Women in computing: The numbers problem

It&rsquo;s no secret that tech has gender issues. On top of a workforce and student population that has a higher male-to-female ratio than almost any other field, harassment, discrimination and sexism are prolific in the industry. These issues have been heavily reported on. <em>The New York Times</em>, <em>CNN</em>, <em>The New Yorker</em> and <em>Newsweek</em> are among the many major publications that have run stories detailing the issues that face women in the industry and the pipeline &shy;&mdash; the post-secondary system that supplies organizations with t&shy;alent.</p>

It was the pipeline issue that got me interested in this topic. While there has been mainstream coverage on women studying software, it has been either general or focused on major U.S. schools. I want to report on this topic as it relates to UW and build on some great work done by the more vocal members of the student body — including Julia Nguyen’s, a fourth-year CS student who has been vocal about the issues facing women and minorities in tech, “Exclusion and Exceptionality in the Pipeline” as published in Model View Culture.

There are gender issues throughout STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), but for the purposes of this series I’m going to focus on computing. I am by no means suggesting that the others don’t deserve attention, but I’d need many more words than I have to cover everything and this keeps it nicely specific, because it’s a BIG topic.

Before I get started, I want to address something up front: I am a white male writing about the adversities that face a minority group that I am distinctly not a member of. While I was reporting this story, I had to remain conscious that I properly represent the views of the women I was talking with, and as I wrote it I was careful not to speak for them. My goal is to accurately reflect the current situation facing women in the industry and at UW, and report the information I have gathered faithfully.

Let’s dive in, shall we.

The cold, hard numbers

Walk into almost any software engineering or computer science class at UW and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see more men than women. Typically the ratio isn’t even close — in many classes you can count the number of women on one hand. 

In the fall of 2013 there were a total of 2,217 students enrolled in computer science (CS) at UW, and of those a meagre 339 — that’s 15 per cent — were women. Engineering fares only slightly better at 19 per cent and math boast a comparatively impressive 42 per cent female enrolment. From 2006-2013, the number of female students in CS rose about 70 per cent, compared to only 37 percent in male enrolment. While that is pretty impressive growth, when you’re catching up from a 1,539 person gap in male-female enrolment, it isn’t going to get you close.

Across the U.S. and Canada, other universities and colleges see similar rates: women made up 14 per cent of computer science graduates in 2013 according to the Computing Research Association. In Ontario, York has slightly better numbers than Waterloo with 16 per cent, while McMaster, Western and Guelph all come in at or below 12 per cent. 

There are, however, notable exceptions to this. Staying local, Queen’s more than doubles Waterloo’s ratio with 32 per cent female computer science majors and the University of Toronto (UofT) comes in second at 22 per cent. In the U.S., Carnegie Mellon recently announced that it broke 40 per cent incoming female CS students for the first time in its history and the University of California at Berkeley held a first-year CS course with higher female enrolment than male. These cases, however, appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

In industry it’s not much better. Facebook and Yahoo match Waterloo’s numbers exactly with women making up 15 per cent of the engineering workforce, Apple is a little lower than UofT at 20 per cent, Google sits in the middle at 17 per cent, and Twitter bottoms out the pack with an abysmal 10 per cent female technical staff.

While each of these companies employs a huge number of developers, the software industry is full to bursting with startups, and the numbers of the heavyweights only reflect a small portion of the total industry. Last year Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou decided to venture down the rabbit hole and find out what the numbers were in their fast-paced world. She posted a public spreadsheet, sent it to some startups, and encouraged others to enter their information of their own accord. 

Chou found that the current average, based on 206 companies, sits at 15 per cent. There are 30 companies listed that have yet to hire a single female engineer (Nextdoor is at the bottom with 29 male engineers), and there are three that boast a 100 per cent female technical core (although none employ more than two engineers). Scientific Learning boasts the highest ratio of companies with five out of 10 female engineers.

What the numbers don’t imply

The figures that I’ve presented are certainly worrying, but what they do not mean is that women haven’t achieved success in computing and software over the past 20 years. There are countless examples of female corporate heavyweights who are hugely influential in the industry: Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, IBM’s CEO Virginia Rometty, Microsoft startup lead Roxanne Varza, and Snapchat’s former COO Emily White, among many others. 

In addition to these vocal, high profile women, there is an extensive list of female engineers that are doing awesome stuff, though with a lower profile. Women are starting small and larger-scale tech businesses and hold high-ranking engineering positions at companies such as Box, Facebook, and Oracle. They build cool products and work on the same geeky projects that guys do.

And, for the most part, this is what coverage on the topic should be about. It’s generally more effective to talk about the great things that women are doing in tech than to constantly bring up the issues they’re facing. As Nguyen told me: “Sometimes I wish that our society wasn’t this way so I could talk about the things that actually matter to me, like my technical work.” 

Elana Hashman, who has been a driving force behind the recent success of Women in Computer Science (WiCS), explained that, in addition to taking focus away from accomplishments, “having to constantly explain how oppressed you are contributes to some amount of oppression.”

Was it Always Like This?

No. Well, kind of. Women have always been statistically underrepresented in software, but despite this they made a tremendous impact on the early days of computing. People like Grace Hopper, who invented the first compiler in 1952; Jean Bartik, one of the first Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) programmers; and Carol Shaw, arguably the first female video game designer, were instrumental in the development of computers and software.

During the first 30 years of computing, CS majors were gradually becoming more gender diverse, but unlike engineering, medicine, science, law, and almost every other technical field, female enrolment in computer science peaked in the mid ‘80s and has been falling ever since. 

What happened? No one is really sure, and for phenomena like this there are always a myriad of explanations, but there seem to be some pretty convincing correlations that may imply causation. The NPR podcast Planet Money conducted a particularly poignant analysis and their conclusions make a lot of sense in their “When Women Stopped Coding” episode.

The early ‘80s saw the computer move from something used primarily by hobbyists and academics to a common household item. At the time, personal computers were not very useful for the majority of people. There was no Internet, though you could use them for spreadsheets and Word documents. And games. They all came with games. 

It was this last feature that defined the market for these early PCs. Companies marketed them like toys and targeted boys exclusively. This developed into a narrative that was perpetuated by Hollywood and the result was a popular definition for who should be using computers — the people we think of today as the socially inept nerd, an image that is predominantly male. The repercussion of this, as reported by a ‘90s study done by researcher Jane Margolis, was that parents typically bought computers for their boys, even if their girls were interested in computing.

This meant that when the (already fewer) women who were interested in computers enrolled in first year software courses, they were immediately at a disadvantage. As Planet Money reported:  “Professors in intro classes assumed their students came in with no experience. But by the ‘80s, that had changed.” This disadvantage affected not just women but anyone who didn’t have early exposure to programming. Nonetheless, it was more common for men to be the “experts” in first year, and for women to enter the program with a strong background in math rather than actual experience with computers. It’s easy to get intimidated in any first year university program, and when you’re already one of the few women in your class and you appear to be hopelessly behind, it becomes rational to want to switch out. 

The resulting decline in female enrolment has had a feedback effect. Because men have dominated the field they have defined its culture as male. At the same time, the lack of female voices during the development of the modern software industry has further alienated women.

So why bring this up?

I am well aware that it is somewhat contradictory to talk about how it’s important to report on successful women in the industry rather than on the issues they face in the middle of a piece detailing the issues they face. 

Why am I writing this? Because after talking to a lot of women about the issue, it seems as though there is general ignorance and certainly not enough discussion among the student body at UW. In a survey I conducted of UW computing students (CS, software engineering, and computer engineering), a third of male respondents said they didn’t think that women in tech at UW face any adversity at all.

If you’re interested in the topic it’s not at all hard to find really good writing about it, but to get to that point there has to be a higher level of awareness.  As Hashman points out: “That you have to even convince people that there is a problem is part of the problem.”

The problem

The gender imbalance in computing represents a lot more than a skewed number. It’s easy to look at the stats and conclude, “OK, so women are clearly underrepresented in tech” and emphatically offer your support to balancing gender representations, but you’d be ignoring a huge part of the issue. 

Tech is a male-dominated world, and the effects of that extend beyond the numbers. Nguyen explained the pressure she, and the other women in her year, felt to fit in: “We were all conditioned to play the persona and not question anything and try to fit in with the guys.” Imposter syndrome — when women feel like they don’t belong despite the fact that they like the work they’re doing — is a slightly more extreme version of this, and causes a lot of women to change fields. Alicia Liu, a UW computer engineering alumna, said she held onto the idea that coding wasn’t what she was meant to do on a long term basis until well into her career, when she realized that what she had been experiencing was imposter syndrome. She is now a full stack web developer – a programmer who works on all aspects of a software application.

Beyond feeling like they don’t belong, a distressingly large number of women experience sexism and misogyny from their peers. 41 per cent of women I surveyed said they had experienced sexism, misogyny, or harassment and 42 per cent of respondents (male and female) reported having witnessed one of those acts. 

I am not implying that all men in computing are misogynist bigots. To make such a claim would be unfair to the vast majority of men in the field. The impression I got from my interviews, research, and the survey is that most guys are mostly harmless. However, that little bit of room between totally harmless and mostly harmless comes from an entrenched dogma that achieves fruition through implicit biases borne from men being around men most of the time. That difference can build up and all of the little things can become serious problems. I asked Nguyen about this, and she told me that the people with minor internalized sexist tendencies are often more harmful than outright misogynists. “You start to notice how ingrained these things can be,” she added.

Part 2

These issues are echoed throughout the reporting that has been done on the subject and are undoubtedly prolific.  

This has been part one of three articles on this topic. In this piece, I’ve provided an overview.  In the next article, I’ll go into more depth on these problems, throw out a few more illuminating statistics, and delve into further aspects of this discussion.  

If you’re interested in doing more research on your own, both the mainstream media and blogsphere are saturated with great writers and websites that effectively and thoroughly address the issues I’m tackling in this piece, as well as many more. I strongly encourage you to delve into this on your own. 


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There will only be three issues of Imprint this term, so I’ll be releasing Part 2 in early June. Stay tuned!


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