Girls Go Geek… Again!

July 26th, 2011 by Anna Lewis

Computer science has always been a male-dominated field, right?

Wrong.

In 1987, 42% of the software developers in America were women. And 34% of the systems analysts in America were women. Women had started to flock to computer science in the mid-1960s, during the early days of computing, when men were already dominating other technical professions but had yet to dominate the world of computing. For about two decades, the percentages of women who earned Computer Science degrees rose steadily, peaking at 37% in 1984.

In fact, for a hot second back in the mid-sixties, computer programming was actually portrayed as women’s work by the mass media. Check out “The Computer Girls” from the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. It appeared between pieces called “The Bachelor Girls of Japan” and “A Dog Speaks: Why a Girl Should Own a Pooch.”

Don't worry, ladies. According to none other than Grace Hopper, programming is just like "planning a dinner."

There were many reasons for the unusual influx of women into computer science. Partly, it was just a result of the rise of the commercial computer industry in general. There was a tremendous need to hire anyone with aptitude, including women. Partly, it was the fact that programming work itself was not yet fully defined as a scientific or engineering field. In fact, many computer science programs were first housed within a variety of departments and colleges, including liberal arts colleges where women had already made cultural inroads. Not least of all — and you knew this was coming — women quickly noticed that some programming work could be done at home while the children were napping.

And then the women left. In droves.

From 1984 to 2006, the number of women majoring in computer science dropped from 37% to 20% — just as the percentages of women were increasing steadily in all other fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, with the possible exception of physics. The reasons women left computer science are as complex and numerous as why they had entered in the first place. But the most common explanation is that the rise of personal computers led computing culture to be associated with the stereotype of the eccentric, antisocial, male “hacker.” Women found computer science less receptive professionally than it had been at its inception.

Why do we care about a long-gone moment in early computing history when the presence of women was unexceptional?

Because it looks like women are now returning to computer science.

In the past year, the number of women majoring in Computer Science has nearly doubled at Harvard, rising from 13% to 25% (still nowhere near the 37% of 1984).  And — because Harvard is not actually the center of the universe — it’s nice to know that the trend has been spotted elsewhere. In the past three years, the number of female Computer Science majors at MIT has risen by 28%. And, at Carnegie Mellon, the portion of Computer Science majors who are women has moved from 1 in 5 in 2007 to 1 in 4 last year.

Why might women once again be interested in computer science? Is it Facebook, whose most addicted users are young women? (Just fyi, girls have yet to go gaga for Google+.) Or maybe the recent economic downturn has caused more young American women to notice that computer programming is where the money’s at. Oh wait, no! It must be because Google Vice President Marissa Mayer recently advised women to follow her footsteps into utter geekdom

Google VP Marissa Mayer: " People ask me a lot what it's like to be a woman at Google. I don't think of my experience that way. I'm a geek at Google."

Whatever the reasons, if it’s true that more women are pursuing computer science, then that would be great news for Fog Creek’s recruiting efforts. We’d love to attract and hire more female developers. In the past year, we saw a 62% increase in our total number of internship applicants. But we saw just a minor increase from 8% to 11% in the portion of female internship candidates. Here’s how women performed compared to men in our screening process.

Table 1.


And, although we know our sample size is extremely small, we thought we’d show you the percentages of candidates who made it to each stage, categorized by gender:


Because we can’t ask applicants their gender, we guessed based on first names. It’s not perfect, to say the least, but it’s the best we have.

We know that, even if the number of women majoring in Computer Science is really on the rise, it will probably take some time before we see such an increase fully reflected in the number of female applicants we attract and hire. At the same time, we’re committed to targeting as many female computer science majors as possible in our recruitment efforts. In search of strategy ideas — and to learn more about what it’s like for a woman to pursue computer science today — we talked with one of our interns, Leah Hanson. Leah is a rising senior at Johns Hopkins University. She is currently the only woman on Fog Creek’s internship team. In fact, she is currently the only woman on Fog Creek’s entire technical staff.

Q: What would you say has been the breakdown of men and women in your Computer Science classes?

Leah: Out of the forty or so Computer Science majors in my freshman class, about eight of us were girls. Five of those girls had never programmed before, although I had. Three of us are still in the program now as rising seniors. In most of the upper-level classes I’ve taken, about twenty percent of the students are female.

Q: How has being one of very few women impacted your experience as a Computer Science major?

Leah: I think it has probably been a lonelier experience for me than for the guys. That might be partly because I work mostly on my desktop in my room instead of in the CS department computer lab, where a lot of students work, especially close to deadlines. But also most of my friends are girls and they aren’t in Computer Science; most of them are in biology. We became friends through living in the same dorm freshman year. I’d say I was able to make more friends through things like the dorm than in my Computer Science classes. But that means that I can’t really talk to my friends about the stuff I do for my classes, which is frustrating. Sometimes, there’s a really cool idea presented in class, but it’s only cool if you already know the background information to understand it – to grasp how and why it’s cool. Trying to present enough background to explain why this concept is awesome during the course of a conversation really just doesn’t work, as they don’t get a deep enough understanding of the background to see why it’s cool and spending several minutes attempting to explain frustrates me and bores them. Also, at school, some guys can be awkward. You can tell when they view you first as a girl and second as a person.

Q: Is there a networking organization for women in Computer Science at Johns Hopkins?

Leah: Yeah, our department started a Women in Computer Science organization last year, to aid in networking among women within the department and to encourage us to continue in computer science, particularly in academia. I really don’t like categorizing coders along gender lines. I mean, it really shouldn’t matter. But I can see why it’s important to have networking groups right now, while the number of women in Computer Science is so low. I just wish there were a more elegant solution. The only thing I can think of to compare it to is a brute force algorithm, which is really not an elegant solution even though it works. I don’t want to be judged as a girl first.  I mean, there have been times when I’ve wondered, “Did I get picked for this project just because I’m a girl?” How are you supposed to figure out if you’re any good if they pick you just because you’re a girl instead of because you’re any good at it?

Q: How and when did you get into computer science?

Leah: I started coding when I took a computer programming class in high school. I didn’t know what computer programming even was, really, so I just took the class to find out. I had been home-schooled previously so I had no idea that computer science wasn’t something that girls did. I just thought it was a weird thing about my high school that there weren’t any other girls in the classes. Then, when I got to college and was one of two girls in a forty-student programming class, I realized the reality of the situation. My dad liked to build computers, so that made a difference in the sense that I had him around to explain things, but my mom was also a competent user of computers. She might not have been able to configure the router, but she used her computer rather than being intimidated by it.

Q: Why do you think younger girls or college-age women don’t go into computer science?

Leah: Well, I used to be baffled at how they could miss seeing how awesome programming and CS in general are, but there’s a bunch of things that seem to contribute to that. For example, women seem to give up sooner even in everyday situations with technology. Like, it’s socially acceptable for a woman to give up on technology and say, “Oh I can’t figure out how this computer thing works.” My friends who are girls ask for help to fix their computers normally because it’s acceptable for them not to be able to do it. They don’t realize that I’m just going to google the answer anyway! They think I already know the answer! Whereas I think most guys would be embarrassed to admit that they can’t fix their computers. Having experience with going through the frustration of trying to get some piece of technology to work, and eventually succeeding, builds skills that you need for working with technology and for debugging. Also, most girls don’t really get computers of their own when they’re young. It seems like sometimes the family computer is bought mainly for the boy to use and then he’s kind of forced to share it with his sister. That means that girls can’t experiment on computers. You need your own computer because you have to be able to possibly break it while you’re trying new stuff, without getting in trouble. For my sixteenth birthday, I got to build my own computer with my dad and then I could have all the time I wanted on it and break it or whatever. Until I had complete control of my own computer, I never had any interest in trying Linux; when someone else is responsible for keeping your computer functioning, and does a good job of it, there’s little incentive to try something like a different OS, since you’d have to convince other people that it’s a good idea to mess with what’s currently working.

Q: As you know, Fog Creek would like to attract and hire more developers who are women. Is there anything you’d recommend we do in our recruiting process to attract more women?

Leah: Well, one thing I noticed is that on your website you really stress how the developers here are the best and all the perks that you offer. But, to be honest, that doesn’t really differentiate Fog Creek from Google or Facebook because they also have awesome developers and loads of perks. Whereas what I think your internship offers that you don’t stress quite as much is all the close mentorship we get. Here, we’re a trusted part of the team. It’s our call to try things when we’re developing new features. We get to be a part of actual decisions about the code that ships. And every line of code gets reviewed and tested, whereas at school your code only gets checked to see if it actually works. Here, every time my code gets reviewed, it helps build my confidence that what we ship will be good. I also learn a lot about coding style and best practices based on what they want me to change. I don’t think that interns at larger companies get to work so closely with mentors or are as included as part of the team. And, basically, these things that have to do with collaboration and learning appeal a lot more to female candidates than talking about the best developers in the world or all the perks. I went to a talk at Johns Hopkins, hosted by our Women in CS group, by Hanna Wallach on gender imbalance among FLOSS developers. And she said that one of the things that happens is that women don’t even think they’re qualified for something because it’s advertised in competitive language. The language of competition not only doesn’t appeal to many women, it actually puts them off. Google advertises their Summer of Code with very competitive language. In 2006, GNOME received almost two hundred GSoC applicants – all male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, but emphasizing the opportunities for mentorship and learning, they received over a hundred highly qualified female applicants for the three spots they were able to fund. Honestly, when you hear the phrase “the world’s best developers,” you see a guy. And, for women, that can be alienating.

Go geek with us.


This article has been translated to the Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich.

This article has also been translated into Russian by ABBYY Language Services.

This article has also been translated into Polish by Andrey Fomin.