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Communications of the ACM


U.S. Women in Computing: Why Isn't It Getting Better?

Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Mark Guzdial

 Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher wrote about their landmark effort to improve the percentage of women in undergraduate computing at Carnegie Mellon University in their 2001 book "Unlocking the Clubhouse."  Their effort was successful, so clearly, it was possible to move the needle, to improve the percentage of women in computing.  Over 10 years later, where are we?

Lecia Barker (of NCWIT and the University of Texas at Austin) shared the below graph with me, pulled from US Department of Education IPEDS data.  As you can see, since 2005, the percent of bachelor's degrees in Computer Science awarded to women has dropped.  Computer Engineering has the lowest percent of degrees going to women among these listed, and Information Systems is plummeting.

When I posted this graph on my blog, Cameron Wilson of the ACM Education Policy Committee shared with me some similar data that he gathered, comparing the number of women graduating with BS, MS, and PhD degrees in CS.  As you can see, the number of women graduating with BS and PhD degrees in CS has dropped across the years shown (well, it's hard to tell with the PhD since the numbers are so low) -- but MS has increased.  Cameron says that virtually all of this is due to foreign students.  There is no increase in MS degrees among U.S. women.

This last week, Reuters reported on a survey of technology firms on women in management positions in their companies.


The number of women in senior technology positions at U.S. companies is down for the second year in a row, according to a survey published on Monday.

Nine percent of U.S. chief information officers (CIOs) are female, down from 11 percent last year and 12 percent in 2010, according to the survey by the U.S. arm of British technology outsourcing and recruitment company Harvey Nash Group.

About 30 percent of those polled said their information technology (IT) organization has no women at all in management. Yet only about half of survey respondents consider women to be under-represented in the IT department.

What's going on here?  We've known about the problem for over a decade, and yet we seem to be making little progress.  Why is that?


Could it be that we in the IT community are not yet convinced that there's a problem?  Improving the diversity of our field is not a problem that can be fixed top-down.  It's improved by changes in individual organizations, in the behavior of individuals. I was shocked at the last sentence in the Reuters quote above.  Only half of the survey respondents think that women are under-represented in their department, when 30% of those polled say that there are no women at all in IT management in their companies?  

NCWIT (National Center for Women & IT) has been explicitly tackling the challenge of documenting the need for more women in computing.  They've put together a tool for comparing (a) the number of computing degree graduates in a local region in the US (at the state or congressional district level), and (b) the number of jobs predicted in that same region.  The gap is enormous.  We're not producing nearly enough graduates to meet the needs.

Fortunately, there's hope for solving the problem of too few CS graduates.  We're still not adequately reaching half the population who would be great in CS: Women. There is no innate reason why women should not be half of the CS graduates, e.g., women have the same mathematics ability as men.  I know where we could find a lot more graduates, if we want to make the effort to engage female students, to market computing to them, and to change our culture so that the graduates succeed in their companies -- just as Margolis and Fisher told us over a decade ago.



You have a fascinating definition of "increased." In 2005, there were 5,000 female M.S. grads. In 2009, the number is LOWER. In what way is that an increase?


It is great that you highlight this issue, with 80% of the IT community being male, the more males that see it as an issue will help in creating change, imho. ICT women have been across this for a long time.
There is no one-step solution, it needs to be multi-layered, personalised, creative... but you know this already!

Mark Guzdial

To the first anonymous commenter: Agreed, and my apologies for my inaccuracy. It has increased "over the last three years in the graph."


You're absolutely right that there is no reason a woman would be any less able than a man in IT but how do you account for people's choices?

Could it be that women just have different interests than men? I grew up as a middle class american male and I went into IT because it interested me and I was passionate about computers and technology. Most of my (male and female) peers had similar experiences when choosing a career. Is there a reason to assume that most women are unable to follow their passions when choosing a career just because they are female? If this is the case (which I'm skeptical of), why does the blame fall squarely on the shoulders of the IT industry? It seems like a more fundamental problem with our society.

On the flip side, elementary/primary schools have a similar problem getting men to choose education as a career. Does that mean that more men should give up their career of choice to go into education so children can have more diversity in their teaching styles?

Mark Guzdial

Let's leave alone the issue of "blame." The US Computing industry has a labor shortage. The industry hires far fewer women than they might. Hiring more women could reduce the shortage, and could likely improve the quality of work because of the value of diversity. How do we attract more women? How do we retain more women? Certainly, there are issues of equity and "blame" as you suggest, but there are also completely pragmatic reasons for drawing more women to computing. How do we explain and market our opportunities, or change the jobs or culture, to appeal to women's interests?


I see that there is a comment already covering my question, but maybe I'll ask it in a different way. "There is no innate reason why women should not be half of the CS graduates" Is there a good reason why they should be? What are the pragmatic reasons for drawing more women to computing? Do they have to equal in everything? If they like Biology or Chemistry better, why can't they pursue what they like? I don't think that question has been answered.

Mark Guzdial

Women (and men) should absolutely pursue the occupations that most interest them, where they can best meet their potential, and where they can have the most positive impact. We in computing need more people. We get few women. Women can contribute to computing, and have a positive impact through computing. What can we in computing to do to engage more women, to recruit more women? The pragmatic reason is that we need people, and women represent a great opportunity for recruiting workers who can improve our field. The onus is on us, not women -- women should follow their passions. If we want women to help fill our labor shortage, we need to create opportunities for them to follow their passions in computing.


Please stop promulgating this labor shortage hoax!
There is no labor shortage in the US IT industry, current or impending! The IT salary trends show no such thing.
The IT industry is spreading this artificially concocted hoax to keep the salaries down.

It has always been hard to find qualified technical talent, but it does not mean that there is any catastrophic shortage that must be addressed through public policy. Middle-aged IT professionals suffer from age-discrimination, which is a huge problem in IT. In fact, seasoned, middle-aged IT professionals are chronically unemployed or underemployed; many of them are forced to switch careers altogether. Read Prof. Norm Matloff's writings to educate yourself on these issues.

IT as a profession has a very short half-life, one reason why many women may shy away from pursuing IT as a career. Please, do not use discredited arguments to promote what may be legitimate opinions.


Speaking as an American woman in IT, I'll tell you that there are reasons why women leave. When I started making choices to get CS education I was the only girl in a class of boys. It was isolating for me, even when the boys weren't actually saying "girls can't program" their conversations often focused on topics I didn't care about (e.g., science fiction) or were about my girl friends (e.g. their looks). Later on there was an incident of sexual harassment, including a threat that if I spoke about it the person would tell my advisor I was not fit for graduate school. So I had to tell my advisor myself. He was great, but it was incredibly hard for me to discuss this with a man, even my advisor.

Computing is full of wonderful thoughtful people. I enjoy it, and its the reason I made it through. It kept me going when the decision to leave was a decision to not be isolated, to not endure sexist remarks or sexual harassment. Perhaps we need to know more about how much isolation and sexism remains in the field. If its gone then perhaps we are finally ready to ask questions about innate reasons, but I'm not sure that the isolation or sexism has gone yet.

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