Why have girls been turning their backs on computer science?


Column written in partnership with The Conversation.
By Chantal Morley from Institut Mines-Télécom Business School.

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[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or an organizer of a careers fair or an engineering school open day, the gender-bias in digital professions is clear. Boys are far more likely than girls to flock to stands about computer science or other digital professions. It is easy to assume that this is how things have always been. Our opinions are based on the stereotypes we see every day, with ‘geeks’ almost always being portrayed as male.

It is easy to forget that many female mathematicians played a key role in the history of computing. Examples of these incredible women are Grace Hopper, who developed the theory behind the compiler, and made the first ever prototype of the machine in 1952; Mary Keller, the first person to earn a doctorate in computer science in 1965.

Kathleen Booth, who was a pioneer in character recognition and machine translation; and Barbara Liskov, who programmed one of the first chess games in 1968 and became a professor of artificial intelligence at MIT.

Research and “coding stations”

After leading pioneering research, Adele Goldberg developed the first graphical interface computer in 1973, while Alice Recoque designed the Mitra line of minicomputers, including the Mitra 15, which was a huge commercial success. It is important to mention that MIT, in its pursuit of academic excellence, had an extremely forward-thinking policy focused on embracing diversity. This meant that between 1965 and 1985, the number of female computer science students rose from 5% to nearly 30%.

During these pioneering years, women were also very much involved at an operational level. In the 1940s, the first electronic computer, ENIAC, was fully programmed by six female mathematicians. In the early 1950s, 40% of programmers at computer manufacturer Eckert-Mauchly were women. Until 1960, in Great Britain’s public service, computer “coding stations” were almost exclusively “manned” by women.

In 1955, a team of four female programmers started the first computer services company (Computer Usage Company) started in the United States. Three years later, Elsie Schutt founded Computations Inc., which allowed mothers to pursue a career in computer science by working from home. This company lasted 50 years. In 1962, in Great Britain, Stephanie Shirley founded Freelance Programmers at the age of 29 with the same aim. The company was an international success until it was bought by Steria in 2007.

The turn of the 80s

So, how did the situation change? What caused computer science to become a male-dominated sector? The first turning point came in the 1980s and was due to recruitment procedures. To make it easier to whittle down the large number of job applicants they were receiving, an American company defined the psychological profile of a ‘good programmer’.

The profile was based on a sample of men working in a military environment and had two major characteristics: someone who was slightly less social than the average person, and someone who enjoyed typically ‘masculine’ activities.  This profile was far from what companies were looking for in the 1940s and 1950s, when they recruited patient, logical, imaginative people who liked crossword puzzles, played chess or used knitting patterns! The profile was widely used.

Secondly, as the need for computing staff increased, salaries became relatively high. At the time, female coders were not paid well, and it was unthinkable for a woman to supervise teams of both men and women. This caused the leading computing employer in Great Britain, the public sector, to stop recruiting competent, experienced and motivated female programmers in favor of men. This ultimately led to computer science becoming male-dominated.

The third factor was a takeover by the academic world, working hand in hand with the industry and excluding women. In 1968, world-leading computer science companies began to understand the importance of software in relation to hardware. This led them to organize a conference sponsored by NATO which brought together global programming specialists. However, no women, not even Grace Hopper or Jean Sammet, were invited to take part.

As well as this, universities encouraged industrialists to talk about ‘software engineering’ and ‘software engineers’ to make the career path sound more respectable. However, the term ‘engineer’  made computer science courses sound traditionally masculine.

On the other hand, the main American professional association (DPMA, Data Processing Management Association), which was overwhelmingly made up of men, created a professional skills qualification for both men and women to improve skills in the sector.  However, due to the hours needed for study and the unequal sharing out of housework between men and women, the qualification was still less accessible to women.

The influence of popular culture

In 1965, women represented 30% of the workforce in programming in the USA. In 1982, 35% of computer science jobs in France were held by women. From the late 1960s, computers gradually became widely used in society and carved out a presence in popular culture. However, this was often done in ways which did not allow a place for women. In Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer has a male voice and the relationship between humans and computers leaves no room for women.

In computer advertisements in the late 1970s, the target consumers were executives; in France, 80% of executives were male in 1985. Computers were marketed to men in a practical way, with the idea that they could work from home. But, to a large extent, they were also marketed as something fun.  At home, PCs were also not used equally. Men spent more time on them than women, sons had more access to them than daughters. Often, this mentality was passed down from their fathers.

When people started buying personal computers for children, for a long-time, boys were the main target audience and girls were sidelined. This portrayal of computers in society gradually spread and contributed to computers being viewed as a ‘masculine’ thing. All the more so as the free software movement, whose communities regularly exclude women, has constructed the figure of the hacker as the model developer.

Algorithms and bias

Finally, with the rise of social media and the generation of automatic advertisements, we have seen how algorithms reproduce gender bias, which reinforces discrimination against women in digital education.

All these factors have caused woman to gradually withdraw from computer science, and despite various initiatives, this trend has not been reversed. Since women’s role in computer science was never very visible, society has now forgotten the important role they once played.

If we look at countries which have equal numbers of men and women in their computer science sectors, such as India and Malaysia, as well as universities that have a permanent gender parity in these fields, such as CMU, NTNU and Harvey Mudd College, we can see how inclusive policies at a local level have enabled women to regain their place in the digital professions.

Also read on I’MTech: In IT professions, diversity is all about inclusion, not exclusion

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Chantal Morley, Professor in Information systems, Institut Mines-Télécom (IMT).

The original version of this article (in French) was published in The Conversation under Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.


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