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Many accomplished women, including Prof. Melinda McDaniel, emphasize the inadequate portrayal of women in computer science and, often times, the sciences in general.
In an interview with STEM-the-Divide, computer science professor at Georgia Tech Prof. Melinda McDaniel shared her story of pursuing computer science as a woman and discussed possible barriers other young women pursuing STEM may face. McDaniel was particularly concerned with the proportion of women in computer science. McDaniel criticized the misrepresentation of the utility of computer science, especially for young girls.
“When I talk to young women about why they’re pursuing biology, they say something like ‘I want to become a doctor and help people,’” McDaniel said. “And I feel like they just don’t see computer science as something that can help people.”
Associate professor at the University of Virginia and senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology Joanne McGrath Cohoon restated the ideas in McDaniel’s statement. She noted that a study by NetworkWorld which demonstrates computer science’s No. 8 ranking out of 129 potential college majors for salary potential, and, yet, the number of women in the field has decreased. The percentage of women working towards bachelors’ degrees in computing in the mid-1980s was 35 to 40 percent — in alarming contrast, this percentage today is approximately 18 percent.
This percentage represents for all women but is even worse when accounting solely for women of color in the field.
One possible explanation for the decline is McDaniel’s observation on how young women simple do not see the utility in the field.
“It’s an anomaly. It’s the only major STEM field where this [percentage decline in women pursuing degrees] has happened,” Cohoon said.
Consequently, McDaniel said she was the only American woman pursuing a Ph.D. in her program at Georgia State University.
McDaniel said her own daughter is relatively disinterested in computer science and more interested in writing. She shared an anecdote of when her daughter told her she did not want to pursue computer science because she sees her mother on the computer for long periods of time and perceives it as an activity which isolates women.
“The problem is they consider English as something to have a discussion about and Computer Science as just something that you do alone,” McDaniel said. “They don’t see that a lot of these computer scientists are working in teams to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.”
Making this problem even worse is the epidemic of, over time, girls being raised to believe they are incapable of pursuing computer science by the environments in which they are raised, and this hasn’t just been a recent development. It is a problem several decades in the making.
In the 1990s, a study by Jane Margolis, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, found that families were more likely to purchase computersfor their sons than for their daughters despite many young girls at the time being interested in the new technology.
Interestingly enough, the field of computer science, which was developed after World War II, was essentially put into practice by women. While men were with the military, many women worked as computers to “calculate ballistics trajectories by hand.”
The U.S. military had close to 100 women working as computers by 1945. For more information about the history of of women and computer science, read Adira Amidon’s article on the subject here.
Today, families inhibiting daughters’ interests in computers have had truly adverse effects on the confidence of women pursuing the field. In 2016, it was found that young men are more likely to take on computer science in their course framework in high school and college than women by about three percent.
In high schools alone, the proportion of boys taking AP computer science A is much higher than that of girls. A whopping 81% of students taking the course are male,while only 19% are female.
McDaniel also struggled in her professional career in computer science due to underrepresentation of women in her field, especially in the realm of post-graduate work.
“A lot of times a man would rather hire another man, because they think they can relate to them,” McDaniel said. “I’ve heard a lot of women say they have been passed overfor promotion because another guy just looks more managerial.”
Not encouraging and promoting women in computer science from an early age can greatly set back women scientists for future generations and lead the general population to believe that women cannot take on the rigor of computer science. Even Nobel laureate and renowned biochemist Tim Hunt denounced the role of women in science after hearing and believing the stereotype of women not being mathematically inclined.
“Three things happen when they are in the lab,” he said, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
Many women, including Prof. McDaniel, have actively fought to defy this wrongfully-decided stereotype that dictates that women are, in a sense, objects of sexualization and solely capable of careers with relational aspects.
“I actually think the answer is in women’s hands,” McDaniel said.
And rightfully so.
After Hunt’s comments, women scientists started the social media movement and Twitter hashtag #distractinglysexy to demonstrate the degrading and inaccurate nature of Hunt’s comments, displaying women’s dedication to their fields in STEM. And in the photo below, is a woman computer scientist being #distractinglysexy.
Other barriers McDaniel identified of women in her field is the tendency to not want to be “obnoxious” in displaying their work and demanding recognition.
“At work, [a woman] has to be professional and stern and come forward and say what she’s done and put herself out there,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel proposed that the solution is all about challenging the intricacies of culture.
“It’s true what they say — that women have to work twice as hard to get the same position as a man because of society’s expectations of women,” McDaniel said. “But I think partly it’s just that you need to go into it knowing you’re as good as the man, if not better.”
Not including women in the professional realm of computer science means we lose brain power and opportunity for advancement, so ladies, throw your hands in the air and get coding!