The mystery of “when women stopped coding”

NPR did a Planet Money podcast in 2014 posing the mystery of “When Women Stopped Coding”. The writeup online includes a striking graph of the percentages of women in different fields of study, plotted out over the last few decades. Female representation in medical school, law school, physical sciences, and computer science squiggles upwards steadily from the 70s through the 80s, and for everything besides CS, onwards to today; but the percentage of women in CS peaks at 37% in 1984 and slumps downwards to the right.

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NPR’s investigation turned up this correlation: “The share of women in computer science started falling at roughly the same moment when personal computers started showing up in U.S. homes in significant numbers.”

Curiously, they didn’t study another very relevant data series, the raw enrollment numbers. But without those, from sheer percentages alone, it’s impossible to make the case that “women stopped coding”. Another mathematically plausible explanation for the graph above, though not necessarily a likely one, would be that women in fact kept coding, but increasingly more men flooded the field, bringing the percentage of women down.

So I went trawling through data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

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Side note: I love that there’s a Congressional mandate to collect and collate this data!

The first thing that stood out to me when I drew out the stacked bar graphs was that the raw numbers of women in computer science have risen and fallen, and risen and fallen again, carried by the tides of overall enrollment and excitement about the tech industry; it’s not a clearly monotonic decrease. On further inspection, I found another interesting feature in the graphs: a correlation between the bursts in total enrollment numbers and the steeper drops in percentage, shortly after.

A series of Google searches led me to two ACM papers, a 1999 piece titled “Conserving the Seed Corn: Reflections on the Academic Hiring Crisis” and 2002 piece titled “Encouraging Women in Computer Science“, both authored by Stanford CS professor Eric Roberts. He wrote matter-of-factly to explain the attrition of women from the field:

[The] decline in the number of computer science degrees was largely the result of explicit steps taken by academic institutions to reduce computer science enrollments when it became impossible to hire sufficient faculty to meet the demand. These steps included, for example, imposing more stringent requirements for admission to the major, adding new required courses in mathematics, and transforming introductory courses into filters designed to limit entry into the field. Such strategies have a disproportionately negative effect on enrollment by women and minorities.

Although it is nothing inherent to computer science and no longer necessary for the practicalities of university instruction, that culture of exclusivity, laced in alpha nerd competitiveness, geek mythology, and implicit sexism, has persisted. To draw women back into the field, we have to fix that culture and popular perception of what it means to be a CS major, to be a coder, to be a software engineer.

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6 thoughts on “The mystery of “when women stopped coding”

  1. I am a 55 your old white male, with a long career in IT, as developer, CEO, founders of a few software companies. I am convinced that software should not be created by anyone with that geek attitude. It is unproductive, with only short term goals. There are plenty of examples in the industry, where certain mission crucial production is nearly alwqys performed by women, a result of desastrous experiences with men. Education?

  2. I agree so much with your assessment, both from personal experience and because other research backs it up. You might like this article from Forbes that surveys women in tech. They leave because of the culture.

    For me personally, I was always interested in tech but the “alpha nerd competitiveness” (brilliant term!) kept me from majoring in it when I was in college. I opted for marketing but ended up making my way back. I run a software development company now and it’s amazing that when you have the right culture, you also get gender parity. 🙂

  3. Fascinating stuff – thanks for sharing. I heard the statistic about the percentage of women in IT crashing to just 17% today, and I wondered what could be the cause. The geek culture seems even harder to shift than the macho culture of construction sites.

  4. I wondered about this at the time and looked at the raw enrollment numbers for “related” fields like math & sciences. I didn’t have any firm conclusions other than NPR’s article was weak on conclusions, and its oversight of the raw numbers was a missed opportunity.

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