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Women Lose Ground in IT, Computer Science

Women are falling further behind in information technology and computer science, according to a new report released by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). The study, the NCWIT Scorecard, compiled data on girls and women in computer science and IT as students at the K-12 and post-secondary levels, as well as women working as professionals in IT and as faculty in computer science in higher education. It painted a fairly bleak picture of the situation in the United States, where women make up the drastic minority of participants in science- and technology-related studies and where that minority shrinks further the higher one looks up the academic and corporate ladder.

Girls in K-12: More Math, Less Interest in Comp Sci
The findings of the inaugural report showed that, starting in K-12 education, girls seem to have an advantage over boys in coursework but do not pursue careers or majors in information sciences. While girls have, on the whole, more experience in their K-12 educations in math and some engineering areas than boys, only 1 percent of females taking the SATs in 2006 indicated an interest in pursuing computer and information sciences as an intended major. And females made up only 15 percent of those taking AP computer science tests in that same year (18 percent in Computer Science A, 10 percent in Computer science AB). In fact, in all STEM-related AP tests, females made up a majority only in the Biology and Environmental Sciences categories (as well as Psychology, if you care to count that in the STEM category).

Meanwhile, in actual coursework in K-12, girls had more algebra, trig, pre-calc, and other math courses than boys (among SAT exam takers). They tied with boys in calculus and were behind (40 percent) in "computer math." Girls also had more honors math (54 percent) than boys and more years of math study.

"Why don't more young women take an interest in computer science? Perhaps due to a lack of awareness, combined with misconceptions about the field," the report suggested. "In one study of high school calculus students, only 2 percent could accurately describe what a computer science major studies. And several studies have shown that more female than male students worry that a computing degree will not allow them to work with people. Even women with very high mathematics ability may be more likely than men to believe computer science is too difficult."

The report stressed the role of encouragement, particularly written and public forms of encouragement, to motivate students to pursue STEM-related fields--which apparently hasn't been happening too often, judging by the number of STEM-related degrees awarded to women.

Women in Higher Ed: the Minority of STEM Degrees
While, on the whole, women received about 60 percent of all degrees awarded by colleges and universities in the United States in the 2005/2006 school year, only 11 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer engineering and 15 percent in computer science went to women. Women also received the minority of bachelor's degrees in electrical, electronics, and communications engineering (13 percent); aerospace engineering (18 percent); computer and information sciences (21 percent); physics (21 percent); civil engineering (22 percent); information science (28 percent); chemical engineering (36 percent); biomedical engineering (41 percent); and math (45 percent). Women received the majority of bachelor's degrees in chemistry (52 percent), biochemistry (55 percent), and biology (62 percent).

"The content of computing curriculum, especially introductory courses, is believed to contribute to the under-representation of women in IT," the report stated. "The challenge to educators is to develop engaging assignments and curricula that appeal to a variety of students with different learning styles, interests, socio-cultural backgrounds, and abilities, while maintaining the rigor of the discipline. Putting the concepts of computing in appealing contexts and building on existing competence can reduce the barriers of entry and level the playing field for those with limited experience."

The percentage of computer science bachelor's degrees awarded to women in 2006 represents a significant decline from 1983, in which women received 36 percent of those degrees awarded.

And what of advanced degrees? While the number of women receiving doctorates in computer and information sciences has grown, according to the report, so has the number of those degrees received by non-resident aliens. Of the doctoral degrees awarded to women in 2004, almost half (48 percent) went to non-resident aliens.

Women as Computer Science Faculty and IT Professionals
The picture seems to get worse as women climb the professional ladder in both academia and private industry. In the 2004/2005 school year, only 18 percent of new tenure-track faculty hires in computer science were women. (That's the same as 1995/1996, and the figures have fluctuated little over the course of those years, dipping to a low of 12 percent in 2000/2001.)

As for current professorships, 16 percent of computer science assistant professors are women (down from 20 percent in 1995/1996); 12 percent of associate professors (up from 10 percent in 1995/1996); and 10 percent of full professors (double the 1995/1996 figure).

Similarly, in the private sector, the report indicated, women are in the minority in technical and IT-related positions, and their participation shrinks even further at executive levels. In the United States workforce as a whole, women hold 56 percent of professional positions. But they hold only 27 percent of professional computing-related positions.

The present IT and computer science-related employment situation for women looks something like this:

  • Computer and mathematical occupations: 27 percent
  • Computer Scientists and systems analysts: 30.3 percent
  • Computer programmers: 26 percent
  • Computer software engineers: 21.9 percent
  • Computer support specialists: 33.2 percent
  • Database administrators: 32.6 percent
  • Network and computer system admins: 18.5 percent
  • Network systems and data communications analysts: 24.5 percent
  • Operations research analysts: 50.0 percent
  • Computer hardware engineers: 11.1 percent.

And the higher the position goes, the worse it looks. Only 15 percent of CIOs in Fortune 500 companies are female, according to the study. And only 5 percent of CTOs in those companies are female.

"How effectively an organization develops its women as leaders depends on the climate of the organization and how being a woman fits with the styles and behaviors subordinates expect from leaders in that climate," the report said. It indicated that the least congenial atmospheres for women in computer sciences and IT are rigid hierarchies that emphasize the power of individual leaders and attention to task performance rather than outcomes.

It concluded, "Skill is not enough to make a woman an effective leader in challenging contexts. Having the organization validate her credentials makes her input credible and effective. To level the playing field for women leaders, women need to have rewards to distribute and to be regarded by their subordinates as legitimate. Organizations can facilitate both of these outcomes by empowering women leaders with resources and by publicly recognizing their qualifications and skills. Additionally, organizations should foster a climate that values change and innovation, that rewards performance as well as social cooperation and social complexity, and that encourages the sharing of power and information. Across all climates, paying attention to the proportions of women in upper and lower echelons of the organization can serve as a marker of the organization's success in promoting women's leadership."

Further information about the study and about NCWIT, including the full Scorecard report, can be found at the links below.

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