Only two in 10 computer programmers are women, according to federal statistics.
A small California college has bolstered women’s representation in computer sciences, but tech industry bias persists
[Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in 2012. At the time, a large number of readers agreed that the gender gap existed. We thought the story worth a re-post to ask you if you thought any and/or enough progress has been made in closing this gender gap. Is this even still a problem? Weigh in through comments, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me @eSN_Meris on Twitter.]
The rise of the brash, stylish, computer-geek-turned-cool-guy known simply as a “brogrammer” among popular technology startups threatens to further alienate women from enrolling in computer science courses, where for years they have been vastly underrepresented, higher-education officials said.
Mainstreaming of the label “brogrammer”—a combination of bro and programmer—began among technology companies appealing to recent college graduates who are experts at writing computer code. It has since seeped into higher education, where students said it has reinforced the archetype of a tech-savvy student ready for post-graduation life in the technology industry: A man.
“Some people say brogrammer is not sexist, because women can be programmers, too. They’re just called hogrammers,” said Xanda Schofield, a junior computer sciences major at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., where the college’s president has pushed for more women in technology-focused majors. “Hearing that, you realize that people just don’t understand the problem. They’re trying to make programming cool by excluding women, making it boys only. It makes me wonder why someone would try to apply a social construct that’s discriminating when you can just appeal to all students.”
(Next page: The history of the problem)
Faculty members and campus decision makers nationwide for years have warned of falling rates of women students in the computer sciences, which hasn’t always been so thoroughly dominated by men. In 1985, nearly four in 10 undergraduate computer science degrees were awarded to women. By 2009, that number had plummeted to 18 percent. The U.S. technology industry reflects a similar trend: Two in 10 programmers are women, according to a 2011 report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of students who earn a computer science degree plummeted for a decade after the dot-com crash of 2001, but while men receiving those degrees dropped by 35 percent, women graduating in computer science dropped by 67 percent at research institutions.
The startling lack of women in computer sciences and at technology startups, Schofield said, has made college women suspicious even when companies recruit them.
“There’s this very subtle culture that says men are better at this, but we still need some women just to look good,” said Schofield, 20.
Harvey Mudd’s seven-year push for women in computer science courses could be the antidote for the impact of the “brogrammer” culture and, quite possibly, a national model for higher education, said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, a chair in the college’s computer sciences department.
By requiring students to take an introductory computer science class, creating a class for students with little experience in the language of computers, and offering tangible examples of how computer science can be applied in the professional world, Harvey Mudd officials have watched women in the school’s computer science major jump from 10 percent in 2005 to around 40 percent last year.
Even the college’s advanced computer science class, known at Harvey Mudd as “boot camp for programming,” has seen a massive influx of women students. Before 2007, there were never more than two women in the program’s “boot camp.” Now, there are 23.
Libeskind-Hadas said separating freshmen who come to campus with years of programming experience and those with little or no background in computer science was a centerpiece of the college’s effort to narrow the program’s gender gap. This gave inexperienced students—both women and men—a far less intimidating introduction to a complex field.
“You don’t get these super macho students who raise their hands all the time and know the answer to everything all the time,” Libeskind-Hadas said. “That’s not a very welcoming atmosphere for less experienced students. And we’re quite aware that men come to college with more experience with computers. They have no more ability than women, just more experience.”
(Next page: Lower expectations for women programmers?)
Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd College president and head of the drive for more women in computer science, wrote in a 2011 report that the school’s strategy addressed women’s lack of interest in computer science, their lack of confidence with technology, and their discomfort in men-dominated computer classes.
Changes made to Harvey Mudd’s introductory computer science class included switching from the Java programming language to Python, a “more flexible and forgiving language … which allows more focus to be placed on problem-solving,” Klawe wrote.
Klawe’s advocacy for women interested in computer sciences extends beyond the classroom. Harvey Mudd, using contributions from people and technology companies, has offered to pay for students to attend the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the nation’s largest conference on women in computer science. Klawe said it costs about $750 to send each student to the conference.
“The conference has proved to be a powerful tool in encouraging females to take more [computer science] classes and in attracting females to the major,” Klawe wrote.
Simply seeing that women can carve out a spot in the competitive technology industry, Schofield said, has been a key part of attracting women to computer science courses at Harvey Mudd.
“It’s been all men for so long, there’s an expectation that perpetuates itself … and it just keeps going like that,” she said. “It’s unappealing to women in part because there are no women there.”
The ‘brogramming’ culture and its backlash
Technology startups’ less-than-subtle appeal to men has attracted attention—and scorn—from many in the industry and in higher education.
The social media analytics company Klout recently released a job ad asking applicants, “Want to bro down and crush code? Klout is hiring.” A series of comments made by an executive at social-media startup Path at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in March drew dozens of critical tweets from festival attendees who perceived the remarks as overtly sexist.
In late March, San Francisco-based Geeklist, a social portfolio company that employs “code monkeys around the globe,” according to its website, engaged in a high-profile Twitter back and forth with a woman programmer who took issue with a Geeklist promotional video that featured a woman wearing only a small company T-shirt and underwear.
While Harvey Mudd College officials and computer-science faculty members appeal directly to women, Adda Birnir, a computer programmer and web entrepreneur in New York, has launched a site called Skillcrush, designed to bolster interest and comfort for women interested in learning code.
Birnir, in a blog post, wrote that she “felt some sympathy” for tech industry startup executives driving the brogrammer phenomenon, because it was a nationwide attempt to expand computing programming beyond the “sovereign domain of the geeky, the nerdy, the under-socialized guy.”
(Next page: Sexism in tech is rampant)
As long as coding pros were seen as “nerds in the basement,” Birnir wrote, companies’ recruiting pools would remain limited. The introduction of the brogrammer is a blatant sales pitch to men who consider themselves socially superior to the stereotype of a code writer, or a computer science major.
“In an attempt to reach a broader (and necessarily male) audience, the brogrammer ideology takes what is generally latent misogyny in the tech community and makes it overt,” she wrote. “Joking is a-OK, but stupid machismo is not cool. I promise there are non-sexist, non-exclusionary possibilities out there for you all.”
Dan Shapiro, a product manager for Google, wrote in a February blog post that he was appalled by comments made about a successful woman technologist who served on a panel at the Enterprise Forum Northwest conference.
A conference participant introduced Rebecca Lovell, chief business officer for GeekWire, as “sexy single woman” who had recently become “a sexy married woman,” prompting nervous laughter from panel attendees.
It’s far from the first instance of bald-faced sexism he has witnessed among men in the technology industry, and Shapiro encouraged startup executives and employees to make an issue of flippant comments meant to objectify and intimidate women in the workplace.
“Everyone has a reason. One person was older. One person was from another country,” he wrote, describing several instances of sexism in technology companies. “It just doesn’t matter. If we keep this … up, we’re going to crap all over another generation of women tech entrepreneurs. And it’s just a rotten thing to do. Think before you open your mouth. And if you see someone doing this, call them on it.”