Why girls have abandoned computer science


This is a fact that is obvious to any organizer of post-baccalaureate orientation or open days in engineering school: boys are far more likelythan girls to hurry around booths dedicated to the trades of digital . One might think that it has always been so. Moreover, this state of affairs is anchored in mentalities, the figure of the “geek” still declining often male.

This would almost make us forget that at the beginning of what was called “computing,” many mathematicians played a key role. Among these great figures , we can mention Grace Hopper , who imagined the concept of compiler and made the first prototype in 1952. It is a woman, Mary Keller, who supported the first thesis in computer science, in 1965.

We can also mention Kathleen Booth, a pioneer of character recognition and machine translation. Or Barbara Liskov, who in 1968 started one of the first chess games, and became a professor of artificial intelligence at MIT.

Research and “coding” positions

After pioneering work, Adele Goldberg led the design of the first graphical computer in 1973, while Alice Recoque designed the Mitra mini-computer line, including the highly successful Mitra 15, which was a great commercial success. It should be noted that MIT, in its quest for excellence, had an early policy of openness to diversity: between 1965 and 1985, the number of female students in computer science increased from 5% to almost 30%.

During these founding years, women were also very active at an operational level. In the 1940s, the first electronic computer, ENIAC , was entirely programmed by six mathematicians. In the early 1950s, at computer manufacturer Eckert-Mauchly, 40% of programmers were women. Until 1960, in Great Britain, in the public service, the “coding stations” of computers were almost exclusively female.

The first Computer Usage Company started in the United States in 1955 with a team of four programmers. Three years later, Elsie Schutt launches Computations Inc. to enable mothers to pursue a career in computer science by working remotely; this business will last 50 years. In 1962, in Great Britain, Stephanie Shirley founded at 29 Freelance Programmers , with the same objective: it will be a great international success until its acquisition by Steria in 2007.

The turn of the 80s

How did the situation reverse? What triggers can we identify? The hinge is in the 1980s, first around recruitment methods. To filter the multitude of applications that come to him, an American society then defines the psychological profile of “the good programmer”.

It is based on a sample of men working in a military environment, with two main characteristics: a sociability a little less than the average and activities socially connoted as masculine. We are far from the years 1940-50 where to program we recruited people who are patient, logical, having a lot of imagination, and practicing crosswords, chess or knitting! This profile has been heavily used.

Then, as the need for IT staff grew, salaries were relatively high. Considering that it was abnormal for coders to have such a comfortable remuneration and that it was inconceivable that they manage mixed teams, Great Britain has, in the public sector – leader in the computerization of the country – blocked the career of skilled, experienced and motivated programmers, and new recruitments will lead to masculinizing the profession.

The third factor is an academic, industry-related, non-women empowerment: the NATO-sponsored conference in 1968 at the behest of IT leaders who had begun to understand the issue. The importance of software over hardware has brought together global programmers, but no woman, not even Grace Hopper or Jean Sammet .

Academics are pushing industrialists to talk about software engineering and software engineering, in order to raise the level perceived, but the qualifier of engineer contributes to masculinize the perception of computer training.

On the other hand, wishing to reinforce the sector’s know-how, the leading American trade association (DPMA), with an overwhelming majority of men, is developing a certification of competence. But given the timing and distribution of domestic work, it remains, in fact, less accessible to women.

The weight of popular culture

In 1965, in the United States, we find 30% of women in programming. In 1982, 35% of IT jobs in France are held by women. As computer science gradually spreads into society, from the end of the 1960s, the computer incorporated popular culture, but in settings that often put women aside. In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 film Space Odyssey , the computer has a male voice and the relationship between humans and computers leaves no room for women.

In advertising in the late 1970s, the marketing target is that of executives, men at 80% in 1985 in France. The suggested goal for men is a little utilitarian – working from home – and, for the most part, fun. In families, the microcomputer does not enter equally: men spend more time there than women, sons have more access than girls, and are often initiated by their father.

When we start buying personal computers for children, boys will remain privileged for a long time compared to girls. This culture of a certain practice of the computer will spread gradually, and contribute, in the general public, to associate computer and masculine. Especially since the free software movement, with its communities excluding women, builds the figure of the hacker as the developer model.

Algorithms and biases

Finally, with their rise on social networks, or for the automatic generation of advertisements, the algorithms have also shown that they reproduce gender bias , reinforcing discrimination against girls in access to digital training.

All these factors mean that in ten years women have gradually withdrawn, and despite various initiatives, the movement has not reversed. As they had been little visible before, the collective memory has forgotten the places they had occupied.

The study of the countries where there is a parity in the computer field (India, Malaysia …), as well as that of the universities having obtained a mixed diversity in these fields (CMU, NTNU, Harvey Mudd College …) show that only one wide inclusion movement , locally declined, will allow women to find a large place in the digital professions.

Author Bio: Chantal Morley is a Professor of Information Systems at the Institut Mines-Télécom (IMT)