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Current trends for women graduating with computer science degrees troubling

By / 8.7.2018

The data on women graduating with computer science degrees is depressing. In 2006, 9800 women graduated with computer science degrees. Ten years later, despite the technology boom’s rapid job creation, only 12000 women graduated with computer science degrees. Since 2000, women have made up only around or under 25% of a broader range of STEM graduates as well, when accounting for a broader range of STEM degrees (computer science, engineering and mathematics). The latest data at the collegiate level shows that women make up less than 20% of the CIS graduates with technical skills, while women make up around 75% of graduates with degrees in biology and biology-related sciences. The rate of women in science is growing, but the growth is concentrated in biology and other healthcare related sciences. However, despite the nationwide numbers, individual schools have found success in closing the gender gaps in their computer science departments. By dividing introductory classes based on experience levels, making projects more relevant to real life applications, and giving women communities within the computer science department, programs like those offered at Harvey Mudd and Columbia University successfully closed the gender gaps in computer science at their respective universities.

Even as the percentage of women graduating with healthcare and biology degrees sees a steep increase, the percentage of women graduating with computer and information science degrees remains stagnant. This means that more women overall are graduating with STEM degrees, but the number of these women graduating with computer and information science degrees remains low.


This problem exists when looking outside of computer science as well, with the percentage of degrees conferred to women in engineering, mathematics, and computer science remaining around or below 25% since 2005. These trends show that women’s participation in certain STEM fields – not just computer science – are struggling. Women are missing out on some of the highest paying jobs available today, and companies are missing out on the innovation that diverse teams can bring them. Companies should evaluate their current gender compositions and workplace cultures in order to attract more diverse hires in the future. A study by McKinsey found that diverse companies think of more innovative solutions and are more profitable than companies that are not diverse.

Scholars suggest that girls miss out on careers in tech starting in high school. Dr. Sapna Cheryan at the University of Washington argues that early exposure has a large influence on a girl’s decision to pursue a degree – and therefore a career – in STEM. Cheryan points to early exposure as a partial explanation of why gender parity has been reached (or nearly reached) in mathematics, biology, and chemistry degrees, but is far from the horizon for physics, engineering, and computer science. High school curriculums across the United States always mandate some level of mathematics, and often require some level of biology or chemistry as well. In comparison, Virginia is the only state that lists computer science as a graduation requirement. Cheryan’s research indicates that when girls are required to take certain classes, rather than choosing into them, they are less likely to have low self efficacy later on in their lives, when they’re deciding what to study in college, especially because they are likely to perform just as well as the boys in their classes.

Cheryan’s research shows that accessibility is important in closing the gender gap in computer science, but research conducted by Accenture and Girls Who Code suggests that accessibility is not enough. A recent study by the nonprofit, which aims to increase middle and high school girls’ interests in computer science through after school programs and summer camps, indicates that increasing access to computer science without also actively making it more gender balanced may reinforce stereotypes within the field rather than break them down. Factors like having a woman computer science teacher, being assigned projects that have real life applications, and having coding experience, are all likely to make a positive impact on girls’ decisions to study computer science, while having no negative impact on boys’ decisions.

Girls Who Code itself exemplifies a program making a potentially groundbreaking impact on women in computer science. Girls Who Code, along with many other nonprofit and local and state government programs, is trying to close the gender gap in computer science. Girls Who Code identifies around 90% of their program graduates as intended computer science majors. However, there is at least a four year gap from the time a student completes their time with Girls Who Code and the time they graduate. While it is possible (and likely), that Girls Who Code and many programs like it are simply too young to show the impacts they’ve made, thus far, the evidence that programs like Girls Who Code are increasing the number of women graduating with computer science degrees is scarce. Whether these programs, most of which are under a decade old, are making the impact they want to, will become clear in the next few years as the cohorts of the programs graduate college.

It is also possible that these programs simply aren’t working, and that despite the good they do in teaching computer science to girls in ways that girls enjoy, the masculine culture and fear of discrimination overpower a woman’s desire to enter the computer science industry. The popular perception inside Silicon Valley is that the technology industry operates on meritocracy – that those who advance do so because of their hard work and intelligence, not their connections. However, many people in the industry earn their clout through friendships and who they know – in many startups, hiring processes are conducted primarily through “interviewing” friends and past coworkers. It makes sense that if women don’t already exist in these spaces, they have a hard time breaking in.

Additionally, according to a report by the National Center for Women in Technology, 56% of women left their careers at mid-level points in 2008. The quit rate for women is now twice that of men in computing related jobs. The lack of retention in the field may serve as an indicator of an unwelcoming, if not hostile, workplace environment for college students choosing degrees, especially considering that 80% of these women continue working and are not pulled away by family responsibilities. Women choosing degrees in STEM may believe that the discrimination they may face in their careers is not worth the benefits that come from entering the field.

Studies indicate that when choosing degrees, women have more prosocial motivations than men, who are more career- oriented. Specifically, a study by Anya Skatova and Eamonn Ferguson found that “Helping” motivates women the most, while “Career” is the top motivator for men. Programs like Girls Who Code find that their students are likely to work on projects that involve real life applications or educational opportunities. Projects that girls have coded since the program’s start include Tampon Run, a game intended to destigmatize menstruation, and an algorithm that helps detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant. While Girls Who Code and other initiatives intentionally focusing on girls may show the social impact of coding, the popular perception of computer scientists remains as a nerdy man with little social skills, much like the group of men in Silicon Valley, a popular TV show about the tech industry.

These perceptions and motivations inherently work against each other. If women do not perceive computer science as a field where they can have some social impact, they may be less likely to major in computer science. And because the industry requires some level of technical knowledge for most jobs, the likelihood of a woman entering computer science without having taken classes in it is low.

When schools implement programs that are more tailored to women’s interests and leanings, the gender balance narrows significantly. At Columbia University, the percentage of women majoring in computer science reached 47% in only a few years, after the university added three components to the department. One, a class called Computing in Context, taught students coding in a way that is relevant outside of pure technology. The class has projects in Python, an easier language to learn than the other introductory class that is offered in Java. In addition, the department added a one hour class for students who have no coding experience (intended primarily for students from marginalized communities) to talk about applications of computer science, think through logic problems, and gain a greater understanding of the role of computer science going into the future. Finally, the department started offering a combined track major, that allowed students to major in computer science with another major of their choice.  These changes made computer science more accessible, but also taught students how to apply the skills they were learning outside of the popular conception of what jobs in tech look like.

At UCLA, Professor Linda Sax’s BRAID Initiative looks at how to attract and retain women in computer science, starting from middle school. At beacon schools like Harvey Mudd, the gender gap in computer science has made significant improvements. Harvey Mudd now has more women graduating with computer science degrees than men, after making a few changes similar to those that Columbia’s computer science department made. They changed their introductory programming language to Python and restructured their introductory class into three tracks, including a class for students with absolutely no background in computer science. In addition, students who always have the answer and ask more complex questions than the material mandates are encouraged to come in after class during office hours rather than taking up class time. After their introductory classes, students are connected to internships and research projects which keep them interested, leading to more women graduating with computer science degrees.

The payoff from the efforts made at schools like Harvey Mudd College and Columbia University show that with intentional programming, gender gaps in STEM fields can be closed. Successfully implementing these programs at a larger scale and having more schools participate in programs that lead to these outcomes will help innovation and bring more creativity to the technology industry.