Missing an opportunity

Given that computer science is one of the majors with the best job prospects, that it’s still a growth industry, how do you account for these proportions?

Computer science is an incredibly promising major, especially for a young woman. That and engineering are among the college degrees that can offer the highest incomes and the most flexibility — attributes widely cited for drawing many women into formerly male-dominated fields like medicine. Writing code and designing networks are also a lot more portable than nursing, teaching and other traditional pink-collar occupations. Yet just 0.4 percent of all female college freshmen say they intend to major in computer science. In fact, the share of women in computer science has actually fallen over the years. In 1990-91, about 29 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer and information sciences went to women; 20 years later, it has plunged to 18 percent. Today, just a quarter of all Americans in computer-related occupations are women.

Something is dissuading women from pursuing careers in computer science. I wonder what it is? Maybe it has something to do with bro culture.


  1. says

    Obviously in the past 20 years men and women have changed biologically in a way that has made men more and women less fit for computer science. It’s the only explanation that doesn’t challenge my biases makes sense!

  2. unbound says

    My daughter is intending to get into this area and, as a father, I am worried by the signs of what is going on. Although my company is, in reality, very strong about supporting diversity, I know that many corporations are diverse in PR name only. She won’t be in college for a couple of more years, so I won’t be able to get her actual experiences for 6 years or so.

  3. says

    When my wife and I were doing undergrad EE in the late 70s, there were no more than a few percent women in our classes (less at MIT, where she was). It looked like there was an upswing during the next couple of decades, and I’ve certainly worked with more than a few women over the years. It would be a shame if we’re now falling back.

  4. mikehuben says

    One approach to a solution:

    Girls Who Code

    “The Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program represents an innovative approach to computer science education, pairing 300+ hours of intensive instruction in robotics, web design, and mobile development with engaging, career-focused mentorship and exposure led by the industry’s top female entrepreneurs and engineers.”

    “Girls Who Code has packaged its signature program and curriculum for replication inside schools and community organizations in its Girls Who Code Clubs. Now in pilot programs in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, Girls Who Code Clubs will launch nationwide soon. Stay tuned for more.”

  5. magistramarla says

    Our oldest daughter is one of those rare young women who went into the STEM field.
    She looks and acts like a female version of her father, so no surprise:
    He has an EE degree, computer engineering specialty – her first degree was exactly that.
    His Masters degree is in computational neuroscience – so is hers.
    His first two degrees were in biology and chemistry – her PHD is in neurobiology.
    He’s working on the computer science PHD. There was only one woman in the PHD program with him, along with six or eight other men.
    The daughter has complained that it is still difficult for women to get into tenure tracks, especially in research fields.

    She’s now working for the NSF, and her special interest is in promoting programs that might interest women and minorities in STEM programs.
    mikehuben – has anyone worked on getting NSF grants for the Girls Who Code programs?
    This seems to be right down their alley, especially for my daughter’s office.

    Yeah – even though I’m a Latin teacher (retired), not a scientist, Jim!! – I’ve lived with science geeks most of my life. Is it any wonder that I love Pharyngula?

  6. MJP says

    There is definitely a bro culture in the software industry. My last job was full of people drinking alcohol in the workplace and making sexist jokes. Another coworker described the place as “like a fraternity.” It was a nightmare for me, and I’m a man.

    A different software company in my area titles its job postings as “Foosball, Beer, and Code.” It’s a shame, too, because they’re using functional programming languages that I like, but they’re openly advertising their nightmarish bro culture.

  7. says


    Girls Who Code

    While I think it’s a good idea to get girls interested in (and maintaining passion for) technology related fields, I’d love to know how this addresses “bro culture”.

    The problem in many traditionally male occupations women are pushed out by everything from the chilly climate to harassment to assault. How is a pink website going to stop that?

  8. eliza says

    I usually lurk, but I’m sorry, this is one of my pet peeves, so I must comment. As a woman with an advanced degree in computer science, my guess is that women aren’t dissuaded by bro culture. Women are dissuaded from pursuing computer science because there’s no damned point. People like to cite these statistics, that computer science is a growth industry, that there are jobs, and it is a big, fat, lie.

    When the tech industry complains about there not being enough applicants for jobs, about there being some shortage of skilled labor, they are lying through their teeth. What they mean is that they have a shortage of close, personal friends who are qualified to do the work. However, they don’t actually ever do open hires. I’ve been looking for a job in computing for over 10 years. Although to be honest there’s some learned helplessness in the equation and I don’t bother looking as often as I used to. I am a very good programmer. I am very smart. I keep up my skills. I was the top of all my classes (and the only woman) through undergrad. I was good enough to get into a graduate program (only woman there too). I was good enough to graduate from that. I was good enough to have several publications. Right now I’m scraping by hand to mouth teaching computer science as an adjunct because I’m unemployable. I know my stuff or I couldn’t teach, right? But I’m not actually employable because in STEM, skills and qualifications are meaningless. Only connections matter, and I don’t have those.

    But I’ve still never, ever, ever, in my entire life, seen a job posted in computing that didn’t require at least 4 years of experience in industry. Not just in industry, but often in industry using a particular software package. I think the fear is that if they hire just anyone who is qualified, it will turn out that computer programmers are a dime a dozen and their degrees will lose value. So the entire culture is built around the notion of creating artificial perception of shortage. I almost feel like my teaching is unethical, since I know my students won’t be getting jobs either, no matter how amazing they are, unless they have the right connections, which I certainly can’t help give them. But I love teaching and I love programming and, while it probably doesn’t pay as well as being a barista, it’s the closest job I can get to doing what I love.

    So why aren’t women going into computer science? Because they aren’t born with 4 years of experience in industry. And there’s no way to get that 4 years of experience if you don’t already have it. It would be pretty damned trivial to get rid of the shortage of unskilled technical labor. All they’d have to do is hire anyone qualified who didn’t already have experience instead of hiding all the jobs behind an experience wall. But that would never happen.

    So quit telling women they should study computer science, because it’s a waste of time. Anyone who loves programming should find a different profession where they have a future then program as a hobby. So should anyone else who doesn’t have close friends and family in hiring positions in the industry. Absent that, no one will never get that magic 4 years that will qualify them for jobs. People would be way better off investing their energy in a field that hires qualified people out of college. Otherwise you’ll just end up with a fancy but ultimately pointless piece of paper. Unless the industry collectively gets over that 4 years of experience thing and saves those secret 0-4 year jobs for close, personal friends, it will never see any diversity. Bro culture’s got nothing to do with that.

  9. crosswind says

    I knew when I applying for programs that engineering and computer science were highly male dominated, but it wasn’t until I was in the classroom that it really hit home just how ridiculously lopsided it was. In many of my classes, it was maybe one or two women out of 20 or 30 students. It was a bit of a shock, a sudden realization that gender imbalances weren’t quite as benign a problem as I’d thought.

  10. mikes says

    “Unlocking the Clubhouse” addresses this in depth : social scientist Jane Margolis and computer scientist and educator Allan Fisher examine the many influences contributing to the gender gap in computing. The book is based on interviews with more than 100 computer science students of both sexes from Carnegie Mellon University, a major center of computer science research, over a period of four years, as well as classroom observations and conversations with hundreds of college and high school faculty. The interviews capture the dynamic details of the female computing experience, from the family computer kept in a brother’s bedroom to women’s feelings of alienation in college computing classes. The authors investigate the familial, educational, and institutional origins of the computing gender gap. They also describe educational reforms that have made a dramatic difference at Carnegie Mellon — where the percentage of women entering the School of Computer Science rose from 7% in 1995 to 42% in 2000 — and at high schools around the country. The percentage of women entering is less relevant than the percentage graduating. C-MU lists their CS graduation rate as now hovers around 33%, almost twice the national percentage, so there’s still a lot of work to be done.

  11. left0ver1under says

    Something is dissuading women from pursuing careers in computer science. I wonder what it is? Maybe it has something to do with bro culture.

    It seems more like a gradual “weeding out” of girls, teens and women from math and science, not something that happens all at one with a glass ceiling. At younger ages, the easily discouraged are targeted (the “math class is tough” crap from Barbie), then those who are self-driven get weeded out through harassment.

    In high school there were very few girls in my math, chemistry and compsci classes. And in college (information systems isn’t strictly compsci, but close enough) the same “bro culture” existed. One of the instructors at the college I attended regularly making “jokes” about breasts in classes. Women students were uncomfortable with it, easily discerned by their lack of laughter while males did laugh. Complaints were punished with lower grades, something he could easily defend doing.

  12. johnmoore says

    It’s not that there are no jobs in computer science or programming, but maybe it’s just that the field is too volatile. By the time you finish your degree, the market for computer skills could have changed drastically. For example, you might study Chinese, but then it turns out all the jobs have moved over to India. By the time you get to India, the jobs have moved on to Indonesia or some other place.

    In the early days it was possible for individuals to program pioneering software, and that gave programmers great power. Nowadays, a lot of programming has settled into a more routine job, and it’s typically done by much larger teams. That’s where the bro culture takes over, unfortunately.

  13. Pike Wake Turbulence says

    I’m currently working as a consultant at the IT department of one of the biggest retail companies in Sweden (I can’t really write the name of the company for contractual reasons, but think of a Swedish chain of clothing stores and you’re probably right). When I started here I immediately noted that the gender distribution here was very close to 50-50. I also noted that this is the case for all positions. During my almost 20 years in the IT business I have actually had more female managers than male, and there has always been a good gender balance among project managers and analysts. Here, though, the balance is good even in the departments/roles where you usually see an almost complete dominance by men, e.g. operations, service technicians, back end development. I also get the impression that this more the result of a thought-out recruiting process than any heavy-handed “affirmative action”.

    So, what’s the result of this, apart from the fact that H&R can pat themselves on the back for not being bigots?

    It’s hard to say if the gender balance is the cause or the effect of the company culture. But I see that many things I associate with the “bro culture” are almost absent here. There is no management worship, no “hero” developers who can dictate their own terms, less fear of admitting mistakes or lack of knowledge.

    I’m not saying that this is a Utopia, but I think it’s a good argument for better gender balance in IT.

  14. mordred says

    Reading stuff like that makes me wonder, is that “bro culture” thing more of a problem on your side of the Atlantic? I thought here in Germany we had more or less the same traditional western culture baggage.

    Back in university and now working as a programmer, I can clearly see we have way to few women in the technical jobs, but I can’t remember ever having experienced what you describe as bro-culture in my particular field. Yes, I’m male and a local and sometimes a bit dense so I might just have missed what the few women I met experienced.

    The problems I saw seemed more to be people expecting women to be worse than the guys, which among other things resulted in most male students being annoyingly nice and helpful to their female colleagues (I plead guilty here, sorry!) and people seeming to be rather to ready to recommend a different carrier if things didn’t go smooth.

    Does any here have experience to compare or a pointer to some articles? “Bro Culture, and International Comparison” ;-)

  15. Pike Wake Turbulence says

    I can’t really tell if “bro culture” is more of a problem in the US, but I can definitely say that the problem exists on our side of the pond

    One of the reasons I even noticed the situation at my current job is that I have experience the absolute opposite. I have been in organizations where women have been either completely absent or treated with everything from patronizing to outright hostility. I know managers who openly state that they do not hire young women “because they have a tendency to get pregnant.” I have also worked at one company where male developers routinely got administration privileges to their workstations, while women had to go through helpdesk any time they needed to install something.

    When places and people like that are around, who can be surprised when women choose to work elsewhere?

  16. mordred says

    I can’t really tell if “bro culture” is more of a problem in the US, but I can definitely say that the problem exists on our side of the pond

    The problem clearly exists! Exactly the patronizing you describe is what I noticed.

    From other comments and articles here and elsewhere I got the impression that at college and in the companies in the US there was a strong “Beer, Football and Harassment” among the techies. Something I did not witness in my immediate surroundings. By all our faults the geeks around me did not really fall into that category.

    As I said, I’m quite conscious that I as a male (and not really socially competent) probably missed quite a lot that was going on, that’s why I’m asking.

    Thinking about the problem reminded me of a few things I experienced when tutoring some schoolkids in math. Most of my pupils were girls and mostly they were quite capable at math, as soon as I had set down and explained the basic points their teachers never bothered to explain because he had given up on them from the start! And even when I convinced them they were way better at the stuff than they had thought, they would not take advantage of that and broaden their carrier choices, because they had been brought up that math and science could never be interesting for a woman.

  17. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    I think that Eliza@8 brings up an important point–there are lots of programmers out there who are unable to find programming work, despite the loud complaints of tech companies. Companies nowadays are not looking for engineers or programmers–they are looking for “skills”–a specific set of abilities and experience that allows them to insert the new hire into a position and have them “contribute” from day one, no training or ramp up required. The situation is further exacerbated for programmers because they are competing against talent in Bangalore, India as well as locally. Often, the people making hiring decisions will not understand the process of coding well enough to see what they are giving up, viewing each subroutine as a widget they can simply plug into the overall code and expect to work seamlessly. With such a success-driven attitude, why would they value skills like debugging and trouble-shooting? An experienced programmer who knows the code, the organization, etc. is the last thing managers want, as they will inhibit your freedom by making you do things the right way. And if things don’t work, the managers just fire an employee 8000 miles away that they will never meet and blame everything on them.

    MBAs run the world–it’s the revenge of the C students.

  18. crocodoc says

    The first comment says it all. This is just cut & paste, please don’t beat me up for it:

    “How Do You Change a Bro-Dominated Culture?”

    This is a deliberate misuse of language. It’s not a “bro-dominated” culture, but a “bro-CREATED” culture. Men invented the tech industry, that’s why they dominate it. Men are the reason this very article is able to get out to millions since they invented both the hardware and software and founded the companies. (Yes, I’m aware some women were involved, but it’s men that did the heavy lifting.)

    Why should men have to change their own culture because women say so? Men were the ones who paid the dues. Women can’t just expect to walk in and change everything.

    What’s happening with feminists culture is now that women aren’t getting married, they expect to “marry” companies and attempt to change them as they did with husbands. This article is the latest example of how that’s being done and I hope people will take note of the Orwellian misuse of language in the headline.

  19. says

    Also, though I sympathize strongly with Eliza, I doubt that the situation re: hiring is specific to programming and tech companies. I gradauted in ’09 with a BS in environmental science; it took me til this year to find a permanent job even vaguely related to my skills. My sweetheart got his J.D. and passed the bar in ’08 and it’s the same for him.

    This exploitative economy is just sucking the life out of everyone except the super-rich.

  20. Howard Bannister says

    I recently had a chance to look at resumes for a starting-level programmer position my employer is hiring for. I’d advised a friend fresh from college to apply.

    This entry level position was filled with applications from thirty-year veterans with an impressive array of degrees. He stood zero chance against this field. We literally had our pick of experienced, polished programmers.

    Fuck’s sake, this is entry-level government work–the pay is terrible!

    That’s how the economy is looking, right now. Right here, right now.

  21. Jim Rogers says

    The programming world described here is not the one I’ve experienced over the last 15 years. The behavior described in some of these comments would have got you summarily fired from any of the many companies I’ve worked at, or with, over the years. And I’ve worked with many talented and respected female programmers, managers, testers, etc (though of course they’re in the minority.)

    Maybe I’m lucky, maybe it’s because I’m in the South. Either way, I hope it means that there’s an opportunity for women to vote with their feet and find professional companies. I can tell you they exist, and everyone in Baton Rouge is hiring right now. C’mon down. Louisiana Women in Technology

  22. says

    @19: Individual men (mostly — though I’m personally well acquainted with one woman who had a hand in it) may have created tech, but not “men” as a grand abstraction. And much of the current crop of dude-bros weren’t even in primary school yet when the microcomputer and the internet were being invented. They didn’t pay those “dues”. (That would be my generation and older). So what is this “bro-culture” that is supposed to have existed from time immemorial, to which today’s 20 or 30-something techies presume a birth-right, with no stinky grrlz allowed?

    And the writer can take his pretentious invocation of Orwell and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

  23. vaiyt says

    @Eamon Knight

    That’s exactly what I think when I see sexists trying to piggyback themselves on the achievements of other men. What magic element in having a penis makes Dudebro Programmer #1985420 share accolades with Tim Berners-Lee for invention of the WWW?

  24. abb3w says

    The good news is there’s a fair bit of research on this being done (EG), often in coordination with universities actively looking to address the problem.

    The bad news is @8 eliza is largely right about the market for CS.

    I recall hearing a coder acquaintance of mine tell of showing up to interview (largely for laughs) for a job that listed “Required: 7 years experience with FooPackage”. When the HR droid opened by asking why he should be hired he informed them that FooPackage had only been in commercial release for only five years, that before going to work with it commercially he had been one of only four people who had been in from the start of its two year development cycle, and that no other member of the dozen or so dev team members had done work with the software within the last three years — meaning that there was literally no other person on earth who came within two years of job’s claimed requirements. And incidentally, the salary they were offering was less than half his present one — were they inclined to change the salary offer? No? Well, they’d be unlikely to get anyone with more than a year’s experience for that; buh-bye.

    Corporate IT culture seems to be dysfunctional verging on levels triggering catastrophic collapse, even more so than corporate management culture overall. This seems in part because most firms are unwilling to invest in broadening the size of the experienced worker pool by hiring junior people with less experience to develop them into people with more experience; and in part because management rarely is technically sophisticated enough to understand what they are “managing” to do so intelligently.

  25. Rey Fox says


    The poor guy could probably provide energy to an entire city with all the spinning he’s doing in his grave.

    In addition to the fallacy of composition of penis-havers, I note the authoritarianism very similar to that attributed to God by many Christians: He can do whatever He wants with His Creation. The “bro-created” dude is just missing a few capital letters.

  26. numerobis says

    Jobs listings typically “require” the impossible; apply anyway. I’ve heard that impossible requirements, in North American culture, scare more women away than men. A friend pointed me to joblint to avoid some blatant issues when I make a job listing.

    CMU has had great success at recruiting women to program. That was a major effort by multiple deans over the years, various department heads (note that the school of computer science has a half-dozen departments), and influential faculty. There was some, but not much, grumbling about “lowering standards” in order to get more women accepted, and the grumbling tended to be equal opportunity — part of how to get more women was to care a bit less whether the kids had built computers in middle school, so the men were also of “lower standard”.

    One critique though has been that CMU could double or triple the number of women studying CS only by poaching them from lesser schools. In other words, their success is not replicable everywhere: there aren’t enough girls applying out of high school.

    The Alice programming system (out of Randy Pausch’s lab; I didn’t keep track how it went after he passed away) was an attempt to nab girls before they’ve been discouraged from being creative with logic and math.

  27. oursally says

    All that sexist shit was one of the reasons I left the UK and came to Germany. You don’t see all that bro stuff often here and it gets squashed when it crops up. I don’t even bother counting how many women we have here – lots. Because they no longer tell them in school that they can’t do it. Because men can take parental leave too (and they do!). Because, when it gets down to the nitty gritty, there’s no difference in the work we do, whether male, female or none of the above.

    Umm, we’ve got jobs open here right now… get Googling, lasses.

  28. Markita Lynda—threadrupt says

    Eliza @8 — seriously!? Are you really not applying because they start out with ‘we want 4 years of experience’? Want ads are wish lists. Very few people have everything on the list. You go in with what you have and show them how the knowledge and attitude qualify you to do the work.

    I guess I was lucky that someone told me the month that IBM’s OS/360 was released, employment ads were asking for operators who had two, three, or four years of experience running it.

  29. khms says

    #31 Siobhan

    Don’t you sorta have to speak German?

    In an industry where the standard international language is English and a lot of the German material is translated from English (and not always very well), and where keywords and OS APIs are pretty much always in English, I’ll claim that English is rather more important, and that most people in that job speak at least some English – otherwise they’re in trouble.

    A certain ex-colleague from Russia had problems – his German was bad, but his English was worse. And I don’t speak Russian.

    For that matter, I remember a number of years back a meeting with two guys from Panasonic. One was a manager for the UK, and spoke reasonable English. One came directly from Japan. and I’d say about a third of his Engrish was understandable with some work. Even his colleague had trouble with it. And no, I don’t speak Japanese, either.

    As for culture, I’ll leave reporting that to the women – I’m one of those rather unobservant males. I certainly don’t trust my own expressions. Well, I’m going out on a limb and claim that whatever problems we have, a bro-culture is not usually it.

    But trust me – surviving without German is easier than without English. Well, with one caveat, and that is customer-facing positions.