Is Computing Just for Men?

Girls and boys in computer lab

Image by Wayne MacPhail, Flickr Creative Commons

March 11, 2015

The percentage of women in computing careers has dropped from a high of near 40 percent in the mid-1980s to just 26 percent in 2013. But in some countries women work in computing in much higher numbers than they do in the United States. In Malaysia nearly 50 percent of the computer science degrees are awarded to women.

Want to help more women get into computer science?

Read AAUW’s research report
about how few women are working
in this field and what can be done.

Malaysia’s numbers aren’t at all surprising if you compare computing with some other traditionally “male” jobs. Computing jobs aren’t dirty, dangerous, or physically taxing. They are high paying, interesting, and creative. You can compare computer programming to sewing: Both are indoor work that require an attention to detail.

Some of the first “computers” were women who were hired to do astronomical calculations at Harvard. They were paid much less than men to do the same work, and several of them made lasting contributions to astronomy. So why is the Western stereotype that computing is for men?

A Surge in Majors, but Where Are the Women?

While a number of colleges and universities in the United States have recently seen a tremendous increase in the number of students who want to major in computing, the percentage of women who are interested is still low. A study conducted by the Association for Computing Machinery and the WGBH Educational Foundation in 2008 found that only 9 percent of college-bound teen girls thought that a career in computing was a very good choice for them, and only 17 percent thought that it was a good career choice. Teen girls associated computing with typing, math, and boredom. While the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in the United States did increase from 11.7 percent in 2010–11 to 12.9 percent in 2011–12, women are still dramatically underrepresented.

The Percentage of Women Taking the Computer Science AP Exam Lags

The Advanced Placement (AP) computer science A course is equivalent to a college-level introductory computer science course. It focuses on object-oriented programming in Java. In 2014, only about 20 percent of AP computer science A exam takers were women. While that was an increase from the previous year, when the percentage was 18.5 percent, it is still far below the percentage of women who took the AP calculus AB exam (48.7 percent) and the percentage of women who took the AP biology exam (59 percent). It is even well below the percentage of women who took the physics B exam (34.7 percent), as shown below.
Percent women taking AP science exams

The Number of Women Taking Computer Science AP Exams Also Lags

The raw numbers highlight the dramatic differences in the number of women who take selected AP exams. Only 7,458 women took the computer science A exam in 2014 versus 30,352 who took the physics B exam, 122,746 who took the biology exam, 137,186 who took the calculus AB exam, and 307,784 who took the English language and composition exam. Given that more than 50 percent of future STEM jobs are in computing-related fields, the number of women who take the computer science A exam should be comparable to the number taking the Calculus AB exam.
Number of women taking select AP exams, 2014

A Breakdown of the Number of Women Taking AP Exams by State

If you break things down by state, you find that, not surprisingly, California had the most women (1,599) taking the AP computer science A exam, and Texas had the second highest number (1,102). In 2013, California had the highest population with 38.3 million people, and Texas had the second highest population with 26.4 million people.

Only 11 states had more than 200 women take the AP computer science A exam; however, the number of women who took the exam drops off quickly since only 15 states had more than 100 women take the exam. A total of 10 states had fewer than 10 women take the exam: Mississippi (1 woman/4 men), North Dakota (1/14), Nebraska (2/71), Kansas (3/40), Alaska (4/30), South Dakota (4/29), Utah (5/104), and Delaware (7/79). In Montana, no women took the exam (four men did), and in Wyoming, no students—male or female—took the AP computer science A exam.
A bar graph; California has the largest number and Oklahoma the smallest.

The Percentage of Women Taking Advanced Placement Exams by State

The percentage of women exam takers for AP computer science A in 2014 was nearly 25 percent in Washington, but only nine states had more than 20 percent women test takers.
A bar graph: Washington has the highest percentage, and Ohio the lowest.

Why Do These Low Numbers Matter?

As enrollment in computer science grows, it tends to overwhelm the capacity of colleges and universities to meet the demand. This leads to caps on the number of majors, a higher bar for majors, and an increase in the difficulty of computing courses, making it harder to increase the percentage of women in computing.

Women have less prior experience and higher failure rates in introductory computing courses. If we really want to increase the percentage of women who graduate with bachelor’s degrees in computing, we have to increase the number of young women who take Advanced Placement computer science in high school.

Check back later for more stories from women in engineering and technology, as well as the release of the AAUW research report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Technology, coming March 26!

Solving the Equation is made possible by these generous supporters: the National Science Foundation, Research on Gender in Science and Engineering award 1420214; AT&T; and the Mooneen Lecce Giving Circle.

This post was written by Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach for the institute for computing education for the college of computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She has been compiling data on the AP computer science A exam by gender and race for several years, and it is available on her website.  


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