The Rate Of Female Comp Sci Majors Is Still Dispiritingly Low. What Can Be Done?

The under-representation of women in computer science majors at the undergrad and graduate levels needs to be addressed. But if equitable representation is truly the goal, the efforts can't end—or even start—there. Graphic by Jackie Sizing.

In the 1991 class of Duke’s electrical engineering program, Vickie Gibbs was one of only four women in a group of 120. But it actually wasn’t until after college that Gibbs noticed a real difference in how she was perceived by her male counterparts.

Early on in her career, Gibbs, who recently served as the Executive Director of UNC’s Entrepreneurship Center for three years, worked as a design engineer for Mitsubishi Semiconductor. In a design review meeting, Gibbs vividly remembers that the visiting manager and engineer assumed she would be the one to bring them coffee after her male co-worker and mentor asked if they’d like some.

At that moment, she was incredibly angry. But she decided she would work to gain their respect.

Vickie Gibbs was one of just four women among the 120 grads in Duke’s electrical engineering program in 1991

“You can’t control other people,” Gibbs said, “but you can control how you react.”

So she got them their coffee. Slowly throughout the morning, though, they began to realize Gibbs knew what she was talking about. By afternoon, they were asking her substantive work questions. And the next morning, no one dared to ask her for coffee.

This is one small story of many that reflects the barriers that women face in STEM fields. These barriers are represented in the low rates of women’s enrollment in science and math at colleges nationwide, but particularly in computer science.

Although women now far outnumber men at universities across the country overall, women only earn around 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the United States.

It’s a well-known reason tech executives give for lack of diversity on their teams, but it’s perhaps a jarring fact considering women now outrank men in overall college enrollment, with around three women for every two men. Some have even called it a “male enrollment crisis,” as the number of males in college declined by more than 10 percent from 2019 to 2021. Even in other fields that were once male-dominated, like law, women now comprise a majority of the student body.

Female computer science majors, meanwhile, peaked in the 1980s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While on a slight rise since the mid 2000s, the rates have nowhere near reached the near 40 percent peak of the early 1980s. So why is that?

UNC’s Computer Science Department Chair Kevin Jeffay attributes it to the widespread rise of the PC during the 1980s. The nerd culture that surrounded PCs meant that women were less inclined to enter the computing industry, since it seemed clear at that point that the space was not designed for them.

“The PC took off and just became initially, on the one end, associated with male executives,” said Jeffay, “and on the other end, associated with greasy-haired boys in their basement, playing games or writing code.”

Back in the 1980s, computer science was a relatively small major and a younger discipline, so there was less time for stereotypes to build around what a programmer looked like, according to Jun Yang, the chair of Duke’s Computer Science Department.

“The perception of what a typical IT person looks like had not really been so ingrained into people’s mind over the previous several decades,” Yang said. “There was less self-selection.”

Today, the enrollment numbers are still bleak, even if they do present an upward trend.

Since 2010, Duke has grown its overall computer science program from 36 to 364 students. In the last decade, the percentage of the class that is female jumped from single digits to around 30 percent. 

At UNC, the number is a little over 30 percent, up from the approximately 8 percent that UNC saw around 2005.

The upward trajectory since the early 2000s shows that technology is beginning to appear more friendly and welcoming, Jeffay said, and it’s something he sees related to the prominence of the smartphone in society. Still, Jeffay called it “terrible” for a campus that overall is 62 percent female.

Meanwhile, at NC State, women made up only 22.1 percent of the computer science undergrad enrollment and 27.6 percent of its grad enrollment in 2021.

Ken Tate, NC State’s Director of Engagement & External Relations for the Department of Computer Science, said that the Wolfpack’s numbers are nowhere near where they’d like them to be, but they do represent a marked increase from a decade ago when female enrollment hovered in the 15-17 percent range .

Racial minority enrollment rates in computer science have steadily increased as well. At Duke, 7 percent of the 2021 computer science graduating class was Black, which while low, actually matches the university’s overall population demographics—unlike the female enrollment percentage. The same is roughly true at UNC.

All three local universities have pushed for initiatives to increase diversity at the department level. 

NC State’s CSC Student Ambassadors program currently has more women than men leading campus tours and sending accepted students hand-written notes, and the LadyWolf Secrets Campaign sends a special care package to every accepted female student in computer science. And there are more efforts focused on the K-12 space to foster higher participation in computer science.

“Our focus has not only been on attracting more females and under-represented students into the discipline, but also retaining them,” Tate said. This is also shown in the Women in Computer Science student organization at NC State, which hosts networking events, panels and workshops.

Duke has a variety of initiatives to attract and retain female computer science majors. The Duke Technology Scholars Program brings female undergrad computer science majors together for support throughout their college experience and even offers a summer internship program where students can live together and lean on each other.

At UNC, introductory computer science classes are segregated between students who’ve had exposure to computing and those that have not. It might seem simple, but it has a huge impact on attracting and keeping students—many of them women—who don’t have much experience with computer science prior to college, Jeffay said. This separation eliminates the potential for some students, often male, to intimidate others into thinking they don’t have the knowledge or ability to continue forward in the major.

Even with all these programs, change is slow.

The percentage of women in computer science majors peaked in the 1980s before a precipitous decline that has only recently begun to (slightly) reverse.

Still, the enrollment gap has absolutely nothing to do with ability, Jeffay said. For instance, there are even more women in theoretical physics than computer science, he said. What the problem often comes down to in computer science is intimidation from other students and professors.

“Women are leaving computer science with unbelievable GPAs because they don’t think they’re good enough for the major because of these interactions with male students,” Jeffay said. “Whereas male students happily stay in the major. [Sometimes] they’re on the cusp of failing, and they think they’re doing brilliant.”

Gibbs, who has worked in a variety of tech companies over the years, said the problem extends much further into the realities that women face in the workplace. While she’s had strong mentors and allies who made sure she had a seat at the table, many women don’t.

Women often have to tiptoe the line between being assertive and direct without coming across as bossy or mean more than men do, she added. And since there are so few examples of women as tech leaders, it can be difficult to make the leap into an industry where it doesn’t seem like there’s a place for you.

“We as women tend to be more communal,” Gibbs said. “I think that having confidence that you can succeed in something and having peers that you can rely on are really important.”

Sue Harnett is the founder of Rewriting the Code, a nonprofit that works to recruit and retain women in tech. She said that an estimated 40 to 45 percent of students in introductory computer science and engineering courses are women. But two courses later, half of the women have disappeared.

20 Rewriting The Code “Black Wings” students at a JPMorgan Chase event at the NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) Conference in Anaheim, Calif., in March. RTC Founder Sue Harnett, a former basketball player at Duke, is the tall woman in the back middle.

Building community is key to attracting women into these programs and retaining them throughout their classes and in the workforce, Harnett said. 

“You have to see more people that look like you to believe that you can follow in their footsteps,” Harnett said.

Fixing the problem within the existing workforce is one of the goals of Durham-based coding school Momentum, said Momentum’s Co-Founder and CEO Jessica Mitsch Homes. Momentum enables people already in the workforce to change careers and get the coding skill set they need to enter the field of computer science.

At Momentum, women have consistently comprised around 30-40 percent of their student population since Momentum started running classes in 2018. It’s an interesting gender gap given that all of Momentum’s fulltime instructors are women.

From the women in Momentum’s classes, Mitsch Homes often hears that they didn’t even consider computer science as a viable option when they were in college. Or if they did, they took a computer science class and enjoyed it, but the professor or other classmates discouraged them—inadvertently or otherwise—from moving forward with it.

The companies that work with Momentum to employ their graduates recognize that more diverse teams produce better results. Mitsch Homes compares it to the creation of the first phones, built by teams of entirely right-handed people. Since the groups were so homogenous, they didn’t consider how a left-handed person would use the device.

“Developers are making the products that we live with every day,” Mitsch Homes said. “We need the perspective of all different users.”

Fortunately, with the onset of movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, companies are beginning to realize they need to change, Harnett said.

“It’s been proven that diverse work teams are more profitable,” Harnett said. “It’s not just a ‘nice to have’ anymore, or ‘the right thing to do’—it’s a smart thing to do. And I think hopefully over time, more and more companies will see this.”

Beyond the positive impact on results and innovation for companies, having more women in computer science means more women will be economically empowered. 

Mitsch Homes said there’s no greater salary opportunity right now than in software engineering. To reach true equity in the workplace, it’s essential that women are in these high-earning fields, she added. The developer jobs are often flexible too, enabling women to have better work-life balances to support their families.

Like Rebecca Conley (pictured), all of Momentum’s fulltime instructors are women.

“Companies have to start thinking, ‘If we really do want to make a change and we really do want to have a better dynamic within our workforce, and have our workforce look like the population, we’re going to have to not do things the way that we’ve done them in the past,’” Mitsch Homes said. Ultimately, this comes down to the way they recruit.

At the university level, Duke’s Yang said it’s important to reevaluate the traditional computer science curriculum. It is often not geared toward a diverse set of interests and doesn’t fully account for the ways computer science can be applied in the humanities, social sciences and medical research.

UNC’s Jeffay echoes this sentiment, adding that women are often more engaged in computer science when they can see the impact of technology.

“We do try to emphasize the human element and the empowering nature of computing,” Jeffay said. “You as a software engineer in your apartment can develop an app that can change the world.”

Even with all these issues at the university and workforce levels, Yang is hopeful that women will one day make up half of the computer science department. It starts with addressing the traditional computer science curriculum and ensuring students see enough female professors and TAs in the discipline.

There’s no magical turnkey solution, Yang said, but it’s on all of us to figure out how to get to a more diverse future of computing. He’s encouraged by Duke’s Cultural Competence in Computing (3C) Fellows Program that engages faculty to foster more inclusive departments at their home institutions across the country. The latest cohort included 106 educators in computer science from 40+ universities and K-12 school districts.

“There’s so many hurdles here, and there’s so many things that are ingrained into the system that are hard to change,” Yang said. “But everything has to start from somewhere.”

It will take more than just universities to correct the larger systemic issue, though.

Often, Jeffay hears from women who graduated from UNC’s program that they felt empowered within the department, but that once they get to the workforce, it’s like they’ve stepped backward in time 20 years. It will take many brave women who make it to positions of management before the negative culture begins to fade, Jeffay said, but it’s also on everyone else in the tech workforce.

“This is literally a case that if you’re not part of the solution,” said Jeffay, “you’re part of the problem.”

About Suzanne Blake 360 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.