Why Many Women Switch Out Of Undergraduate CS Programs

While many women consider studying Computer Science only briefly, if at all, a significant number of them do choose to enter the field as undergraduates. Well-designed introductory courses which appeal to a wide variety of students, including women, have made a great deal of progress in this area. Stanford's CS106 program is particularly well known for its wide appeal and the subsequently large numbers of women it draws into the Computer Science program. Unfortunately, many women who begin study in CS never earn a degree in it, choosing to switch to a different major instead. There are four major reasons for women's choice to abandon the study of Computer Science:


The isolation felt by many women within undergraduate Computer Science departments is a large contributor to their high attrition rate. Whether they realize it or not, these outnumbered women all develop strategies for coping with the fact that they are in the minority. Research has identified two trends in this coping. In their study "Barriers To Women in Academic Science and Engineering", Etzkowitz, Kemelgor, Neuschatz, and Uzzi call the women who adopt these two strategies "instrumentals" and "balancers".

Instrumentals are the women who choose to adopt the male model of computing, in which obsessively long hours at a terminal are commendable and knowledge of the latest and best is key. They make every effort to become "just one of the guys." This allows them to participate successfully in competitive male groups. While easing the strain on these women in their relations with their colleagues, it increases the isolation the women feel with regard to students outside of their major. Being "one of the guys" requires many hours of programming, which by necessity come from what would otherwise be social time. Furthermore, becoming "one of the guys" usually involves a distinct loss of femininity, both physically and mentally. A female professor surveyed by Andrea Grant summarized, "I think that at some point, all the women I went to graduate school with made the decision that they would rather be smart than feminine." Instrumentals generally abandon distinctly feminine attire because they feel it gives them less credibility in the eyes of the males they are emulating. They also abandon traditionally female discussion topics and styles, becoming more aggressive in their manner and more focused on the generally technological discussions which take place in male workgroups. Lastly, instrumentals often suppress their negative reactions to offensive material such as sexist jokes, for fear of singling themselves out as "the woman". All of these changes can easily take a severe toll on a woman, particularly during undergraduate years where she is trying to set a path for the rest of her life. Many women find themselves beginning to drift away from their non-CS friends, and decide that Computer Science is not worth the sacrifice of their social time and manners. They switch to a different major.

Balancers, on the other hand, are the women who reject the male model of computing and take their own approach. These women are often criticized by their male colleagues and even by the female instrumentals for not being "hardcore". They spend their spare time doing things completely unrelated to computer science. Unless they happen to have an interest in the latest technology, they make no effort to keep themselves informed about it. Often these balancers are adamant in their criticism of the more stereotypical Computer Science students, citing their social imbalance and obsessive work habits as serious problems. Ellen Spertus writes along this vein:

It is important to remember that women who do not throw themselves into the computer world might not be inferior to men but that sacrificing everything to computers might not be something that a psychologically healthy human being does. Perhaps men and women alike would be better off if some jobs and hacker cultures did not require giving up the rest of their lives.

Most often, the balancer women who exhibit this spirit are unaffected by the competitive spirit of the men in their major, choosing not to compare themselves to the men, but instead to set their own standards of success--these alternative standards can range from Grade Point Average to simply whether or not the women are learning what they will need to later do whatever it is they hope to do with computers.

While the existence of the instrumental and balancer strategies for coping with being a minority in Computer Science are beneficial for the individual women who adopt them, the divisiveness between the two groups is unfortunately detrimental to the development of solidarity between women in the major at large. Because the instrumentals are successful within the male framework, they often share the males' criticism of the balancers and take them less seriously. Perhaps more importantly, they also often conclude that there really is no problem for women in computing; female instrumentals are often the most adamant and vocal people to argue against the existence of any barriers to women in computer science. In addition, because the approach of each group is developed in rejection of the other group, instrumentals and balancers usually feel that they have very little in common with the others, and hence the already small female population becomes divided into two even smaller subsections.

Loss Of Interest

Socialization aside, many women who choose not to complete a degree in Computer Science cite a loss of interest in the material as their reason for switching majors. Many are initially attracted to CS by the problem-solving aspect of the CS coursework, but begin to find it dry when class after class deals with the same kind of technical, non-humanitarian problems. Some quit CS entirely, while others choose a more human-focused way to study computers, such as a major in Symbolic Systems.

Many women are also disappointed by the lack of visible application of much of the material taught to undergraduates. They hope to one day use their computer skills for a specific purpose, but CS classes never allow them to see the connection: in a compilers class, students write a compiler; in an Artificial Intelligence class, students write an Othello brain; in an Operating Systems class, students write an operating system. So many of the projects for computer classes are related to computers in their applications that it is easy for women to get discouraged by the idea that CS is a narrow, self-absorbed field for which they will have no use when they finish college.

Another factor which causes women to lose interest in Computer Science is the lack of room for creativity in most of the work. This is an unfortunate problem, since "real" software development, meaning the development of software for actual use and not for the purpose of teaching concepts, allows for a great deal of creativity. At the undergraduate level, however, the focus is on programming and basic concepts, meaning that the work is heavy on tedious details and the understanding of abstract principles, rather than on original thought or creative application of ideas. In a survey conducted by our project group here at Stanford, CS140 was overwhelmingly the favorite Computer Science class of women majoring in CS. The reason for the choice of Operating Systems as the favorite class was almost always that the assignments were more open-ended than in other classes, and allowed for freedom and creativity of design. The choice of CS140 is particularly surprising since the class is notorious for its extremely high workload--a note which should further discourage any notion that women leave CS because it is too difficult.

Lack Of Confidence

Studies have shown that during their college years and often beyond, women have significantly less confidence in their academic abilities than men--even when they are identically qualified and produce work of the same or better quality than their male peers. A study titled "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America" published in 2000 found also that self-confidence and confidence in academic ability are directly correlated to student's liking for mathematics and science. These two findings together suggest that women may switch out of engineering majors like Computer Science because their self-confidence is low.

One factor contributing to women's loss of self-confidence in computer-related studies is the confidence and frequency with which their male peers speak of their achievements. Part of this stems from the fact that most men have more prior experience with computers than women, so they are more comfortable with them and have more background on which to draw in conversation. Additionally, men tend to be more competitive with one another and therefore talk up their achievements to others; women, who tend to downplay their achievements, then conclude that the men in their classes have far more experience and understanding than they--even when this is not at all the case. Kramer & Lehman (1990) describe:

There are differences, however, in the way students perceive their own math and science abilities, with females generally having less self-confidence and more anxiety about their skills. This lack of confidence in young women is very specific to themselves as individuals: they don't attribute their perceived lack of skill to being female; rather they see it as an individual inability or disinterest. In other words, they feel that women in general are capable, but they are not.

Another problem which causes low self-confidence in engineering women is the lack of affirmation they generally receive. Class sizes are large, so personal interaction with professors is usually limited--a problem cited almost exclusively by women. The vast majority of feedback comes in the form of grades, which are generally quantitative indicators of the fraction of a project which was done correctly. Although grades are perhaps the most objective form of evaluation, many women begin to feel as though, unless they receive a perfect score, their work is inadequate. Men, on the other hand, tend to think little of the grades, attributing low grades to lack of effort--not to lack of ability.

In addition to lack of affirmation, many women experience subtle forms of negative feedback. Computer Science projects are often done in groups--groups in which females, due to their small numbers, usually find themselves alone in a group with several men. Many studies have shown that in mixed-gender groups, women are interrupted more frequently and their contributions more often ignored than mens'. This repeated experience in doing group work term after term can easily take its toll on the confidence of a woman in CS, particularly if she is often the only female in a group and does not recognize that the source of her insecurity within the group probably has nothing at all to do with her intelligence or ability.

When students--male or female--lose confidence in their ability to handle a subject, they often begin to lose interest in the material. This causes their performance to drop, which again decreases their confidence. It is no surprise that low confidence often results in a change of major. This is commonly the case for women leaving CS, but not for men. The difference is that women suffer from low confidence far more than men, particularly in engineering fields. This is because the confidence-decreasing factors outlined above affect women much more than men, because women seek affirmation more often, are more frequently in positions where they are marginalized, and may enter the field with less confidence and more doubt to begin with. In addition, a woman's confidence is far more easily shattered by a single offhand remark than a man's, meaning that even isolated incidences of negativity may dissuade women from continuing their Computer Science studies.

Lack Of Role Models

Though the current number of undergraduate female Computer Science majors is lower than desired, numbers have generally been increasing over the past two decades. While this is positive, it means that the number of women who studied Computer Science then is miniscule--unfortunately, this is the pool of people from which current professors and CS faculty is drawn. The result is that undergraduate women studying today have very few, if any professors within their major to look to as role models.

Role models are important to sustaining women's interest in Computer Science and confidence in themselves. The presence of female professors shows undergraduate women that they, too, can succeed in the field. Role models additionally provide a source of advice about not only academic issues, but gender-specific issues which male professors, even if they are sensitive to them, might simply not be able to understand.

A final note on role models is that the number of role models available to women embarking upon their CS studies is even fewer than might be expected. The women who are professors today studied in an environment markedly different from that of today; for this reason they exhibit traits which today's undergraduates may find unappealing. For example, many of today's female professors succeeded in Computer Science by taking the "instrumental" approach to the subject, often choosing not to have children and becoming more aggressive in their work. Today's female CS students increasingly don't want this life for themselves, and so they dismiss these professors as potential role models or friends.