Computer Science

The Incredible Shrinking Woman


Computer science only recently emerged as a discipline with its own identity during the latter half of the 20th century. In that short time, it has experienced both incredible growth and serious growing pains, particularly with respect to the representation of women. The percentage of women has steadily increased over the last 40 years in almost all science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines. However, what is uniquely perplexing about computer science is that the proportion of women undergraduates has been steadily dropping for 20 years. This long-term drop in the proportion of women is counter to the trends in all other STEM disciplines, and the causes have largely been a mystery.

The primary aims of this chapter are to present data from national data sets on the representation of women in multiple STEM fields over time (1966–2006), so as to characterize the extent and depth of this phenomenon, and propose a possible explanation for the recent decline in the proportion of undergraduate women in computer science. Additionally, the chapter will outline continuing research questions important for better understanding the phenomenon, and discuss several approaches for change.

The breadth of data presented in this chapter is intended to provide a numerical “big picture” of the status of women in computer science education over a 40-year time span. The data will be used to show the following:

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