Why Many Women Don't Consider Studying CS

Despite the relative youth of Computer Science as a field of academic study, American society has developed and continues to perpetuate a very specific image of the science. This image presents a set of values which appeal almost exclusively to males. The predominantly male-oriented uses of commercial computing technology, such as Palm Pilots and other "gadgets", further reinforces this image. Females with little exposure to the field therefore are often uninterested in becoming further involved with the subject, and many even develop a marked aversion to it. The influences which deter women from even considering Computer Science as a major can be categorized into three areas:

CS As A Male Field

Despite the fact that most people agree that Computer Science shouldn't be a field dominated by males, the fact remains that men far outnumber women in CS at every level of academia and industry. This alone can deter women from studying the subject, especially since many women place a high priority on the development of abundant and varied interpersonal relationships during their undergraduate years. More importantly, however, is the image of CS as not simply a male field, but a field which is overrun by males of a specific type: the computer geek.

The Stereotypical Computer Geek

The computer geek is a phenomenon propagated largely by the media, but with strong and evident roots in reality. He (yes, he) is a man who has been tinkering with computers or other technology since he was able to read--possibly even before that. These years of experience alone have given him the know-how and technical vocabulary to participate in discussions which don't even sound like English to an outside listener. The geek is fascinated by computing technology to the exclusion of all other interests. His studies focus on computers, and in his free time he programs or reads up on the latest technology. His love for programming is all-encompassing, and he will gladly forego sleep, meals, and personal hygiene in order to solve a problem. Because of his obsession with his computer, personal interaction with others is often limited and awkward.

This picture is extreme, but every computer science department has at least several students who fit the bill. More commonly students portray only several of the characteristics, such as a lifetime of background tinkering with computers, or an intense interest in cutting-edge technology, or an obsessive compulsion to work on a problem until it is perfectly solved--for hours upon hours with no breaks if necessary.

There are two major ways in which the above image of computer scientists serves to deter women from entering the field. First, many women conclude that computer science fosters a culture they do not want to enter precisely because of the qualities which they perceive in their male would-be-colleagues. They feel, often rightly so, that these traits would be expected from them as well. This is problematic on several levels. First, although the non-standard behaviors of the stereotypical computer male are acceptable for him to exhibit, the same behavior in a female is generally looked upon unfavorably. While it is a badge of honor for a man to stay up all night to finish a program, it is more often "weird" and "antisocial" for a woman to do the same. A man with poor social skills is assumed to be too brilliant to communicate effectively with everyone else; a woman with poor social skills is to imbalanced. In addition, even if outside attitudes toward these behaviors were gender-neutral, many women would still choose not to display them. Women, more than men, emphasize the "full-experience" aspect of college life, which includes keeping an active social and extracurricular schedule--one that is impossible to maintain in addition to long, nocturnal hours at a computer. Additionally, women who emphasize this social aspect of college are decidedly turned off to CS by the social awkwardness of many of the computer science majors they see.

The computer geek stereotype also deters women from entering the computer science field because it emphasizes the idea that lots of experience with computers is required before academic study can begin. Because girls interact with computers less and start later than boys, girls entering college often feel intimidated by the computer knowledge of their male peers. Concluding that they cannot possibly compete successfully with these males in computer classes, they dismiss the idea of a Computer Science major.

Computer Science Classes And Subject Material

In addition to disliking the images or expectations of people who study Computer Science, many women are deterred by dislike of the material itself, or the way it is presented by their university CS department. Far more so than males, women cite a lack of a human focus and the dry, plug-and-chug nature of Computer Science coursework as reasons for not considering a major in the field; this is true of all engineering and many science majors, not just CS. Studies show furthermore that women tend to think of computers as tools, while men think of them as machines to be mastered. The nature of most introductory CS courses is in this sense far more masculine: students are taught how to program the computer, but the programs are not useful beyond the programming lessons they teach. Female students often don't see the point in spending long hours writing useless programs. They also categorize programming as a "soulless" task. They view programmers as devoting more time to the understanding of machines than people; to many women this priority set is inexplicable and bizarre--not something they would choose to spend a single term doing, let alone four years or a lifetime.