A puzzling decline in women pursuing computer studies

Ellen Spertus, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wondered why the computer camp she attended as a girl had a boy-girl ratio of six to one. And why were only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at MIT female? She published a 124-page paper that catalogued cultural biases that discouraged girls and women from pursuing a career in the field. The year was 1991.

Computer science has changed considerably since then. Now, there are even fewer women entering the field.

What is particularly puzzling is that the explanations that were assembled back in 1991 applied to all technical fields. Yet women have achieved broad parity with men in almost every other technical field.

When one looks at computer science in particular, however, the proportion of women has been falling…Many computer science departments report that women now make up fewer than 10 percent of the newest undergraduates.

Jonathan Kane, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, recalls the mid-1980s, when women made up 40 percent of the students who majored in management computer systems. But soon after, the number of students majoring in the program had fallen about 75 percent, reflecting a nationwide trend, and the number of women fell even more.

Justine Cassell identified another explanation for the drop in interest, which was linked to the pejorative figure of the “nerd” or “geek.” She said that this school of thought said: “Girls and young women don’t want to be that person.”

Don’t young women enjoy living in their parents’ basement and subsisting on coffee, sugar and pizza while playing WOW 25 hours a day?

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