All in all, women are doing pretty well in science. Surveys from the National Science Foundation show that the percentage of women getting science and engineering B.A.s has gone from from 39 percent in 1984-85 to 51 percent in 2004-5 (though the number of them actually stay in the profession is still dwindling). In fact, only one field can truly call itself still entrenched in male domination: computer science. The stark gender divide was summed up beautifully in last week’s New York Times:
Ellen Spertus, a graduate student at M.I.T., wondered why the computer camp she had attended as a girl had a boy-girl ratio of six to one. And why were only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at M.I.T. female? She published a 124-page paper, “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?”, that catalogued different cultural biases that discouraged girls and women from pursuing a career in the field. The year was 1991.
Computer science has changed considerably since then. Now, there are even fewer women entering the field.
And the numbers are just as startling: “In 2001-2, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-5, the number had declined to only 22 percent.” And this year? “Many computer science departments report that women now make up less than 10 percent of the newest undergraduates.”
So why is this happening?
Well, it could be a perfect storm of a continually male-dominated culture, fewer opportunities open to women, persistent societal preconceptions, and subtle discrimination. Or it could be some Larry Summers-esque sign of the female-math-skills apocalypse—though we seriously doubt it.
Or it could be the (novel) idea that nothing is wrong—maybe there are no barriers keeping women out, and they simply aren’t choosing to come in. Female comp sci students could be funneling their talents and interests into other science fields, now that women have greater opportunities there. Or they might be making choices based on the job market, like the comp sci star described by her professor as “chos[ing] to major in nursing because of what the student perceived as better prospects for finding employment.” In all honesty, she may not be so off-base.