By Louise Ann Lyon, PhD | November 11, 2014
Everywhere we turn, articles warn of the imminent loss of U.S. preeminence in science, technology, engineering and math fields. How frustrating, then, that computer science has actually experienced a slow decrease in the percentage of female undergraduates over the past 20 years. This trend cannot serve the field, the nation or our future. We need to diversify tech education if we wish to take advantage of our abundant local talent.
Including more women in technology education and the workforce can also help us enrich and strengthen the field. For example, more diverse groups solve complex problems more effectively. Groups with more women demonstrate a rise in collective intelligence (capacity that emerges through collaboration and collective efforts). Successful startups are likely to have more women in senior positions than unsuccessful companies.
In a recent ethnographic study I conducted of women and the tech field, I set out to better understand why so few women major in computer science, and whether those reasons are related to race/ethnicity. At the college level, the ratio of women to men getting bachelor’s degrees in computer science varies across different ethnic groups. For example, it is highest among blacks (30%) and lowest among whites (15%). What accounts for these differences? What is happening culturally and experientially for women at the point where they enter into a major and set the direction of their future careers?
In my study, I found that as women traverse different settings between home and school, a range of interactions gives them impressions about the field of technology. These interactions and the ideas they spark tend to follow particular societal and cultural storylines. The storylines tell young women who belongs in computing fields, what computing jobs entail, and how an individual should choose a major.
Unfortunately, the conclusions women gather from these implicit messages are that computer science is a masculine field best suited for men—particularly White and Asian men—who love computers and sit in dark rooms all day doing programming. Women contrast these storylines with their own interests. For example, they often want to work with and help people. They are drawn to humanitarian careers. They believe their choice of major should be based on passion or interest. In this context, they are likely to eliminate computing majors from their list of possibilities.
These storylines also appear to have different nuances for women from varying ethnic backgrounds. For example, some cultural backgrounds emphasize home as a woman’s sphere and do not value computing careers, particularly for women. This discourages girls from pursuing computing. Girls from working class backgrounds often receive the societal message that they are not as smart or as good in school as girls from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Attractive young women are given the message that they do not belong in math and related fields (“You’re too pretty to do math”). Women who pursue computing majors must find a way to swim against this wide tide of negative expectations.
Despite what might seem a dismal forecast, women do discover and pursue tech education, often with great delight and passion. This study uncovered promising practices that can be enhanced and expanded to encourage girls and women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to explore and pursue computing. For example:
Perhaps this is a clue explaining the larger proportion of minority women earning computer science majors. Making the biases that have resulted in underrepresentation explicit can help all women evaluate their abilities in tech education more realistically. This can build confidence in their likelihood of success.
These are exciting first steps that can be put to practical use by anyone interested in supporting greater diversity in the tech field. I am eager to see more research exploring ways to diversify tech education. We need to develop evidence-based solutions to the gender and ethnic gaps in the field. We need programs that increase diverse students’ interest in and intention to pursue computer science careers. We must build strategies to improve the mathematics performance of underrepresented students (girls, Latinos, African-Americans, rural youth) during the transition from elementary to middle school. Partnerships between high schools, colleges and employers can build new career pathways for a wide spectrum of students.
The talent and capability being overlooked by our current system of practice—including storylines that exclude participation of girls and women in technology fields—is nothing short of tragic. I look forward to the considerable advantage we will gain as a culture and a nation when we include this impressive pool of talent in the emerging world of technology.
Louise Ann Lyon, PhD, received her doctorate in Learning Sciences from the College of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle. She was also awarded a Graduate Certificate in Feminist Studies from the College of Arts and Sciences. She has a masters in Computer Science and has worked as both an academic lecturer and a software engineer. She can be reached at email@example.com.