Why Is the Number of Women in Computing so Low?

Jodi Tims, chair of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Council on Women, shares her opinion on the origins of, and possible solutions for, the low number of women in computing.

by / November 9, 2017 0

Identifying the reasons for the dearth of women in the tech industry has provoked a substantial amount of debate among academics and industry analysts. Yet efforts to address the situation, unfortunately, seem to be reaping only the most modest success thus far. Jodi Tims and the organization she currently chairs, the Association for Computing Machinery's Council on Women (ACM-W), are among those who have worked tirelessly on many different levels to confront these circumstances and effect positive change. Her position with ACM-W, and her experiences as a woman in computing, bring both relevance and value to her insights regarding the problem.

To begin with, Tims acknowledges a measure of confusion over the statistics that are commonly cited. It seems accurate numbers are impossible to pinpoint. "But, regardless of the discrepancy of those numbers," she explains, "none of them are good. When you consider that the population is at least 50 percent female, if not a little higher, we're certainly not represented in the industry as we are in society. This raises serious concerns, according to Tims. "A very broad-brush definition of the problem, in my mind, is that women should be represented in the creation of the software products and technology we're developing for the use of all of society," she says.

According to Tims, from 2015, the most recent statistics available from the educational pipeline indicate that about 18 percent of degrees in computing technology are produced by females. Beyond that, women comprise, by most accounts, approximately 25 percent of the workforce in the industry sector.
 
"If you look even further into the industry pipeline, and you start to look at things like what promotions women get, then the numbers just continue to go down in terms of women holding higher positions in the industry," Tims explains. "The number of female CEOs, I believe, is in the single digits, for example."
 
It would appear, from these statistics, that the career path in the technology industry is not as friendly to women as it is to men. Without role models and support for women from those in leadership positions in these companies, the number of women in the industry cannot be expected to grow anytime soon.
 
Tims explains that the numbers weren't always this dire. "The highest production of computing degrees among women actually occurred back in about the mid-eighties," she says, "when roughly a third of the degrees in computing that were awarded went to women, according to most sources." Since that time, there has been nothing but decline in the number of women earning computing degrees, opening wide the flood gates of speculation.
 
Some feel that, as interest in the discipline grew, educational institutions were trying to figure out how to manage the enrollment in, and explosive growth of, their technology departments, the earliest seeds of the problem began to take root.
 
"In any kind of discipline, if there are more students that want to enter a program than there are open educational slots, it becomes a more competitive environment," she says. "It's just the law of simple supply and demand at work. So, one theory is that, as the environments got more competitive, and less friendly, those qualities may have had some impact on many women's desire to compete for those positions."
 
Tims also feels that it might be true that the expectations of what somebody should already know as they enter the discipline might have been raised at that time. A prospective student's previous exposure to computing began to be weighed more heavily in the admissions process. "Unfortunately, early exposure to computing is not as common among females and under-represented minorities as it is among the white and Asian male populations, even to this day."
 
Could rising enrollment standards around that possibly cause a bit of a gateway issue for women? Quite likely, according to Tims.
 
And then there is the question of the environment in a discipline beginning to become dominated by males in a competitive way. "What did it feel like to be that minority at that time?" she asks. "There are lots of anecdotal stories out there about women reporting that they'd experienced a less than receptive feeling in their departments," says Tims. "And, sometimes, just outright antagonism toward women by men operating under the assumption that computing is a male discipline, for some reason."
 
These are just some of the potential factors that have been cited as the problem has been examined. "Unfortunately," Tims laments, "there's just not really good data. Nobody ever really did a good study during that period, and you can't go back and recreate that data now and explain what happened at that very first turn. I wish I could answer more definitively exactly what happened and what caused this, but I don't think anybody can do that. Some of the factors I've mentioned are ones that we understand, but the reality is that we're probably never going to fully comprehend everything that played into it. We just know that this is where we are. I will say that the numbers of women in computing have been slightly rising just a little bit over the past three or four years, and some of us are very hopeful that maybe we're making progress, but it's still just a really bleak picture."
 
What can be done at this point to solve a problem whose causes aren't fully understood? Tims says that early intervention can be key. "Given the current circumstances of K-12 education, I think we have to assume that, when students come into college that the background they have in computing is nowhere nearly as developed as it is in, say, mathematics or English or history or any of the subjects that students traditionally take over multiple years. So, if we start with that as kind of a baseline in thinking about what can we do, I think the long-term solution actually lies in making changes at the K-12 level. And that's not a satisfying answer, because how many years does it take to turn the Titanic around, right?"
 
Tims calls for a shift in the educational system from the bottom up, to present computing differently to young children, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. "We can't wait until they're maybe in the twelfth grade and maybe give them a class in computing which may or may not have anything to do with computing in the way that it's commonly considered. 'I can use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint,' has nothing to do with the power of computing."
 
She continues, "If we really want to solve this problem, to make computing more attractive for females, there's a couple more things we can do. We know there are some best practices in higher education areas that we can apply that seem to be valued by women. For example, women tend to like more personal, high-touch, engaging educational environments, so having curricula and faculty interaction that that is more direct is certainly something that educational programs can do."
 
Additionally, Tims points out that women tend to value a strong understanding of how they are going to utilize their education to contribute to society more generally. While, clearly, women seek a career in tech for diverging reasons, many are drawn by the power and potential that this discipline brings to solve society's problems. Helping students to understand early the value of a computing degree in contributing to the world might also be helpful. 
 
Tims also cites the need to eliminate all the unfortunate stereotypes that admittedly exist, including the most prevalent one, that computing is strictly a male discipline. "We have to change the misconception that there is only one type of person who can be successful in computer science," she says, "and those are the nerdy, really good math students who don't talk to anybody because they're introverted. We have to break all of that stuff, and the only way to do so effectively is to start when children are young and haven't acquired those impressions yet and change the way that we teach them everything, from the concepts that we teach them about computing, to the ethics and attitudes that are wrapped around this career choice."
 
Earlier this past summer, Congresswoman Jacky Rosen introduced H.R. 3316, the "Code Like a Girl Act," a bipartisan bill to fund programs intended to encourage young girls to explore careers in science. That bill recently moved from the House to the Senate. Tims is heartened to see increasing attention given to this situation and feels strongly that this kind of focus will be what ultimately solves this problem in the country. "The ACM-W is placing its full support behind this bill," she relates. "We believe this to be valuable legislation that deserves our support and funding."
 
Asked for her best advice to young women interested in establishing a career in computing, Tims reflects on her own career. She heartily recommends building a good network of support. "Being a minority in any context can be a difficult road. There are times that you're going to feel isolated or when you're going to feel that the environment is hostile toward you. You have to recognize that you're going to run into those situations. Having mentors and role models, male and female, along with a good network of colleagues at a peer level, who will provide that kind of support, is indispensable."
 
Tims also cautions students in this discipline to work hard to be capable. "If you're in one of those hostile environments, and you make some silly mistake that nobody should make, you're not helping yourself, right? Make sure that you are technically competent, and that you stay on top of what is a very rapidly changing industry. The rest of it, nobody can guarantee what's going to happen. Whether you're a man or a woman, no one can guarantee that you're always going to have supervisors who appropriately recognize people's talents and promote accordingly, but you're certainly not going to be able to have a strong career or earn those promotions if you're not putting yourself in the best position to be your own best proponent or champion. That's what I would be telling my own daughter."
 
With ACM-W student chapters on college campuses throughout the country, the idea of women having a supportive environment can be more easily realized. This organization and others arrange celebrations of women in computing in many regions of the country. The Grace Hopper Conference, for example, administrated by an organization called AnitaB.org, was recently held in Orlando, Fla., and over 15,000 participants attended.
 
"These regional celebrations that we do through ACM-W, bring that kind of focus on computing to the backyard of girls who might not be able to afford to get on a plane and fly to Orlando to participate in this large-scale event," says Tims. "Our events allow them to maybe drive and spend a couple of days listening to women in technology speak about their careers, about the work that they do. We also have employers who are interested in increasing the diversity at their companies and offer advice on participants' résumés."
Jeff Dominguez Content Manager

 Jeff Dominguez is the Content Manager for the Center for Digital Education.