20 Stages of Inclusion of Women in Computer Science: What Factors Account for the Lack of Women in Undergraduate Computer Science Courses in the US?

What Factors Account for the Lack of Women in Undergraduate Computer Science Courses in the US?

Gabriella Lalli Martins

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What are the implications of being told you do not belong? Lalli Martins explores this question by focusing on women’s experiences in STEM fields, particularly Computer Science. This essay skillfully engages with multiple contexts (social, cultural, educational, gender) to outline the inter-related dynamics that lead to the lack of women in undergraduate Computer Science courses in college. In it, the author incorporates history and research from academic journal articles to illustrate their ideas. A few notable aspects of Lalli Martins’s work are the integration of sources; the use of clear strategies and calls to action supported by existing research; and the emphasis on compare and contrast.  In all, Lalli Martins’s essay will resonate with students (perhaps especially female students) in STEM majors and is a strong example of a nuanced and focused topic on gender representation and equality.

Gabriella Lalli Martins


ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing

Day Month Year

Stages of Inclusion of Women in Computer Science: What Factors Account for the Lack of Women in
Undergraduate Computer Science Courses in the US?

Imagine it is your first day of college. You are excited to start your studies, despite your parents’ protests regarding your “non-suitable” major choice. As you settle in your seat for the first class, you notice that the class is made up of mostly males. You shrug it off as some weird coincidence, but as the week goes on you realize that it is definitely a trend. And not only that, but the faculty seems to be an all-male group as well. You start to struggle with your course load, which requires a lot of previous knowledge – that most of your male peers seem to have. You feel discouraged and unwelcomed, and not knowing anyone going through the same experience makes matters even worse. Your only female friend in the major decides to switch out of Computer Science and you consider following along – the lack of representation and your parents’ constant complaints and “I-told-you-so’s” are finally getting to you. It doesn’t seem like you belong there.

Unfortunately, the scenario above is a true-life story for many of the women who choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. With women representing only 18% of the degrees received at a bachelor’s level in 2008 and the lowest proportions of female PhDs of any science (Abbate 145), computer science seems to illustrate very well the gender gap that still exists in many STEM disciplines. Choosing to study Computer Science often means immersing yourself in a heavily male-dominated world, both at student and faculty levels. This gap is better understood when we look at major choices as a result of personal interests developed through childhood and adolescence. That way we begin addressing the issue not at the college-level but way before then, taking into account the way girls are socialized and educated throughout their lives.

Children begin to experience the construction of gender very early in their lives. They learn how to walk, how to talk, and then they learn that cars are for boys and dolls are for girls. Not only that, but it seems like they construct gender in opposition to one another and perceive toys that are associated to the opposite sex as being “out of bounds” to them (Francis 326). By age seven, children usually have concrete views on toys and how they relate to gender, and as they grow up, they shift that subconscious gender binary to other aspects of their lives (Upitis 166). Aside from the gendering of toys itself, there is also the issue of what they are and what they represent. Boys are more likely to be gifted with computers and video games, through which they “learn to experiment and take risks, and to develop complex strategies for sharing information with one another” (165). Girls, on the other hand, tend to be on the receiving end of dolls and kitchen sets that, even though responsible for teaching them “to develop communication skills and ‘emotional literacy’” (Francis 326), don’t exactly reward or encourage risk-taking and logical thinking. In recounting early childhood experiences, a fair number of women, interviewed by Jane Margolis and others, seemed to draw parallels between the way they interacted with computers in opposition to their male siblings, saying they usually “watched while a male family member (brother or father) played games, tinkered or took them apart” (Margolis et al. 108), which further illustrates that there’s a bigger “disconnect” when it comes to women and computers.

During middle school, another key issue becomes evident: the lack of representation. At a stage where girls are starting to look elsewhere for role models, there seems to be a disturbing lack of diversity: “Children watch movies where only 19% of the characters ‘on the job’ are women and… read books in which men are depicted in twice as many careers as women” (Shapiro et al. 4-5). This further reinforces the gender stereotypes they began picking up as infants and, because “social dynamics tend to reward both boys and girls to maintain conventional gendered roles” (6), it discourages them to pursue interests and careers that are portrayed as “male-oriented”. Girls are more likely to doubt and underestimate their abilities in the sciences and mathematics (Margolis et al. 111) and the lack of female role-models in STEM-related careers also leads them to question whether they can be successful in such environments. Coupled with that there is the disconnect between how these girls perceive themselves to be – young, socially active females – and the image they have of the stereotypical ‘hacker’ – obsessive, narrow-minded and socially inept males (Lagesen 69).

When the time to apply to university finally comes around, many women have already changed their minds about pursuing computer science degrees. The ones who haven’t must still face a series of challenges that begins with the admissions process. Because of computer science’s rise in popularity in the last few years, colleges have had to reject a lot more applicants, thus favoring people who might have already had some experience in coding and high-level science and mathematics courses. As discussed in previous paragraphs, girls are led away from science and mathematics throughout the course of their lives, so it is usually males that have those credentials and that, consequently, get accepted into CS programs. Many of the women that get in also start “with less computing experience than their male peers” (Margolis et al. 110). This, associated with introductory courses with excessive workloads – designed to “weed out the students with less ability” (Abbate 150) – explains why women tend to feel intimidated and to perceive themselves as doing a lot worse than their male peers, possibly leading to what is informally known as “impostor syndrome.” This term describes when people from underrepresented groups and social backgrounds start feeling like they “don’t belong” in a certain environment.

When addressing the issue of the lack of females in computer science, it is important to implement strategies at different levels, in order to achieve better, faster and longer-lasting results. It begins with a less gender-influenced upbringing, allowing children to experience spaces where they can shift the gender roles and introducing themes with both men and women in non-traditional roles. Females-only spaces have also been shown to be better learning environments for young girls (Upitis 166-167), especially when geared towards “real-world” scenarios. Girl Scouting, for example, has been shown to broaden “girls’ career aspirations to more fully embrace STEM careers” (Shapiro et al. 9), and it is also responsible for providing them with tangible role-models whose guidance is, in itself, an extra incentive towards the pursuit of traditionally non-female careers.

Bridging this gap in college can be a little harder, but universities like Carnegie Mellon show that it’s possible to address the gender issue and even the playing field for women in Computer Science. Boasting of one of the top three Computer Science departments in the country, the university managed to increase the rate of females in the undergraduate program from 7% in 1995 to 43% in 2000 (Margolis et al. 111). This was only possible through a series of measures that intended to lessen the experience gap between men and women in computing, beginning with the remodeling of the admissions process – that would prioritize candidates with prior experience on the subject, which were usually male. They also made changes to the major, emphasizing human-computer interaction and coding as a tool to address social issues, since a great deal of women seem to contextualize their interest in computer through the lens of other subjects – such as arts and humanities, and created courses that would encourage students from diverse backgrounds and levels of experience to work together.

Remodeling the gender structures may seem like a daunting and unnecessary task to some, but the reality is that when minorities are underrepresented when society is in the process of creating new technologies, it means that they will also be cast aside in the new world this very same technology is building. I’m sure many people are familiar with the frustration of trying to make themselves understood by programs like “Siri” or “Cortana”, especially if your accent is any different than the mainstream variations. This is partially because of the lack of diversity in the groups responsible for programming voice recognition softwares, the computers were never “trained” to recognize variations in speech. The problem was only detected after the programs had already been released and the trend of trying to fix that is fairly recent. This may seem like an unimportant detail, but in a world that is more and more dependent on man-made algorithms, the long-term effects can be catastrophic.

The lack of women in computer science models a historical trend of using women to work less reputable and lower paying jobs and then slowly driving them away from those very same jobs when they become prestigious. Women were responsible for working on the very foundation of Computer Science, especially during World War II, so it is clear that the present lack of women in the field has nothing to do with a lack of interest or a lack of capability. The strategies aforementioned are great examples of what can be done to make computing attractive to women once again, and consequently reconquer spaces where women can make impactful contributions – having computers working in favor of minorities, instead of against them.

Works Cited

Abbate, Janet. Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing. The MIT Press, 2012.

Francis, Becky. Gender, Toys and Learning. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 2010, pp. 325-344. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25699588.

Lagesen, Vivian Anette. “The Strength of Numbers: Strategies to Include Women into Computer Science”. Social Studies of Science, vol. 37, no. 1, 2007, pp. 67-92. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25474498.

Margolis, Jane, et al. “The Anatomy of Interest: Women in Undergraduate Computer Science”.

Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 1/2, 2000, pp. 104-127. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40004448.

Shapiro, Mary, et al. “Middle school girls and the ‘leaky pipeline’ to leadership”. Middle School Journal, vol. 46, no. 5, 2015, pp. 3-13. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24342229.

Upitis, Rena. “Girls (and Boys) and Technology (and Toys)”. Canadian Journal of Education /Revue canadienne de l’éducation, vol. 26, no. 2, 2001, pp. 164-182. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1602199.


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