills are up to snuff or expect it to take a lot longer. Most CS programs require a math load that equals or is close to a mathematics minor. If youa re weak in math, but love computer go with a IS degree, it is not nearly as comprehensive as a CS degree but requires only a few bonehead business math classes.
Posted by Bill Dautrive (1179 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Policy vs progress
Is it not the case that many of the productivity gains of the last 200 years or so have resulted from increasing specialization? Does not ANY degree of specialization imply that certain characteristics must confer an advantage, and increasing specialization that jobs are calling for ever more detailed and narrow profiles of the ideal employee? If this is the case, we should expect to see LESS diversity in the types of people in given jobs, not more. Where did it come to be written that diversity was the ideal to be aspired to? Is diversity not the opposite of specialisation? Sure at the lower margin, each additional diverse experience/viewpoint MAY add to overall performance, but it will a case of diminishing returns as each new viewpoint adds less than the previous one until eventually the loss in performance from not having an employee fitting the ideal profile will outweigh the benefit of further diversity and overall performance will decline.

The cornerstone of the idea that all groups should be represented equally in all industries is one of uniformity of ability across all skills and occupations at all ability levels. That is simply not the case and no feasible amount of political meddling or foot stomping will make it so. As far as gender goes, women as a group have superior verbal abilities; men have superior visual-spatial abilities, less risk aversion and an uncanny inability to get pregnant for example. That is not to say the characteristics of one or the other are superior in total, but there certainly are differences which make each better suited to certain types of job and thus an absence of gender imbalance is a sure sign of politically correct meddling and of an economy running at less than optimal efficiency. To deny this is to deny the emperor's lack of clothes and is a triumph of ideology over such triflings as mere facts.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What if females just aren't as good as men at computer programming?
What if females just aren't as good as men at computer programming? What if there are no barriers to entry, and they still cannot succeed? Should we water down the industry in the name of equality?
Posted by (1 comment )
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penis envy
I live in honolulu where the rent is more than silicon valley... and all the hot girls with fat wedding rings... geeze... as a homeless 'hoale' boy) with plenty of experience... (droped out of highschool to work for a .com in seattle) I must say that this stuff is super shallow... the real issue at hand is is being real... btw.. I have met plenty of girls who know their stuff and they dont *****... and they still turn me on..
Posted by (187 comments )
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don't play the blame game
sorry for what happened to this young lady, but who's fault was it? sounds like to me this is another subtle case of male bashing, better yet it is a hatred toward the male gender. does diversity have any intrinsic value?
Posted by (1 comment )
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This is an excellent article. I too was very much fond of Computing career. Finally I got settled in the same field with the help of http://cloudjobs.net , a famous job site.
Posted by Tedjos (1 comment )
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The problem is serious as it's rarely seen as a problem. People are actually not aware that there's a gender issue involved in the field of computing. The leaking pipeline has to be fixed from everywhere. There are leaks all over. It starts right from the teachers. If they are encouraging or not. The counselors and The way they present Computer Science in High School. The field have to bring in the feminine factor that's been missing and which mainly attracts women. The Relationship between the Male-female students and the culture in colleges should be changed. And Teaching Mainly in the CS Classes should be changed from Boring to interesting and interactive sessions which involves not just men but also women.
Posted by skmudabbir (1 comment )
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