The headline of an Aug. 4, 2019 article in the Standard-Examiner declared, “The rate of women pursuing STEM in Utah colleges hasn’t changed.” While I will be the first to admit it has not changed enough or fast enough, there has been change. With some notable efforts, for example, Weber State has seen some increases, especially in computer science, but we still have far to go.
The article quoted a statewide study that showed the increase in the number of degrees awarded to women from 2012 to 2017 only moved from 20% to 21%. Five years may not be long enough to reflect dramatic change. In addition, the total number of female graduates during that time increased from 677 to 1,144 (according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System), almost double. The Computer Science total is even more impressive. It went from 13% to 14% but more than tripled the number of students from 96 to 303. Weber State moved from single digit percentages to approximately 13%, more than tripling in the total number as well.
You might ask why we work hard to recruit women into STEM fields in the first place. At WSU, we have numerous non-gendered efforts to recruit K-12 and non-traditional students into engineering and computer science. In addition to those, our girls’ camps for K-12 students exist as part of a nationwide effort to spark interest in career fields where women are traditionally underrepresented, specifically technology, engineering and computer science. We always fill those camps.
Computer science is illustrative of the reason for recruiting broadly. Companies nationwide have a desperate need for software engineers, and the need grows daily. According to the Department of Labor, more than half a million software jobs remain unfilled with the expected need tripling only a few years from now, and Utah has the same demand. Hill Air Force Base alone needs thousands of software engineers or programmers to work on the A-10, F-35, Ground Based Strategic Deterrent project, and more. The effort to recruit underrepresented populations exists because we need to expand the pool of potential employees.
Unfortunately, despite the need, Utah lags the national average for increasing women in technology workforce development. While 28% of the tech workforce nationally is comprised of women, they are only 19% of Utah’s workforce.
Ironically, women once comprised the total of all computer programmers — before the profession even had a name. Computer Science did not exist as a degree until the ’60s. During the final days of World War II, six women were recruited from the hundreds calculating shell trajectories by hand to program what has been called the first computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). Many people, including those who designed the computer, did not realize the complexity of programming the machines they had created. The women were not truly recognized for their efforts until they were in their 70s. Meanwhile, the 1940s through the 1960s saw many women programmers, even with the returning G.I.s re-entering the workforce. A woman, Grace Hopper, designed the first compiler (a program that turns written instructions into machine instructions). Another woman, Margaret Hamilton, led the team that designed the software for the Apollo Lunar Module.
Three big things changed the makeup of the field. One, in order to recruit more programmers, IBM promoted a study by two psychologists. They determined, in a limited study of mostly males, that the one consistent attribute was “disinterest in people” and thus created a stereotype that persists to today. Two, the microcomputers of the late ’70s and early ’80s were marketed to and monopolized by men and boys. This created a cohort of male students entering college who already knew how to code and operate the computer. Three, in a well-established sociologically understood trend, as the value of programming increased, the percentage of women in the field decreased. These factors took time to play out and establish what has been called the “bro” programming culture of Silicon Valley and beyond. Even when I graduated in the early ’80s from computer science (a department that had not even existed when I began college), the percentage of women attending computer science programs stood around 37% nationally.
In the early 2000s, Carnegie Mellon University managed to get to a 50% representation of women in their computer science program. This was articulated in the book “Unlocking the Clubhouse” by Jane Margolis. The approach did not include lowering standards but, rather, appreciating assumptions that had been built into the field over time. Universities around the country have been trying to follow the lead since. While slow going, the number of interested and adept girls in all our K-12 programs leaves me optimistic.
Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9