How the Home Computer Shaped Female Representation in Computer Science

I preface this blog post by saying my computer science instructor treats his students with equal respect. He is a remarkable mentor who gives praise when I’ve earned it and criticism when I deserved it. My interest in women in STEM is based on the disparities that exist, interactions I’ve noticed between male and female students, and my own feelings as I navigate through a male-dominated field. 

Halfway through Spring Term, my computer science instructor took a day off to attend a conference. He hadn’t mentioned what the conference was about, but I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if he were attending a conference on women in computer science?” I wondered if it ever crossed his mind. He must notice the ratio of male to female students, but does he consider the female experience in his program? Does it shape how he communicates? Does it influence his outreach?

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When he returned, I asked how the trip went. This question was met with a groan as he recalled a miserable travel experience. When I asked about the conference, his mood brightened as he shared the topic: Women in Computer Science. That was my cue to ask as many questions as possible in the 5 minutes before class began. He mentioned something that stood out, which is a connection between the home computer and decline of women in computer science.

I read this amazing article on computerscience.org that dives deep into the overall topic. It has a section that discusses this interesting connection.

The Connection

Before the advent of the home computer in the early 1980s, substantially more women undertook computer science degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1984-1985 academic year women accounted for nearly 37% of all computer science undergraduate students. This number steadily dropped as the widespread use of home computers became more common.

Much attention has been devoted to studying the reason for this drop in female computer science majors. The central conclusion is that the first personal computers were essentially early gaming systems that firmly catered to males.

…the marketing narrative told the story of a new device that met the needs of men. As more males began purchasing computers for personal use, the “nerdy programmer” classification began to take hold in the professional world of computer science. By the mid-nineties, the percentage of women studying computer science at the postsecondary level had fallen to 28%.

This article on TechRepublic states, “In the mid-1980s, 37% of computer science majors were women; in 2012, 18%.”

We’re talking a 50% drop during the period that computers became a common household device. Of course, there are other factors that play into these numbers. One major influence is media messaging to girls starting at a very young age. There is also different academic emphasis for boys and girls. Women face sexism, harassment, and wage inequality, especially in STEM. The list goes on and on. But I do find it interesting that introducing a computer in the home, something that should pique everyone’s interest, actually deterred women from studying it.

When my instructor mentioned this connection, I asked him to elaborate. He recalled his own experience as a young boy. When his family got a computer, it automatically went into his room despite him having a sibling. That sibling was a girl.  I’m sure his sister forged her own way, and perhaps never would have went down the computer science path regardless, but it does make me wonder. Is it a coincidence the man who teaches me was the one with the computer?

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During the Summer Immersion Program, Girls Who Code participants coded and presented their games to Microsoft.
Image: Girls Who Code

So imagine…

The computer is marketed as an exciting device of the future. It has features for everyone. Adults will benefit from neatly organized information while children will enjoy exciting games. Boys and girls gather around, fighting for their turn. As the children grow, the computer evolves into an even more powerful machine, grabbing the interest of everyone regardless of gender. Boys and girls take interest in computer science at equal rates. They grow up and teach it at equal rates. They are portrayed in media at equal rates. No one questions whether it’s a male or female field – it’s clearly for anyone who enjoys computers. Countless female students were never discouraged by the gender disparity, unfair treatment, or sexist remarks. What would that world look like?

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