Creating a Flood of Talent: Supporting Women in Computer Science Careers

Many women drop out of their computer science careers, leading to a gender gap and less diverse workforce. What causes this “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, and what can be done to patch the leaks?

In 1985, over a third of computer science degrees were awarded to women. Just fifteen years later, that number had shrunk to a mere eighteen percent. A field that had once drawn numerous women began to lose its appeal. Despite the massive emphasis on STEM education and specific programs directed at women, there remains to this day a significant disparity, as men attain eighty percent of computer science degrees.

For a while, computer science has had an image problem of not being seen as “feminine.” The general impression of a room full of computer engineers tends more in the direction of young guys who haven’t showered recently, downing gallons of soda, rather than something that would appeal to young women choosing a career. Accordingly, around . percent of college-bound women intend to major in computer science.

Additionally, there can be a strong negative bias against women in computer science. At times this manifests as a prejudice that computer science is too difficult for women. Sometimes, the male-dominated environment isn’t as hospitable to women. And cultural factors in America have long reinforced the idea that boys prefer science and math. This is reflected in both the toys given to young children and the later guidance counseling kids receive in high school. Gender bias in science-related fields continues to impede women from continuing.

As noted above, “computer science” evokes a narrow view of the field, one that is not always appealing to women or representative of the actual opportunities. There are many broad applications of computing, and as women are given more information about what can be achieved in the field – and more examples of role models they find relatable – they will no longer discount computer science as irrelevant to their interests or inappropriate for girls. This can also help to counter the widely studied “imposter syndrome,” where someone who feels they do not belong experiences pressure to perform perfectly or leave. One theory is that this dynamic and other stereotypes are primary contributors to the “leaky” STEM pipeline.

While there are clearly family factors that can help or hinder a woman’s advancement in the field of computer science, schools and colleges can play a pivotal role in encouraging more women to pursue computing.

Most American elementary schools provide little in the way of computer education. At best, technology classes offer proficiency in word processing or basic coding. If a woman shows up in a computer engineering class, already a minority, her confidence will be greatly increased if she has had more prior exposure to the subject matter. By increasing and diversifying course offerings, schools can help women be more prepared for higher-level classes at the collegiate level, which will improve retention.

Simply by rebranding a computer science class as “computational problem-solving,” Harvey Mudd College was able to attract a much higher percentage of female students.They also provided research opportunities early on in their programs for women. Additionally, administrators at this school regularly take many of their female students to the Grace Hopper conference, the largest gathering focused on women in computer science.

Guidance counselors can also help to encourage women in STEM by helping female students make the connection between high performance in math and science classes and future success in STEM careers. Rather than dismissing a high-level math class as merely college preparatory, women can be encouraged to notice that they have the skills necessary to succeed as engineers and scientists.

It is hard to be a minority. One way to address this dynamic at the college level has been to develop multiple introductory computer science courses that divide students according to their prior experience. This allows students who are less familiar with the concepts to be in a class that is tailored to them, rather than lumping all students into the same “Comp Sci 101” that will highlight differences. As women see that they are indeed able to master the material, in an environment that builds their confidence over time.

When high schools and colleges are able to point to successful women who contribute to their fields in vital ways, girls will have more role models and a broader understanding of the opportunities available in computer science. Businesses and organizations that realize the importance of diversity in computer science and among their employees can partner with schools to highlight success stories. Publishing this information in a way that targets students can continue to spread the word that women are good at STEM.

Secondly, organizations can offer more internship opportunities for young women at all stages of their computer science careers. Early exposure, even in entry-level positions, can encourage women that they are not “imposters,” but actually key contributors. This will boost confidence and increase retention overall.

Third, corporations could consider creating and codifying mentoring opportunities for their female engineers. Mentoring is especially important for underrepresented groups. Organizations that highlight mentoring in their recruitment will have higher success at attracting and retaining more diverse candidates.

Finally, corporate America could remind high school and college students that there is good money to be made in computer science. Programming jobs command, on average, $20,000 more and are growing twelve percent faster than the market average. A stable and well-paying career appeals to everyone.

These simple changes can have a profound impact on fixing the leaky STEM pipeline. As Karen Purcell, founder of PK Electrical, said, “If we want to attract the best and brightest minds into the fields that will advance us as a people, a country, and a planet, we can no longer look to only half of the population.”