Women In Computer Science–What Happened?

Years ago, when I was a student at Taylor University (in what is now the Taylor Computer Science and Engineering department) there were more women in computer science than there are today. The women did as well as the men under what I would call some challenges. Specifically they had a curfew (this was a long time ago) and the men didn’t. Many of the male students would stay up until all hours of the day and night working on projects while the women left the computer center at what would be generally considered a reasonable hour. And yet the women always had their projects in on time. Somehow that never registered with me back in the day. I was sort of oblivious to the fact that the women got more done in less time than most of the guys. Weird now that I think about it. We certainly didn’t have lower expectations for our female classmates. In fact the opposite is true.

I remember a field trip we took to a big computer conference in Chicago. Many of the exhibits had hired what we call today “booth babes” to decorate the booths and attract visitors. I’ll never forget the confused look on a male classmates face when he explained “the women at the booths don’t know anything. They are just there for decoration!” We, naive young people from a small college with a good percentage of women in CS, honestly expected women to know as much about computers as we did. And why not! We had female classmates who knew as much as we did. Most of us had been impressed with Grace Hopper who had come to campus to speak to the students and who several of us had had lunch with one day. She was amazing and seemed to know more than we ever could know.

My first few jobs after graduation also saw me working with many women. The small software house I worded for in my first job had more women programmers than men. Tough smart women who worked hard, worked smart and had actual lives besides. Husbands, kids, the whole bit. Seemed pretty normal to me. It was years before I worked for a male boss. My wife also worked as a programmer in those days BTW. Her programs had this annoying habit of working the first time she ran them. It was enough to give me a complex.

Somewhere along the road things changed and women started becoming the minority in the field. I don’t know where it started or how. I know that if it was a deliberate effort on the part of men I missed the meeting. But happen it did. From a time before my time when software was considered “women’s work” until now when the view of too many is that it is just for men things changed. Not in a good way either. Now we are playing catch up trying to restore some semblance of balance.

This is a problem that many in academia and industry do recognize. Recently the New York Times had an article about Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and an outstanding computer scientist in her own right, and her efforts to improve the ratio of women to men in her college. A number of universities are similarly trying to increase the number of women in their programs. A number of companies are likewise trying to fill the computer science pipeline with programs such as DigiGirlz (which I wrote about here at DigiGirlz Cambridge MA). But there are stereotypes out there that are hard to overcome these days.

I firmly believe that we need more diversity in computer science. More women. More ethnic and racial minorities. More people who are not “pencil headed geeks with limited social skills.” BTW we don’t have as many of those as a lot of people think we do! We face a great many problems for which great software is part of the answer. But to really live up to that potential the field needs people of all types. Those of us already in the field really need to do our part to make the rest feel welcome. We need them more than they need us.