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.