Guest blogger: Karen Catlin
I laughed when my friend Susan said, "I thought CS was a girls' discipline." I was spending the weekend with girl friends from college, six of whom got their bachelor's degrees in computer science. Our conversation touched on lots of topics, including my work doing leadership coaching for technical women. Susan, a history major, had no idea that women were underrepresented in computer science. Her experience was informed by her 6 friends who were CS majors, along with other women she knew who studied it in college. She was completely serious when she said that she thought CS was more popular with girls than boys.
We graduated in 1985, the year that made the record books in terms of the percentage of CS degrees awarded to women in the US. It was a whopping 38%! Since then, though, the numbers have dropped. As reported by the New York Times, the National Center for Education Statistics says that 18% of the CS undergraduate degrees in the US went to women in 2010. What a disappointing change from 1985.
But, based on my observations, the trend has reversed. Let me explain...
My daughter is a high school junior, and she wants to study computer science in college. We've been visiting schools with strong CS programs, and on each campus I ask about the gender ratio in their computer science departments. The answer has consistently been, "I don't have the exact numbers, but it's approaching 50-50". Wow!
I bet we've all heard about Harvey Mudd's excellent progress on improving the gender balance, and how 40% of their undergrad computer science degrees went to women in 2012. But, it looks like other schools are doing equally well. I spoke to CS professors at both Brown and Princeton, who assured me that the CS undergrads were 40%-50% women. I asked about it on tours at MIT, Harvard, and Tufts, and the tour guides all reported that there were about 50% female students in the CS department. At Harvard, the tour guide told me that, in 2007, they had 30 CS undergrads, only 3 of whom were women. In 2013, they now have 60 students, half of whom are women. Not only have they doubled the size of the program in six years, they have 10 times the number of women in that program. Double wow!
While my research is far from comprehensive or statistically relevant, I'm excited about it. I'm thrilled for my daughter, knowing that she has a great chance of being surrounded by other female students in her computer science classes and that she'll have great role models. I'm happy for the software industry in general, knowing that there is a growing pipeline of female talent to recruit from. Perhaps computer science is becoming a girls' discipline after all!
What is your experience? If you are currently in college studying computer science, or a recent graduate, I'd like to hear from you. Please add a comment about the gender ratio in your program. Thanks so much.
Karen Catlin, a former high-tech executive, is now a leadership coach and author of "Use Your Inside Voice", a blog about the intersection of leadership and parenting. She is passionate about helping technical women have successful careers.
4/15/2013 09:59:32 am
I'm a recent graduate. We were lucky to have 2 to 3 women out of 30 in a class.This may be different at the freshman level but there is a high dropout rate.
4/15/2013 12:28:41 pm
Thanks for sharing these numbers, Petra. What country are you located in?
4/16/2013 12:02:28 am
Picking up a few upper division classes in California before starting grad school. Classes are 15-20% women.
4/16/2013 01:14:48 am
Good to know, Kathy. Thank you.
4/18/2013 01:44:47 am
I work in the UK, I can't think of any Computing Depts that I know that have anything like 50:50 when it comes to gender. In our uni, it varies from course to course, but the business IT courses are about maybe 40:60 (female to male), while Software engineering & Computer Science, are, as others have suggested nearer 10:90
4/18/2013 02:46:33 am
Good to know. I'd love to hear from others in the UK as well. Is your university any different?
4/19/2013 04:49:00 am
Hi! I am an Assistant Professor in Pakistan (FAST-NU, Lahore), we have a male to female ratio of about 75:25 and it is improving! I hope to see even better numbers in near in future ...
4/20/2013 12:26:57 am
Thank you for sharing this ratio with us. Do you know about the work that Harvey Mudd (a private university in California) has done to improve the gender ratio? I wonder if you could apply them to your university. What I have heard is a) they've created different sections of the introductory CS class based on experience, to reduce how much intimidation is felt by students with no experience, and b) they let students choose from a variety of projects for an assignment so that students can pick what they are interested in working on while still having to learn the same algorithms, data structures, etc.
4/29/2013 05:16:19 am
In 2001 27.6% of people earning a bachelor's degree in computer science in the US were women. That number decresed to 18.2% in 2010.
4/29/2013 08:04:44 am
I believe 2010 will be the low point. It appears, from my anecdotal research, that things are changing for the better!
Nice information sharing by this blog about science!!I wonder if you could apply them to your university. What I have heard is a) they've created different sections of the introductory CS class based on experience, to reduce how much intimidation is felt by students with no experience, and b) they let students choose from a variety of projects for an assignment so that students can pick what they are interested in working on while still having to learn the same algorithms, data structures, etc.
2/3/2014 12:03:19 am
Thanks for joining the conversation, Jack. Harvey Mudd also sends its female CS majors to the Grace Hopper Celebration each year to meet, and be inspired by, thousands of other technical women.
Leave a Reply.