Increasing the number of women in computer science requires real cultural change, not just recruitment

Not too long ago, NPR’s Planet Money had a segment on what’s happened to women in computer science. It really struck a chord. To summarize, women were a mainstay of computer science from its earliest years up until 1984. Then, the number of women in computer science at universities started plummeting, while the number of women in physics, engineering, and math kept going up, if only very slowly. When I was a computer science college student in the 1990’s, that was my experience – a sex ratio of between 5:1 to 10:1, men to women. I was frequently the only female student in my smaller seminar classes and one of only a handful in the larger lectures. There were exactly two female professors out of a couple dozen, and one of them was recruited away to another university right before my junior year (when I was hoping to take robotics with her, boo).

What happened in 1984 is that introductory college computer science classes began to assume some experience on the part of students. And many of the top students had it; they had had a home computer with which they had tinkered and played in the years leading up to college and had taught themselves a lot of the basics. But these students were almost universally boys, as home computers were marketed exclusively to boys and men as tech toys for tech-geeks.

I had a weird upbringing in this respect. Both my parents were in the computer industry. My dad worked for a federal contractor and would bring home the latest in computers and gadgetry on a regular basis. My mom was a programmer. She had gotten into it in the early years when there were many women in the field, and maintained a middle-level job ever after. When I was young, maybe four or five, it was the early 1980’s, and my parents bought a home PC. It sat in a common area of the house and I had free access to it (unlike many of the female interviewees on the Planet Money segment). My younger brother was little and often sick, my parents were quite busy, and I was pretty much left to my own devices. And I loved the new computer. I spent hours making ASCII art on the basic text word processor (the single program that came with it) and printing out this art on our also-new dot matrix printer.

My parents bought me video games for the computer. I had J-bird, frogger, Rocky’s Boots, and more. In 1984 – the very year that computer science began to be a boys’ domain, I was six, and the acclaimed adventure-puzzle game King’s Quest came out. It changed my world. Not only was it the most fun game I had ever played, it was created by Roberta Williams – a woman. To me, it seemed perfectly normal to aspire to be a computer game creator. It never occurred to me, as a child, that I was joining a boys club.

I told my parents that I wanted to make games, not just play them, and my mom took me to the library, where we found a 50-line BASIC program called “Trapped” in a 3-2-1 Contact Magazine. (Back then 3-2-1 Contact Magazine had a short, if sometimes buggy, BASIC program in every issue.) My parents installed BASIC on our machine, I typed in the program, and voila! I was a programmer. In the typical way of the self-taught, I then figured out what each line did, changed parts of the program, added to it, and then started writing my own. My mom remembers that when our family went to the beach that summer, I brought along the hefty BASIC syntax manual and read it lying on a towel on the beach all day. There were no how-to books back then. You figured things out by doing.

Growing up, my group of friends leaned geeky and was all girls. I discovered that though my friends were good at math and science, none of them had had much experience with computers. So I was pretty much on my own computer-wise.

In middle school, my mom found a computer science camp, and I attended it for a few weeks each summer for a few years. Around this time, I also started becoming interested in boys. So I enjoyed both the camp activities and the attention I got as one of just a few girls there among more than a hundred boys. Importantly, at this camp I was never excluded. I was just one of the guys. I got a good feel for computer-geek culture and the broad opportunities in computer science as a whole. I was more interested in the field than ever.

By high school, I had taught myself C, having exhausted the memory limits of BASIC. My preferred programs were games and animations, and I made many of both. I had taught myself rudimentary trigonometry so I could program circles, arcs, and circular movements in my graphical games. I had mastered MS-DOS. And I lurked on text bulletin boards using the top-of-the-line 9600-baud modem my parents had bought me.

But I knew I was missing out on some important things. I knew, for example, that Unix offered some great opportunities that I was unfamiliar with. I didn’t have a Unix machine and didn’t know how to get one. I was envious of the boy cliques that spend entire lunch times geeking out on some secret-to-me ways of computing. I also didn’t really understand bulletin board culture and so didn’t engage there at all. Computer science was something I did solo.

Then came college. I had never had a formal computer science course, but I was set on being a computer science major. I got a full-ride scholarship with the stipulation that I committed to being a computer science major, and worked for the scholarship granter after college. Great, I thought. No problem.

The intro computer science course was pretty easy for me, and I loved learning the new concepts that I had never self-learned (e.g. recursion, object-oriented programming). But I was also aware that the course was quite hard for a large minority of students, including almost all the women in the class.

In order to help students with little background, there was a small army of undergraduate assistants who held tutorials, office hours, and generally offered as much support and help as possible. While I think this is an overall good thing, it ended up alienating me. I didn’t need help, and so didn’t end up forming any social ties in the department – not with the other students in my class (mostly freshman), the teaching assistants (mostly sophomores), or the professors. The boys who didn’t need help found one another and formed geek-boy cliques. And for the first time, doing computer science solo felt really lonely.

I joined the women-in-computer-science club, but we were a very small leaderless band. We sat around awkwardly and wondered what exactly our club was supposed to do. Neither of the women professors seemed interested in it. After a while, the indomitable danah boyd, a student in my year, took the reins and the club gained some momentum. But then terrible things happened to her.

I always felt like an outsider in the computer science department, so I don’t know the details. You can read danah’s own account if you want it. But basically, some students formed an online forum where people posted anonymously and destroyed the reputations of whomever they wanted. danah was high on their list, and suffered badly. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that any prominent female student was going to be shredded by the caustic forum. I laid low. I took my classes. I got excellent grades. I spent as little time as possible in the computer science building and with other computer science majors. I formed my friends through the other activities I was involved with.

If I hadn’t had the scholarship, I would have switched majors. Math. Or physics. The computer science culture was just so poisonous. But I persevered and especially enjoyed the content of the higher level math-y courses – graphics, animation, cryptography, computational linguistics. My senior year, I did a senior thesis – my first experience with research – and loved it. I might have discovered research earlier if I hadn’t felt alienated from the program, as undergraduates were frequently recruited into research labs.

I left the computer science field four years after college, when I quit my well-paid telecommunications job. Three years later, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program – in ecology. What’s great is that I can now use a lot of what I learned in computer science doing ecological research. And, I work in a much, much, much friendlier environment.

But, still, I left computer science. And I should have been easy to retain. I don’t rule out the possibility of going back into the tech world one day, but seeing as how the culture doesn’t seem to have changed at all, I would do so very carefully. (Just as many people plan to one day write a novel, I plan to one day write an awesome and popular computer game.)

It may be that female computer science enrollment declined beginning in the mid-1980’s because of the self-taught-advantage effect, but it remains low because of the caustic culture. As much as I’d like to think that efforts like Google’s Made With Code project will have some impact, I really don’t think they will. Making everything pink only enforces the sort of gender segregation that led to the problem in the first place. (As early as preschool, boys and girls are sorting out what are ‘boy’ roles and what are ‘girl’ roles.)  The key to increasing women’s participation in computer science is figuring out how to retain the (potentially pink-hating) geek girls who are drawn to computer science initially, but who are later repelled by an unwelcoming and sexist culture. And that means making real cultural change.

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