Opinion: There needs to be more gender diversity in computer science

TMN Columnist and senior computer science major Megan Archer weighs in on the gender disparity in the sciences.

One day, early last semester, I forgot which Violette Hall classroom my class was supposed to be in. I didn’t have time to look it up, so instead I glanced inside each room I passed to see which one had the most males in it. I found my class right away.

It’s a well-known stereotype that the computer science major is male-dominated, but I didn’t realize how true this is until I began the program. I’ve taken to counting the gender ratios in my classes, and they’re roughly 80 percent male. This isn’t just a problem at Truman — it’s a national, even worldwide issue. This gap is not a failing on the part of women — it is a symptom of a broken system that makes women feel unwelcome and underprepared.

During 2011, women earned just 18 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science in the U.S., according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Sadly, this percentage actually has decreased over time — during 1985, 37 percent were awarded to women, according to the same source. So not only is there a problem in the industry but it has gotten worse during the past decades.

The question is obvious — what’s keeping women from getting into computer science? To answer that, we should look at perceptions of this field in popular society.

When I tell people I’m a computer science major, the most common response is “There are lots of great job opportunities in that field.” The idea that there are high-paying jobs available for computer science majors is widespread — women aren’t eschewing a computer science degree because it seems like a useless major.

However, the idea of computer science as a male-dominated field is just as widespread. Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute — an organization that aims to equalize the ratio of men and women in technology fields — recalled a “feeling of isolation, like ‘I don’t necessarily belong’” being prevalent among her female peers while earning her PhD in computer science at California Institute of Technology because of the lack of female students.

The gender disparity itself may be to blame. In a negative feedback loop, the fewer female computer science students there are, the less females feel like they belong there, which leads to even fewer female computer science students. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

But figuring out how to break it is the difficult part of the problem. There are many organizations attempting to turn the tide, such as the Anita Borg Institute, but changing attitudes is always a tricky endeavor. It’s not obvious how to change society’s view.

Some promising steps have been taken. Harvey Mudd College has managed to get their computer science program ratio to an impressive 40 percent female, according to a September 2014 ReadWrite article. The college accomplished this by splitting the introductory computer science course into different levels — this way, students who had a background in computer science would be able to take an accelerated course, whereas beginning students wouldn’t feel intimidated by anyone with more programming experience.

This is a great solution to another comment I hear a lot — after people tell me how many jobs I can get with my major, they often say they wouldn’t be able to make it in a computer science major.

I think this at least partially is because of how inaccessible programming is made out to be in popular media — for example, the portrayal of hacker heroes in television and movies. These characters are portrayed as brilliant people with special skills that allow them to communicate with computers in unintelligible glowing code.

I don’t presume to think I can accomplish in one article what large and impressive organizations have been trying to do for decades, but the least I can do is add my voice to announce that it’s not that hard.

Movie hackers are written by screenwriters, and they need an air of mystique to add to the movie’s narrative tension. They are not a reflection of reality, especially not the reality of the everyday software engineer.

At the end of the day, computer programming is simply telling computers what to do. It’s less like unlocking the secrets of a magical language that submerges you in a digital world, and more like giving painfully detailed directions to your very literal-minded uncle.

Despite the amazing advances in society computers have brought about, the truth is computers on their own are stupid. And a computer programmer’s job is to tell the stupid machines how to do mindless work over and over again in a way that will help somebody.

I hope the tides will start to turn. I hope women who are looking for steady employment opportunities will see computer science as a viable option for them. I hope these women will tilt the scales a little, making the field seem more accessible to even more women. I hope we can turn the negative feedback loop into a positive one.