Observation Deck

Gender Hack

Gender Hack

Four years ago, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, sent her son and niece to a Silicon Valley coding camp where she was dismayed to see a stark gender disparity. “Out of the 35 kids, only five were girls and two of those girls were my niece and her friend,” she told me. “It’s terrible — it has to change!”

Sandberg, as COO of a company where women hold only 27 percent of top management jobs, should know. It is widely acknowledged that an ever-growing proportion of the better-paid jobs in the American workforce will be linked to digital technologies, and that women are strikingly underrepresented in computing science.

Government data suggest that a mere 17 percent of computer science graduates are female even though women represent 57 percent of American students. While 74 percent of middle-school girls tell pollsters that they want to study STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — they become so deterred as they pass through school that only 0.3 percent of them take computer science courses. Similarly, although women represent 59 percent of the workforce, only 30 percent of tech company workers, and a mere 10 percent of software developers, are women. Men have dominated the world of computing so completely in recent years that this almost seems like the natural order. In fact, as of 2016 the participation rate of women for some tech jobs was actually declining.

Aside from limiting women’s careers, this trend could have wider consequences. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimated in 2012 that U.S. businesses will need to find about 1 million more STEM professionals than America currently has. Tech companies have hitherto plugged this gap by using the H-1B visa program to import engineers from places such as India. But President Donald Trump has pledged to curb the use of those visas. Getting more American girls into computer science could create a deeper bench of qualified workers.

In theory, this should not be hard. While some scientists have suggested that there are biological distinctions between male and female brains, these differences are minuscule and do not keep women from excelling at math. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, “in general, female and male students perform equally well” on standardized mathematics and science tests. Perhaps the powerful sign that the computer science bias is overwhelmingly cultural, not cognitive, is that if you look across the wider world of STEM it is clear that some sectors have attracted girls.

Take statistics, for example. About 40 percent of statistics degrees are awarded to women, and they represent 31 percent of positions in statistics departments at universities, 24 percent of tenured positions, 34 percent of tenure-eligible positions, and 50 percent of nontenure posts.

This could be because bodies such as the American Statistical Association have made conscious efforts to recruit girls into their ranks in recent years — statisticians have gone into high schools to inform girls that the work can be steady and flexible, with an attractive median annual wage of $80,000.

But the other factor might be a kind of feedback loop. Girls who see women working in the statistics departments of universities might be more inclined to apply to those schools. There is no intrinsic reason why something similar can’t happen with computer science. One little-known quirk of tech history is that when the computer science field emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it actually had a good female-male ratio. In 1984, women accounted for 38 percent of computer science students and a similarly high number of computer-literate workers in offices. According to a number of women who work in computer science, the field was so new then that it had not yet established gender stereotypes. However, another factor was that in the late 1970s and early 1980s female office workers tended to have better keyboard skills than men (because many had been trained in typing), so they were often asked to input data on the early computers.

But as the computer science field exploded in size — and status — the women disappeared. Some female computer scientists grumble that this was because the sector started to command much higher salaries, sucking in ambitious men who pushed women aside. But another issue might be the way that computer science has been presented to teenagers. Jane Margolis of the University of California, Los Angeles argues that teenage girls were discouraged from computer science because computing toys were presented as war games. Wendy Hall of the University of Southampton agrees. “In the mid-1980s, the new personal computers such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro began to emerge,” she told me. “There was very little you could do on them except program in Basic or assembly code.… They were marketed as toys for boys,” which nudged males toward computer courses and careers.

Now the good news is that insofar as culture — not neurology — established this pattern, efforts being made to reverse it are promising. Companies such as Facebook are targeting women in their recruitment. The nonprofit CSNYC has taken on the herculean task of teaching every student in New York City public schools certain computer science skills. In February 1999, Smith became the first American women’s college to announce its own engineering program. And some colleges, such as Harvey Mudd, have restructured computer science classes to be more attuned to female students’ relative inexperience with computing. This has had spectacular results. At Harvey Mudd, the proportion of female students in computer science classes has risen from 10 percent to 40 percent.

Today, parents are seeking toys that will instill a love of computer science among girls — and entrepreneurs have responded. Families can now buy GoldieBlox, a game featuring a female engineer protagonist who aims to persuade girls to love tech. And organizations such as Girls Who Code have established summer camps and free workshops in 50 states.

The U.S. government could also help. Barack Obama’s efforts to address the gender balance didn’t generate much buzz. But the current White House certainly knows how to make waves — and Ivanka Trump says she wants to support #WomenWhoWork, to cite her hashtag. Instead of just championing women in politics, business, or fashion, perhaps Ivanka should start shouting about women in computer science, and team up with Sandberg and others like her. That might help shrink the shocking gender ratio for computer science and get America ready to embrace a tech future in an equitable way.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of FP magazine.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration