Women are routinely discouraged from pursuing math and science. We get so many messages that math and science are not the “typical” things for a girl to study. The fact that by 1985 about 37% of the CS graduates in the United States were women becomes an impressive statistic, given the general lack of support for girls in the hard sciences. Women who studied or worked in computer fields in the 1970s recall having numerous women around them in those years.
That was then; this is now. Many more women were getting CS degrees and working in tech companies in the 1970s and 1980s than today. “Now” seems to have begun right after 1985, when the percentage of women working in tech began declining significantly. I was born in the 1970s, and in the current workforce, I often find myself the only woman in a meeting.
Why? I think it’s the way the computer culture evolved that sent the wrong message to girls. Telle Whitney, former President and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Computing, describes the evolution of computer culture. She attributes the cultural shift to the gaming industry, which generated a masculine culture based on the types of games that were being made in the seventies and eighties by male developers and gamers. This discouraged a lot of women from pursuing a CS career. As Telle explained to me: “In the early eighties, the PC came out, along with games, so computers came to be more associated with boys. This created a significant image problem for girls going into CS. So, these days, only about 18% of CS graduates are women.”
As we wonder why so few women choose to study CS or work in tech, my own experience tells me that a healthy environment balancing learning and growth opportunities, a push to excel, and respect from co-workers are key for women (or any minority group) to thrive. I started programming in tenth grade, around the late eighties, just when computers were becoming popular in mainstream culture. This helped me to choose software development as a profession. Another encouragement was the Pac-Man game. With the release of Pac-Man in 1980, which featured an engaging digital creature, more female gamers emerged. This finally got some women interested in becoming developers.
Some would argue that women’s brains are wired differently from men’s. However, neuroscience is far from concluding that there is a “male brain” and a “female brain.” Women’s brains seem to be just as capable of doing math and science as men’s; what’s clear is that there are lower expectations of what women are capable of accomplishing in these fields. Consider all the women who were discouraged in their pursuits or never got the decisive intervention at the right time. Their careers might have been so much more successful and fulfilling if they had gotten the encouragement they needed and deserved.
My home country of India doesn’t have the same image problem that the United States has, believing that nerdy guys make the best programmers. However, gender bias does influence the number of Indian women who study CS and the number of female CS graduates who gain employment in the corporate world. The primary motivation for many young Indian women to attend college is to facilitate a good marriage. When they graduate, these women receive job offers from prominent corporations, which helps them attract good marriage proposals. These brides-to-be often decline the job offers.
At top engineering schools in India, such as the Indian Institute of Science or the Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani, women make up only 12% of the students. By comparison, between 40% and 50% of CS graduates from regional colleges are women. The likely reason for this is that parents are reluctant to send their young daughters away from home for the entrance exam (I left home when I was seventeen. It wasn’t easy, but it helped me become independent and self-confident).
It’s clear to me that we must change the public-school curriculum to include one mandatory programming class. For many students, even a single programming class is not an option. How can that be true in the twenty-first century, in a world that is driven by tech? Today we have several nonprofits that assist several young girls to code like Girls Who Code, Women Who Code, and CodeChix, but we need girls to learn to code from a young age. It’s important for children to learn how to write software or, at least to have a grasp of what it entails. What they do with that skill will be up to them, but early exposure will help them decide whether it is the right career path.
This extract, adapted from Nevertheless, She Persisted: True Stories Of Women Leaders In Tech by Pratima Rao Gluckman, is ©2018 and reproduced with permission from the author. www.pratimagluckman.com