photo of a lone woman developer at HDC

Where the Women Are

I was on the road last week, and found myself with three burning questions: Why do hotel pillows have the relative density of year-old Melba toast? Why are conference rooms super-chilled to 283 Kelvin? And, most importantly, where are all the women?

photo of a lone woman developer at HDC

Can you spot me? I’m one of only two women in this fun-filled seminar on Building the Next Generation of MVC Applications on ASP.NET 5.0

I can tell you where they aren’t: at the AIM Heartland Developer’s Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. Call it the Burning Man for geeks, except nothing radical happens, and the debauchery is generally limited to wearing cargo shorts to the workshops: Look dude, I left my khakis at home!

The AIM HDC is an annual event where software developers gather to exchange ideas and learn about emerging technologies. As such, I would have predicted it as a representative sampling of developers in the Midwest.

What I found in terms of the ratio of men to women was distressing. At best it was 8:1 and sometimes as bad as 40:1. Even more disturbing was number of young women (in this case I mean women under thirty). In my time at the seminar, I spotted only three twenty-something women out of six-hundred participants.

Three.

In the department where I work—a department largely populated with seasoned IT professionals—I’d guesstimate the ratio is around 5:1. They don’t hire fresh college grads there, but I wrongly assumed the number of women entering the field had remained steady.

How wrong I was.

In 1984, 37% of the students pursuing a Computer Science degree were women. However, since 1985, the number of women pursuing Computer Science degrees has declined. Post-2007, that number has been flat at around 17%.

Why the gender gap? I found plenty of hypotheses online, but I decided to find out what the women in IT thought. So between seminars, I walked around and asked female developers why there weren’t more women in technology.

The answers I got ranged from a mystified shrug, to a woman who evangelized on the importance of early outreach in elementary school.

Other reasons I heard:

  • Women are hesitant to pursue a career in a male-dominated field.
  • Women choose to pursue more social careers, like medicine/nursing.
  • Technology is perceived as an isolated career, where women prefer more ‘social’ jobs.
  • Women don’t want to be nerds. It’s unattractive.
  • Technology is just not a woman’s first choice when considering a career

All of which made me go back to the participant who said, “By the time girls reach high school and are making career decisions, it’s too late. They’ve been shunted out of math and sciences.”

Barbie says: I can be a computer programmer. Or at least design a game and make coffee for the real programmers.

Barbie says: I can be a computer programmer. Or at least design a game and make coffee for the real programmers.

Well that’s silly, right? We all know girls are just as smart at math and science. And even Barbie can be a Computer Programmer, or so said Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer by Susan Marenco. Well, actually, that book said that Barbie can only be a designer, and that she needed Steven and Brian to actually do the coding. Marenco faced a lot of wrath over that book and it was subsequently withdrawn. But this was released in 2013. It’s 2013 and this is the message that still gets out to our girls?

Not exactly, according to the State of Girls and Women in STEM http://www.ngcproject.org/statistics. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, more girls are taking pre-calculus and algebra II than boys, and females enroll in science course at similar rates to their male peers.

But it is in engineering, physics and computer science where the gap shows up. Boys were six times more likely to have taken engineering classes.

It’s perplexing. For one thing, an engineering degree affords the opportunity to earn a better than average salary. While the median starting salary for an Arts and Humanities graduate is $36,237, those in Engineering degree start out at $64,367. And Computer Science graduates can expect a starting salary around $58,500. Is the salary higher because it’s a male-dominated field? I can’t help but wonder. But I say–let’s find out. Let’s break the gender gap in computer science and engineering by encouraging our girls to pursue technology.

The guys at the HDC in Omaha would approve. Because frankly, their odds weren’t good.

7 Comments

  1. Excellent points. Working in tech myself, I know a couple female programmers. They’re great, but I never noticed that they were the only ones. On the plus side, no line for the bathroom!

  2. Lori Caudill

    Great article, Karen! We need to teach our daughters to break the glass ceiling in male dominated fields, rather than try to fit into glass slippers.

    1. What a great way to put it! Yes, we do 🙂

  3. Lara

    I am in engineering. I chose engineering over developer because I just do not enjoy it (whereas I love mechanical stuff so mechanical engineer is my place) Perhaps it is simply not what the majority of women enjoy.

    1. Lara

      Or perhaps better put, a smaller percentage of women enjoy coding than the small percentage of men 😉

      1. You may be right, although I’m personally mystified why anyone wouldn’t LOVE coding 😉

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