A friend shared with me this 15-minute Planet Money segment called “When Women Stopped Coding“. From their intro:
For decades, the number of women in computer science was growing. But in 1984, something changed. The number of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged. Today on the show, what was going on in 1984 that made so many women give up on computer science? We unravel a modern mystery in the U.S. labor force.
There’s no transcript for the show, so I typed out some notes as I listened. Here’s my summary of the show:
The rise of personal computers in the 70s and early 80s meant that people could come to college with exposure to computers generally and experience with programming specifically. People who didn’t have that exposure were getting discouraged – and sometimes being discouraged, by professors and peers – and dropping out.
Why was there a gender difference in exposure to computers? For one thing, computer ads were super male-focused. The show plays several clips of ads aimed at men and boys, one of which does have a woman in it – jumping into a pool in her bikini. The hosts interview Jane Margolis (Unlocking the Clubhouse) about her research into childhood and adolescent experiences with computers. She talks about how computers were marketed as games for boys, how families bought into this by doing things like placing computers in their sons’ rooms, even when their daughters were more interested in computing, and how was reinforced culturally by movies like Weird Science that celebrate male nerds and objectify/denigrate women.
The show emphasizes that the women dropping computer science majors were not doing so just because they were “behind”. Many were actually excelling – but they still didn’t feel comfortable or welcome in this highly gendered culture. Fixing the culture, and welcoming students who are new to computer science, can be done: Carnegie Mellon, where Margolis did her research, made changes and now has 40% women in their undergraduate computer science programs. Harvey Mudd and the University of Washington have made similar improvements.