‘Computer scientist’. The name calls to mind a guy, maybe in his early 30s. Possibly wearing a three day old t-shirt. Possibly working from his mum’s basement. And here, in terms of gender anyway, the stereotype isn’t far off.
Today, computer science is one of the most male-dominated fields around. In 2016, only one in six school leavers starting a degree in computer science were women.
But you might be surprised to discover that the nascent form of computer science was seen as a female industry. An influx of women who had previously occupied secretarial posts meant that computer programming was characterised as clerical work in the early days, rather than a ‘true science’.
In 1984, 37 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to women in the US. Today this figure is 17 percent - the same as the proportion of women in the entire technology sector in the UK. So what happened? This wasn’t an accident. In fact, men entering the industry actually influenced against the hiring of females. It became popular to filter applicants using personality profiles that emphasised qualities like being ‘anti-social’ as a particularly beneficial (and predominantly masculine) trait.
There were even ad campaigns aimed to discourage the hiring of women. “What has sixteen legs, eight waggly tongues and costs you at least $40,000 a year? Your team of 8 female programmers, that’s what,” read the tagline of one campaign, by the Optical Scanning Corporation.
At the same time, personal computers were marketed almost entirely to men and boys, and the male, ‘computer geek’ stereotype - cemented by popular films such as Revenge of the Nerds - endures to this day. As men flooded into the industry, the prestige and salary associated with the job surged.
What can we do to right the situation? Insight may hail from countries such as India and Malaysia, which despite ranking lower than the UK on overall gender equality, don’t have such a striking ‘women problem’ in tech. “I walk into a classroom in India and it’s more than 50 percent girls, the same in Malaysia,” said Professor Dame Wendy Hall, a director at the University of Southampton’s Web Science Institute in an interview with the Guardian. “They are so passionate about coding, Lots of women love coding. There just aren’t these gender differences there.” In India, 35 percent of specialist technology roles are occupied by women - double the rate of the UK, according to a 2018 Open University Study.
The study found that one of the main reasons for the disparity was that the Indian tech scene wasn’t subject to the same constraining stereotypes as the UK’s. In addition, there was more encouragement by girls’ parents to enter careers in tech and more collaboration between universities and the industry. Ignoring the last point, the first two reasons can be seen to stem from the same issues - stereotypes influencing both girls and girls’ parents against women starting a career in tech.
In India, 85 percent of women surveyed said they began a career in tech due to family influences. Meanwhile in the UK, 52 percent of parents admit to forming gender stereotypes about STEM subjects, and 54 percent of teachers have witnessed girls dropping STEM subjects because of parental pressure.
These findings could be seen in a pessimistic light, but they actually provide hope for the woeful gender divide in UK tech. If it’s perceptions (their own and other people’s) pushing girls away from careers in STEM subjects, rather than any innate quality of the subjects, then this is something that can be addressed with the right interventions.
Organisations like Code First: Girls and 23 Code Street and female tech hangouts like DevelopHer UK are working to give girls and women the role models, support and skills training that they need to get a start in tech. But we can all work to erode the harmful all-male stereotype holding girls back.
So forget the guy I described at the beginning of the article. Instead, let’s imagine a young woman with the drive and passion to achieve her dream job in coding despite societal pressures pushing her away. Let’s change our stereotypes.