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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Becoming a computer scientist


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It is well known that women are significantly underrepresented in scientific fields in the United States, and computer science is no exception. As of 1987- 1988, women constituted slightly more than half of the U.S. population and 45% of employed workers in the U.S., but they made up only 30% of employed computer scientists. Moreover, they constituted only 10% of employed doctoral-level computer scientists. During the same time period, women made up 20% of physicians and, at the doctoral level, 35% of psychologists, 22% of life scientists, and 10% of mathematicians employed in the U.S. On the other hand, there are some disciplines in which women represent an even smaller proportion at the doctoral level: in 1987-88, 8% of physical scientists, and only 2.5% of engineers were women [21].1 The underrepresentation of women in computer science is alarming for at least two reasons. First, it raises the disturbing possibility that the field of computer science functions in ways that prevent or hinder women from becoming part of it. If this is so, those in the discipline need to evaluate their practices to ensure that fair and equal treatment is being provided to all potential and current computer scientists. Practices that exclude women are not only unethical, but they are likely to thwart the discipline's progress, as potential contributors to the field are discouraged from participation. The second reason for concern about the underrepresentation of women in computer science relates to demographic trends in the U.S., which suggest a significant decrease in the number of white males entering college during the next decade. At the same time, the number of jobs requiring scientific or engineering training will continue to increase. Because white males have traditionally constituted the vast majority of trained scientists and engineers in this country, experts have predicted that a critical labor shortage is likely early in the next century [4, 25]. To confront this possibility, the federal government has begun to expend resources to study the problem further. A notable example is the establishment of a National Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. Their final report, issued in December of 1989, lists a number of government and industrial programs aimed at preventing a labor shortage by increasing the number of women and minorities trained as scientists and engineers [5]. In light of these facts, the Committee on the Status of Women in Computer Science, a subcommittee of the ACM's Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights, was established with the goal of studying the causes of women's continued underrepresentation in the field, and developing proposed solutions to problems found. It is the committee's belief that the low number of women working as computer scientists is inextricably tied up with the particular difficulties that women face in becoming computer scientists. Studies show that women in computer science programs in U.S. universities terminate their training earlier than men do. Between 1983 and 1986 (the latest year for which we have such figures) the percentage of bachelor's degrees in computer science awarded to women was in the range of 36-37%, while the percentage of master's degrees was in the range of 28-30s. During the same time span, the percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women has only been in the range of 10-12%, and it has remained at that level, with the exception of a slight increase in 1989 [16, 21]. Moreover, the discrepancy between the numbers of men and women continues to increase when we look at the people who are training the future computer scientists: women currently hold only 6.5% of the faculty positions in the computer science and computer engineering departments in the 158 Ph.D.-granting institutions included in the 1988- 1989 Taulbee Survey (See Communications September 1990). In fact, a third of these departments have no female faculty members at all [16]. This pattern of decreasing representation is generally consistent with that of other scientific and engineering fields [4, 25]. It is often described as “pipeline shrinkage”: as women move along the academic pipeline, their percentages continue to shrink. The focus of this report is pipeline shrinkage for women in computer science. We describe the situation for women at all stages of training in computer science, from the precollege level through graduate school. Because many of the problems discussed are related to the lack of role models for women who are in the process of becoming computer scientists, we also concern ourselves with the status of women faculty members. We not only describe the problems, but also make specific recommendations for change and encourage further study of those problems whose solutions are not yet well understood. Of course, our focus on computer science in the university by no means exhausts the set of issues that are relevant to an investigation of women in computer science. Most notably, we do not directly address issues that are of concern exclusively or primarily to women in industry. Although some of the problems we discuss are common to all women computer scientists, there are, without doubt, other problems that are unique to one group or the other. Nonetheless, the committee felt that an examination of the process of becoming a computer scientist provided a good starting point for a wider investigation of women in the field. Clearly, to increase the number of women in industrial computer science, one must first increase the number of women trained in the discipline. Thus, we need to consider why women stop their training earlier than men: too few women with bachelor's degrees in computer science translates into too few women in both industry and academia. Moreover, because of the documented positive effects of same-sex role models [12], it is also important to consider why women drop out in higher numbers than do men even later in their academic training: too few women with doctorate degrees results in too few women faculty members. This in turn means inadequate numbers of role models for younger women in the process of becoming computer scientists.

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