An illustration of a woman's face surrounded with 1's and 0's

In recent days, 5,000 computer scientists have descended on Minneapolis for a conference. Nothing odd about that, you might think: techies frequently congregate in soulless conference centres (and, occasionally, more memorable places too, such as the Nevada desert for the Burning Man event).

But this week’s Minneapolis cluster is highly unusual in one respect: those 5,000 geeks are women. More specifically, the conference has been arranged in the name of Grace Hopper, the late US naval officer and computer scientist, to “celebrate” female geeks, by “bringing the research and career interests of women in technology to the forefront”. Behind this laudable goal there lies a curious, oft-ignored tale. Indeed it is so fascinating that the Grace Hopper event has prompted me to look again at the issue I wrote about last week: 21st-century gender.

The issue at stake revolves around the question of whether computing is a “boys’ world” or not. Half a century ago, when computers first emerged, the answer appeared to be “no”. In the 1970s, the field was so new that there were fewer established anti-women prejudices; moreover typing – operating a keyboard – was a skill which seemed “female” (because many women were trained as secretaries). “Up to a third of the students [in the early 1980s in the UK] studying computer science were female,” Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at Southampton University, recently observed. Indeed, in the US in 1984, fully 37 per cent of CS graduates were women.

But then something odd occurred. At the very moment that computer science became central to all our lives – and produced a plethora of high-paying jobs – women vanished. According to the newly formed advocacy group Girls Who Code, while 57 per cent of US graduates are women, a mere 13 per cent of CS graduates are now female. And while 74 per cent of American high-school girls tell pollsters that they want to study science, maths, engineering and technology, a paltry 0.3 per cent of them are entering computer science courses.

Why? In the past, some (male) scientists have tried to explain away the gender gap in engineering, maths and physics by pointing to differences in the male and female brain. But physiology alone does not really explain this – not given the pattern seen five decades ago (or the fact that in India today, around half of all CS students are women).

Instead, the real issue seems to be that computing has somehow become culturally defined as “male” in the western student world. That might be because new job opportunities have opened up to female graduates elsewhere (say, in medicine or law). Or it might stem from a media depiction of geeks as teenage males, or from marketing biases. “In the mid-1980s the new personal computers such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro began to emerge. There was very little you could do on them except program in Basic or assembly code, or play the limited set of games that was available for them – mainly war games,” Professor Hall has observed. “As a result, they were marketed as toys for boys.” Either way, it begs a key question: can this pattern be changed?

The American tech industry now has powerful motives to try: on current projections, the US is only training a third of the 1.4 million computer scientists it will need by 2020. Hence the fact that organisations such as Yahoo, Google and Facebook are backing events such as the Grace Hopper conference, since this may help plug the gap. “There is an economic imperative here,” says Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, who describes the declining proportion of women in CS as “an emergency”.

Some educational institutions are turning the tide too: Harvey Mudd College in Southern California, for example, has raised the proportion of female undergraduates in its CS classes from 10 per cent to a peak of 40 per cent over the past six years, because a pioneering professor, Maria Klawe, has tried to rebrand computing as “female”. Entrepreneurs are also jumping in. Last year, for example, one US start-up launched a toy called GoldieBlox which tries to get small girls excited about engineering. “My daughter loves GoldieBlox,” says Jocelyn Goldfein, a senior computer scientist at Facebook who is spearheading efforts to get more prominence for her ilk.

But what really matters now is whether schools – and parents – can overcome prejudices. It will not be easy: until I encountered the Grace Hopper gathering, I hadn’t realised how many stereotypes I was harbouring. But the next time my daughters grab a digital device, I will try to suggest that they don’t just play games, but explore and enjoy the science behind the gadgets too. (As Sandberg says: “Games are what first bring many computer scientists into [this field].”) After all, if they learn to write code, it might get them a job one day – even (or especially) in an increasingly competitive, tech-savvy world.

Get alerts on Sheryl Sandberg when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article