Women have been an integral part of the computing movement right from its start. Everyone who has done an introductory computer science course in school or college would know that the world's first conceptual programmer was Lady Ada Lovelace. The original programmers for the world's first electronic computer - the ENIAC were six women - Kay McNulty, Betty Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman. In addition, the complete technical description for the ENIAC was also written by a woman - Adele Goldstine. Grace Hopper, widely known as one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I also developed the first compiler for a computer programming language.
If women held a prominent role in the development of computing in its early days, what led to women being reduced to a small minority in computer science in the last few decades of the 20th century? The women pioneers generally had advanced degrees in mathematics and thus were technically qualified to take up programming jobs. However, there was a prevalent perception in those days that favored women over men for programming jobs - not technical expertise but the idea that "Programming requires lots of patience, persistence and a capacity for detail and those are traits that many girls have." A direct negative correlation has been seen between women's participation in computer science and the increased prestige associated with working in the computer science field.
In the United States, the proportion of women among bachelor's degree recipients in computer science peaked at 37 percent in 1985 and then went on the decline. Now women comprise about 25 percent of computer science bachelor's degree recipients in the last few years.
What has kept women out of computing?
What has kept women out of computing in these recent years? Is it discrimination - even at the school level boys have always been more encouraged to take up technical jobs whereas girls have been encouraged to take up careers that allow them to use their creative skills - whether it be marketing, journalism or education. Have women chosen not to take up computer science because of the conflicts between the time demands of the scientific career track and family life? Or, is it because of what Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers famously dubbed "intrinsic aptitude"?
Surveys have identified a number of reasons for the steady decline in the proportion of women taking up computing as a career in the eighties and the nineties. A major contributing factor to the shrinking in the number of women in IT has been identified as the manner in which computer games were developed in the early 1980's. Overall, the games developed in the early 1980's were designed and marketed for only half of the population. Female characters rarely featured on the covers for computer games, making computer gaming a boys-only domain. As many of us have our first tryst with computers and the field of IT through electronic games, this has had a detrimental effect on promoting IT as a career option for women.
Modern media, whether it be television programs or advertisements typically portray a computer specialist as a boring and nerdy person who doesn't enjoy life to the fullest. This kind of stereotyping reflects very poorly on the IT field. Teenage girls applying for university turn away from taking up computing related majors because they imagine themselves becoming nerds or geeks.
The lack of suitable role models has also led to this decline in the number of women taking up computer science. There aren't enough women computer scientists in high positions in university computer science departments that newly admitted female students can gain inspiration from. With the onslaught of heavy work load and the lack of inspiration, female students feel isolated and resort to dropping out of computer science and pursuing other interests.
What can be done?
What is more important than these debates over why it has been so difficult getting women into the computer industry, is stressing the importance of doing so now, for the future. There are many research projects and online resources available that offer educators, parents, and mentors suggestions for encouraging female participation in computer science. We have to find means to encourage an interest in computer science amongst women across different age groups - from girls in primary schools to women in colleges and universities.
When we analyze the 5-17 year age demographic we find that girls are slightly more likely than boys to use home computers for e-mail, word processing and completing school assignments. This is an optimistic sign that the trend of declining numbers of women in computer science could possibly be reversed in the next generation. As computing technology becomes universally available and takes on the role of a life-necessity, the gender-divide in terms of the use of computers can be more easily bridged.
People can make the biggest difference in this situation - whether it be mentoring female students to take up technical careers or starting online forums to popularize computer science, such action at the community level is the key to solving this problem of declining numbers. Parents have the greatest influence, and thus play the most crucial role. What is needed is a change of mindset - parents usually buy dolls, tea party sets and stuffed animals for their daughters. Activities such as playing video games, assembling and de-assembling Lego structures are not encouraged amongst girls. It is never too late to encourage a girl to develop an interest in technical activities - and parents need to be proactive in order to make this happen.
The image of computing as a professional field needs to be glamorized. Modern advertising techniques need to be used to portray computer science as cool - and not just the haven for geeks and nerds. What is needed is a concerted effort to revamp IT as a "girl's best friend".