Women in Science: Addressing the Implications of the Gender Imbalance

Co-authored by Kallie Ziltz

“You’re really good at coding…for a girl!” A male student said to his female classmate, as both of them were trying to finish their project. Did everyone think she was smart “for a girl?” Did her male professors also think this way? Well, in addition to being good at math, that student is also the co-author of this article.

On the national scale, similar experiences are all too common. Women earn 57% of all Bachelor’s degrees, but make up only 18% of computer science graduates. In K-12, the trends are similarly dismal. Female students comprise 56% of all AP test takers, but make up only 19% of AP Computer Science participants, according to National Center for Women & Information Technology. Even in industry, the starting salary of females is 22% lower than equally educated male counterparts.

Increasing female enrollment in computing courses is not adequate. Awarding computer science degrees to more women is not sufficient. Appointing female faculty and hiring female programmers is not enough to correct this disparity. While these measures make the gender discrepancy seem solvable, what would have changed for women in the field? Will they feel welcome or interested?

Female underrepresentation can be addressed in three steps.

First, classic gender norms need to be broken, and these environments need to become more welcoming. Second, women need to work together to create a social network separate from the existing male-dominated structure in an attempt to empower each other. Third, and most importantly, establishing and incorporating computer science curriculum earlier in K-12 education will spark interest in all students and foster new gender-inclusive social structures.

One of the barriers to recruiting females into computer science is that they don’t feel welcome. As the statistics indicate, computer science is a traditionally masculine field. The typical computer science classroom is a boy’s club where women don’t feel as though their opinions matter. We see male professors at the front of most classrooms, are surrounded by male peers, and even admire male role models from industry.

Take a minute to list three successful people in the field of computing.

Your list perhaps included at least one of the following: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates.

It is important to note that this disparity is not related to a lack in academic ability. Recent studies show that female students who drop computer science classes are leaving with higher GPAs than their male peers.

The expectancy-value theory describes the factors beyond academics that influence the gender disparity. Expectancies of success, perceptions of current and future climates, interest and confidence are all causes that may affect any student. Along with gender stereotypes, these factors have been shown to have negative impacts on female participation and success in STEM-related classes, according to a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Engineering Education by Riegle-Crumb and Moore. These factors can be addressed by creating environments that are more welcoming and gender-inclusive.

If the female perception of current and future climates can be addressed, the expectancy-value model will change for students to promote consistent participation.

We can get the girls into the classrooms, but if they don’t feel welcome, they won’t stay.

The next step is for women to begin to empower each other. To find empowerment, members of any minority group need to have a deep understanding of their current social situation. Paulo Freire’s idea of “critical consciousness” describes this process. As applied to gender disparity in computer science, women are currently facing unjust social conditions and have been led to believe that their perspectives and experiences don’t matter. To become more aware of their social situation, women will be better prepared to empower each other and take action against this situation.

Annual meetings like the Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computing are great platforms for women to achieve critical consciousness. Women of diverse backgrounds and education unite to share experiences and facilitate discussions regarding the underrepresentation of females.

Looking at this inequality in closer detail, the “radical view of gender training” describes the root of gender inequality as it lies within an existing patriarchal structure, according to an article by Sara Hlupekile Longwe entitled, “Education for Women’s Empowerment or Schooling for Women’s Subordination?” This view directly correlates with the disparity that we are analyzing within computer science. As long as the current male-dominated structure persists, women will continue to face inequality.

Understanding the importance of social structure requires consideration of social capital creation. Social capital is created through specific relationships and social networks. Establishing a strong closed social structure for females within computer science will be critical to create social capital, empower each other and close the gender gap.

The existing social structure that we referred to is male-centered and has no place for most women. Instead of trying to create their own network or completely disrupt the existing structure, as these theories would suggest, women who have seen success in the field have thus far joined the existing male structure.

An example of this went viral on the internet. During an hour-long discussion between scientists, the only female panelist, Dr. Hubeny, was not given the same opportunities to speak. When she was finally addressed, the moderator asked her questions and proceeded to answer them himself, never giving her a chance to talk, according to a HuffPost article by Carla Herreria entitled, “A male host interrupted a female physicist so much the audience intervened.”

In a Facebook comment, she wrote that she hadn’t felt offended but rather amused by the situation. She claimed this view was atypical, but other women who have managed to succeed probably hold the same view.

They might not feel the gender divide, but it still exists.

Assimilating into the existing structure can be wonderful for those women, like Dr. Hubeny, who reap the benefits, but consider the population of wasted talent that continues to feel unwelcome. There is an idea that the women who are lucky enough to be accepted into the male social network are “honorary males” and simultaneously “queen bees,” according to Longwe’s article. The self-reliance definition of empowerment describes exactly what these women have accomplished. In this model, females make the best of their lives within the current constraints.

Rather than making due within the current constraints, true empowerment will come from redefining the constraints of the existing social structure. Equity for all means that females need to create and close the gap on their own network and begin to empower each other.

So, how do we create a social structure to foster empowerment?

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, has been outspoken in describing her experiences of finding success in the field of computing. She commonly acknowledges the unique factors that hold women back, including our attitudes, expectations, self-confidence, sense of belonging and interest. Lean In Circles were established as opportunities to connect females in similar fields to discuss a variety of topics and eventually foster new social structures. Currently, there are over 33,000 Circles running worldwide working empower females.

Lean In Circles are not the only way to establish new social networks. Local chapters of organizations such as ACM-W and SWE provide opportunities to connect women in computer science and engineering. Grassroots groups have begun to appear on college and company campuses in another attempt to connect and empower females.

Regardless of the formality or size of these groups and gatherings, establishing new social structures to generate social capital and encourage empowerment is the goal.

Students learning English via a computer software (location: Spean Chreav Amelio Primary School, Siem Reap, Cambodia)
Students learning English via a computer software (location: Spean Chreav Amelio Primary School, Siem Reap, Cambodia)

The final step to resolve gender disparity in computer science is to affect change earlier in the education of all students. Sparking interest in computer science and creating new inclusive social structures should occur as early as possible within a K-12 setting.

There are currently over 500,000 open computing jobs in the US, with less than 60,000 recent graduates available to fill them. It is projected that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million open computing jobs, but only 400,000 graduates with the skills to fill them, according to Code.org and Quartz. This data shows the need for increased computer science education, and a significant opportunity for all generations of students.

Currently, this curriculum is inaccessible to most students. Out of approximately 42,000 high schools, only 2,100 of them were certified to teach AP Computer Science in 2011. Creating a computer science curriculum that is accessible for all students from an early age will promote interest and curiosity.

It is important to consider that teaching computer science early is a privilege in today’s society. Not every school can afford the planning or technology required to teach students about computing.

In many schools, computer science is in limbo between math and science. Schools don’t know how it fits into their curriculum, and there are currently no national standards for guidance. Here is a great opportunity for the computing community, administrators and policy makers to collaborate to develop standards and expectations for computer science and simultaneously break through traditional gender norms.

Another reason to appeal to students’ interests early is to create new social structures in these classrooms. If we can teach students equally and inclusively, they will learn to work together and create an improved social network. As the next generation matures and advances through their education and into the workforce, there will be no gender stereotypes to breakthrough.

It is both hopeful and fearful writing about the gender divide in computer science.

Making changes to welcome, connect and empower women will facilitate positive changes. Presenting computer science curriculum earlier to all students will pique interests and breakdown traditional stereotypes to create a gender inclusive environment.

If we don’t make these changes, thousands of jobs will remain unfilled, as half of the population is never given the chance to participate. Addressing this gender disparity isn’t just good for women, but for society as a whole.


Kallie Ziltz is a Ph.D. student at Lehigh University’s Teaching, Learning and Technology. She is interested in curriculum design for computer science education, and much of her research interest revolves around computer science and the overwhelming gender imbalance. She can be reached at kallie.ziltz@gmail.com. More information about Kallie's projects and presentations, as well as sample instructional technology work can be found at https://sites.google.com/view/kallieziltz/

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