It doesn’t compute: Why did women stop coding?

Throughout the 60s and 70s the number of women entering computer science was growing at about the same rate as that of women entering all branches of science. The situation began to change around 1984. Suddenly there was a marked drop-off in females studying computer science, yet their numbers continued to rise in the other scientific fields, notably medicine and the physical or “hard” sciences, as well as in other traditionally male domains such as law and business.

Women were leaving a discipline that would revolutionize the way we communicate, learn, socialize, buy and sell. Why did they desert - or why were they driven out of - the arena that would arguably have the greatest impact on human lives since the invention of the printing press? And why are there still too few women programmers?

Is computer science inherently different from other sciences? The words of author and software engineer Ellen Ullman are illuminating. In an article for the New York Times, Ms. Ullman offered this compelling vision of coding and what it takes to do it well:

The first requirement for programming is a passion for the work, a deep need to probe the mysterious space between human thoughts and what a machine can understand; between human desires and how machines might satisfy them.

The second requirement is a high tolerance for failure. Programming is the art of algorithm design and the craft of debugging errant code. In the words of the great John Backus, inventor of the Fortran programming language: ‘You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work.


Aside from the particulars of coding, of which Ms. Ullman speaks so eloquently, the two personal qualities she mentions - passion and a high tolerance for failure, aka patience - are the very same criteria for success often cited by both males and females involved in any scientific endeavor. Women scientists have certainly shown their capacity for both drive and perseverance and some studies even indicate that women may be more patient than men. So, why didn’t computer science see the same increase in females that most other disciplines saw? Of course, it is impossible to know exactly why, but various ideas have been put forward.


One theory is that girls and young women simply may not be as interested in computer science as boys and young men. Some surveys have shown female students in high school and university see coding as a profession for men and that they are put off by the “geek factor,” the perception that programmers spend their days in a cubicle with little social interaction. It has been suggested that media representations of software developers as overwhelmingly male may be responsible for such attitudes.

As well, cultural factors such as the attitudes of family and society may have an influence. If young girls hear those around them saying “computers are for boys” they may turn away from technology(, especially in certain traditional societies where male and female roles tend to be more prescribed).

In a related issue, some research has found that, in general, men and women have different views of computers. Men are apparently more frequently interested in computers as machines and more often intrigued by them regardless of the use to which they are put. On the other hand, women usually display an interest in computers as tools for accomplishing tasks rather than showing an inherent curiosity about the devices themselves and how they function.

N.B: I find the above highlighted text interesting, but it can simply be deleted if deemed too negative or controversial.


One particularly compelling theory, recently reported on National Public Radio in the United States, might explain why 1984 was the year that women began to leave coding: 1984 was the first year computers saw large-scale entry into private homes. Since the first home computers were games and toys rather than the PCs we know today, these devices were almost exclusively marketed to boys. This generation of boys was the first to be exposed to computers in a non-academic setting. When they arrived at university, they already had some basic knowledge of computing. When their female counterparts entered university, most of whom had never played a computer game, they were already behind. Until that point, computer science majors, male and female, had been on equal footing because the skill that counted in entry-level classes was mathematics.

In sum, before 1984 any practical knowledge of computers was learned in the lecture hall. After 1984 students were expected to arrive with at least elementary notions of computing. Female students quickly found themselves at a disadvantage academically as well as in the eyes of their male peers. That’s when women started leaving.


What can be done? Efforts to encourage girls to learn programming and develop an interest in computers have been underway for several years and appear to be bearing fruit. As well, girls may be influenced by the reality that technology now impacts nearly every aspect of our lives and knowing how to code is an advantage even in professions that are not thought of as computer-centric. It is to be hoped that the situation changes. Not only does computer science need women just as urgently as any other branch of science, women also need computer science. With its enormous, long-term global affect on our world, this is a field that should benefit from as much gender diversity as we can muster.

For Women in Science

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