Why don’t girls want to be computer scientists?

Nowadays, information technology floods everything. To the point that, according to the creator of the C++ programming language, Bjarne Stroustrup, our society depends on software as much as it does on water, even though we can’t see it or touch it. It happens as with domestic tasks: the software is only seen if it is not well done. Thus, they tend to see only its negative consequences, such as when the Boeing 737 Max crashed due to a software error.

In a very simplistic way, we can understand computing as the automatic processing of information. In our mobile phone we carry software with millions of lines of code. That is, the instructions with which the computer device (mobile, tablet, laptop) is told what to do. In this way we access social networks, listen to music or buy online.

Strong Demand for Computer Engineers

This dependence on software and computer science in general makes computer engineers indispensable. It is also a profession with full employment.

For years, the demand for these profiles has exceeded the number of professionals that the Spanish education system is capable of training. This makes several positions held by computer engineers among the most difficult for companies to fill.

In addition, this contributes to technological profiles, including computer engineering, earning 42% more than the average.

Gender bias in computing

Despite such promising forecasts for the computer engineering profession, this discipline has sustained a significant gender bias over time.

In Europe, more than 50% of university degree graduates are women, yet only 17% are Computer Engineering graduates. The European data is very similar to that of the evolution of female enrollment in the Computer Science degree in Spanish public universities.

Proportion of female graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Europe in 2015.
Eurostat / European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE)

It wasn’t always like this. In the 1960s, women were the majority of programmers. software. Especially since in its origins software coding was perceived as a minor task, while the construction of machines (computers) seemed really important, and therefore entrusted mostly to men.

So why don’t girls want to be computer scientists? There are three key reasons: stereotypes, fallacies about skills and lack of female role models in the profession.

Computer stereotypes

At the time, stereotypes appeared as an attempt to make computing interesting and attract professionals. In 1965, it was announced in the United States that half a million “men” were being sought to control the electronic giants, with the slogan: “Do you have what it takes to be a programmer?”

In 2010 a book titled The computer boys take over where terms such as “the black art of programming” are still used. The point is that many of these stereotypes are still prevalent today. This causes girls to have a preconceived image of computer scientists.

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Stanley L. Englebardt 1965.

All of the above, together with the films and series of the omnipresent industry and culture of Hollywood, have contributed to portray the computer engineer as a man, asocial, the typical intelligent weirdo, who drinks a lot of caffeinated beverages and maintains a sedentary life neglecting his appearance. What was he like, if not, the computer scientist of jurassic-park who we grew up with? (To top it off, he was the villain of the movie).

the toy industry

Another factor that feeds this stereotype is the toy industry in collusion with parents. Despite efforts to eliminate gender stereotypes, the industry continues to produce toys that are clearly oriented towards girls, with lots of pink colors, very cheesy, and usually care-oriented. Meanwhile, the children-oriented offer finds many more options related to STEM disciplines.

file 20220325 25 m5lsq6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Packaged Computer Barbie.
Mattel Picture / Eric Steuer

Despite this, Mattel launched a computer engineer Barbie in 2010 and a video game programmer Barbie in 2016.

But at the same time, a book was being sold where the programmer Barbie said with a laugh that she “just created the design ideas and needed the help of Steven and Brian to turn it into a real video game”.

Fallacies about the capabilities of girls

The second reason is the different abilities that are supposedly attributed to men and women, of course wrongly. From an early age we tell girls what they should like, and we try (often without realizing it, as parents, as a society) to convince them of what they are best at.

If we convince someone that they cannot do something well and we do not give them confidence, they will surely begin to not do it well. It is the famous self-fulfilling prophecy. But that girls have less capacity in these areas is not only not true, but in levels prior to high school, girls have proven to be better, or at least equal, in science and mathematics.

lack of referents

The third reason is the lack of female role models in the industry. Taking into account the proportion of Computer Engineering graduates (17%), it is not surprising that the proportion of women in technology companies is 15%, which does not vary much in large companies such as Apple, Google or Twitter. Of these, an extremely small percentage holds positions of responsibility in technology companies.

These reasons have led to a reduced role for women in computer engineering in the last four decades. Which has more important implications than expected.

40% less talent

First, the IT profession is losing 40% of talent, girls and women to other professions.

Second, information technology, which pervades everything in our society and its economy, is being developed without having enough women. For example, the first voice recognizers did not recognize female voices because they were developed by men. Now, the current voice recognizers are accused of being sexist.

When everything indicates that artificial intelligence will be used for almost everything in the not too distant future, we cannot imagine such intelligence developed mostly by men, including acquired biases and prejudices.

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