Where are the women in Computer Science?

At the women’s industry awards, a lot of the speeches revolved around the topic of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) – the speakers said they wanted to recruit more women, but they did not find enough female candidates post-graduation.

If we look at the number of women graduating from French universities, all specialties combined, the figure is increasing, or at least not decreasing.

According to the IESF survey (INGÉNIEURS ET SCIENTIFIQUES DE FRANCE), the number of graduates increased from 4% in 1968 to 15% in 1985, and 28-29% since 2012. We have seen a feminisation in scientific studies, although we can wonder why this figure has been stagnant for about 5 years.

But my real question is: “Why is there a drop in the field of computer science? ”

“Computer science is the only area where, after having been proportionally well represented, the share of women has declined sharply, while in all scientific and technical fields it increased from 5% in 1972 to 26% in 2010”, writes Isabelle Collet, professor of education and research in the sciences of education at the University of Geneva, in “Le Monde”.

And we are not talking about any decline. We are talking about the number halving in 20 years. I remember in my engineering school, the IT section was highly feminized compared to us mechanics! This was 30 years ago. For example, INSA Rennes: 55% women in computer science in 1979; 50% in 1980 … 14% in 2001! They are more women in Civil Engineering and Urban Planning (25%)!

The famous representations of gender-oriented fields, which discourage girls at a very young age from studying science, do not explain this phenomenon. Otherwise, it would be a more general problem.

Some hypotheses exist, such as the one that suggests that computer science convey a masculine image – the infamous archetypical “Geek”, which could justify why women do not recognize themselves there. Another one claims that it was a discipline little known in the 70s, so it did not attract men.

Continuing my research, I found this article from 2014, « When did women stop coding? » which I found interesting. It may be only part of the explanation, but it’s certainly worth a look.

The pioneers in computer science were women. For a long time, the number of women studying computer science grew faster than that of men. In 1984, something changed. There was a plateau, then a sharp dive.

Researchers discovered that this coincided with the influx of personal computers in homes.

Now, like me, you be scratching your head and ask why this is!

The explanation that follows, while surprising, makes perfect sense.

These early personal computers weren’t much more than toys. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys.. This is when the clichés were formed. I remember well in my final year of highschool how boys were trying out programming of basic games. There were no girls doing this in their spare time.

Thus, in terms of computer science studies, there was now a gap between boys and girls. The boys had been initiated. With the leveling up, teachers assumed that the foundations were acquired, and directly approached the level “2”, leaving the girls on the side of the road.

Now, institutions are brimming with innovative ideas to turn the tide, but we also need to learn from our mistakes and understand the impact of these toys on girls and boys.

Note – I managed to write a whole article about women in IT without mentioning Ada Lovelace once …

Sources:National Public Radio – When women stopped coding

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