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Women and computing


There is mounting evidence that many women opting for careers in computing either drop out of the academic pipeline or choose not to get advanced degrees and enter industry instead. Consequently, there are disproportionately low numbers of women in academic computer science and the computer industry. The situation may be perpetuated for several generations since studies show that girls from grade school to high school are losing interest in computing.Statistics, descriptions offered by women in academic and industrial computing, and the research findings reported later in this article indicate that much is amiss. But the point of what follows is not to place blame—rather it is to foster serious reflection and possibly instigate action. It behooves the computer community to consider whether the experiences of women in training are unique to computer science. We must ask why the computer science laboratory or classroom is “chilly” for women and girls. If it is demonstrated that the problems are particular to the field, it is crucial to understand their origins. The field is young and flexible enough to modify itself. These women are, of course, open to the charge that they describe the problems of professional women everywhere. But even if the juggling acts of female computer scientists in both academia and industry are not particular to computing, American society cannot afford to ignore or dismiss their experiences; there is an indisputable brain drain from this leading-edge discipline.A look at statistics reveals a disquieting situation. According to Betty M. Vetter, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology in Washington, DC, while the number of bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science are dropping steadily for both men and women, degrees awarded to women are dropping faster, so they are becoming a smaller proportion of the total. . Bachelor's degrees peaked at 35.7% in 1986, masters also peaked that year at 29.9%, and both are expected to continue to decline. “We have expected the numbers to drop for both, due to demographics such as fewer college students,” says Vetter, “but degrees awarded women are declining long before reaching parity.” (See Table I.) Vetter also would have expected computer science to be “a great field for women,” as undergraduate mathematics has been; female math majors have earned 45% of bachelor's degrees during the 1980s. On the other hand, math Ph.D.'s awarded to women have gone from only 15.5% to 18.1% in this decade, which is more in line with computer science Ph.D.'s earned by women. In 1987, 14.4% of all computer science Ph.D.'s went to women; this number declined to 10.9% the following year. Although the number almost doubled between 1988 and 1989 with women receiving 17.5% of Ph.D.'s, Vetter points out that the number remains very small, at 107. Since these figures include foreign students who are principally male, women constitute a smaller percentage of that total than they do of Ph.D.'s awarded to Americans. But while American women received 21.4% of Ph.D.'s awarded to Americans, that is not encouraging either, says Vetter. Again, the number of American women awarded computer science Ph.D.'s was miniscule, at 72. And taking a longer view, the awarding of significantly fewer bachelor's and master's degrees to women in the late 1980s will be felt in seven to eight years, when they would be expected to receive their Ph.D.'s.How do these figures compare with those of other sciences and engineering? In her 1989 report to the National Science Foundation, “Women and Computer Science,” Nancy Leveson, associate professor of information and computer science at the University of California at Irvine, reports that in 1986, women earned only 12% of computer science doctorates compared to 30% of all doctorates awarded to women in the sciences. Leveson notes, however, that this includes the social sciences and psychology, which have percentages as high as 32 to 50. But the breakout for other fields is as follows: physical sciences (16.4%), math (16.6%), electrical engineering (4.9%), and other engineering ranges from 0.8% for aeronautical to 13.9% for industrial.Those women who do get computer science degrees are not pursuing careers in academic computer science. Leveson says women are either not being offered or are not accepting faculty positions, or are dropping out of the faculty ranks. Looking at data taken from the 1988-89 Taulbee Survey, which appeared in Communications in September, Leveson points out that of the 158 computer science and computer engineering departments in that survey, 6.5 percent of the faculty are female. One third of the departments have no female faculty at all. (See Tables III and IV.)Regarding women in computing in the labor force, Vetter comments that the statistics are very soft. The Bureau of Labor Statistics asks companies for information on their workforce, and the NSF asks individuals for their professional identification; therefore estimates vary. Table II shows that this year, women comprise about 35% of computer scientists in industry. And according to a 1988 NSF report on women and minorities, although women represent 49% of all professionals, they make up only 30% of employed computer scientists. “There is no reason why women should not make up half the labor force in computing,” Betty Vetter says, “It's not as if computing involves lifting 125 pound weights.”The sense of isolation and need for a community was so keen among women in computing, that in 1987 several specialists in operating systems created their own private forum and electronic mailing list called “Systers.” Founded and operated by Anita Borg, member of the research staff at DEC's Western Research Lab, Systers consists of over 350 women representing many fields within computing. They represent 43 companies and 55 universities primarily in the United States, but with a few in Canada, the United Kingdom, and France. Industry members are senior level and come from every major research lab. University members range from computer science undergraduates to department chairs. Says Borg, “Systers' purpose is to be a forum for discussion of both the problems and joys of women in our field and to provide a medium for networking and mentoring.” The network prevents these women, who are few and dispersed, from feeling that they alone experience certain problems. Says Borg, “You can spit out what you want with this group and get women's perspectives back. You get a sense of community.” Is it sexist to have an all-women's forum? “Absolutely not,” says Borg, “It's absolutely necessary. We didn't want to include men because there is a different way that women talk when they're talking with other women, whether it be in person or over the net. Knowing that we are all women is very important.” (Professional women in computer science who are interested in the Systers mailing list may send email to burden from women in computing seems to be very heavy indeed. Investigators in gender-related research, and women themselves, say females experience cumulative disadvantages from grade school through graduate school and beyond. Because statistical studies frequently come under fire and do not always explain the entire picture, it is important to listen to how women themselves tell their story. In the Sidebar entitled “Graduate School in the Early 80s,” women describe experiences of invisibility, patronizing behavior, doubted qualifications, and so on. Given these experiences, it is not surprising that many women find the academic climate inclement. But while more women may choose to contribute to research in industry, is the computer business really a haven for women, or just the only alternative? In the Sidebar entitled “The Workplace in the late '80s,” women in industry also tell their story and describe dilemmas in a dialogue on academia versus industry; this discussion erupted freely last Spring on Systers. In addition, findings of scholars conducting gender-related research are presented in a report of a workshop on women and computing. Finally, Communications presents “Becoming a Computer Scientist: A Report by the ACM Committee on the Status of Women in Computer Science.” A draft was presented at the workshop and the report appears in its entirety in this issue.

View this article in the ACM Digital Library.

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