And Then, Suddenly, Women Stopped Coding. What Happened in 1984?


Finally, a tech-savvy Barbie.


Image Source: Amazon


Some things haven’t changed. Her glasses and laptop and shoes are an undeniable shade of hot pink—and she comes with tailored-to-perfection body-con (“body conscious”) attire and long blond hair. In 2016, she launched as “tech savvy” and “career-themed,” because I Can Be Computer Engineer Barbie (who apparently skipped her English classes) exemplifies the growing presence of the dynamic career-oriented female—both plastic ones and those in the flesh.

But it wouldn’t be a story about equal respect for women if there wasn’t an oddly archaic setback. Random House published a book by the same name that featured Barbie as a stylish computer engineer –  who doesn’t know how to code and needs the help of two guys.

Image Source: TechCrunch

She also infects her sister’s computer when she inserts her virus-laden flash drive into her computer. And then the two girls get into a pillow fight. As you can imagine, Random House got a lot of flack, pulled the book from the shelves and discontinued it.

Image Source: Gizmodo

Image Source: Flickr

But as for this doll, it is one of many Barbies who have dared to stand up (so to speak) for their right to be brunettes, dark-skinned, scientists, entrepreneurs, space explorers, game developers and even presidents. And, at last, she’s helping to teach little girls that they are prized for their brains and not just for their beauty.

It’s a sharp contrast to the 1984 Dreamtime Barbie With Her Cuddly Bear.

So yes, I concede that we’re headed in the right direction. But we can’t get there soon enough.

In fact, some folks would argue that we’re setting women backwards.

You Can’t Hire What Doesn’t Exist

Let’s take a step back and look at the snapshot of the current talent pool. I always tell people that “we can’t hire what doesn’t exist.” Today’s women represent over 47% of the workforce—as compared to 38% in the 1970s—but only 12% of engineers are female.

STEM-related industries are experiencing revolutionary breakthroughs and advancements, projected to add over 1.7 million new jobs in the coming years, and yet there is a chilling absence of women in those fields. Per the National Girls Collaborative Project, as of 2016:

  • 35.2% of chemists are women

  • 11.1% of physicists and astronomers are women

  • 33.9% of environmental engineers are women

  • 22.7% of chemical engineers are women

  • 17.5% of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women

  • 17.1% of industrial engineers are women

  • 10.7% of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women

  • 7.9% of mechanical engineers are women

Image Source: Obama White House

If you examine that aforementioned big picture more closely, you’ll find that there are deeper layers of pervasive inequities. The trend of isolating women and driving them from STEM fields is a practice that begins far earlier than at the threshold of the job market. In 2013, nearly 1.75 million boys took the Advanced Placement (AP) tests, compared to 2.1 million girls. Despite this, zero girls took the AP Computer Science test in Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming, as revealed by Georgia Tech’s Director of Computer Outreach, Barbara Ericson. Tennessee boasted the highest number of female AP computer science test-takers, at just 29%.

Toys Tailored to Boys

NPR featured an article titled “When Women Stopped Coding” by Steve Henn, flashing back to an era when women made up a sizable portion of computing pioneers; in the decades of the early computer age, the number of women studying computer science outpaced the number of men.

And then in 1984, this number plummeted. At the very same time, personal computer use began to be commonplace in households throughout the U.S.

Image Source: NPR

Coincidence? Not really.

If you recall that era (Google it, dear Millennials), you’ll realize that early PCs were marketed as toys rather than as tools—and specifically as toys for boys only. Computers featured male-friendly games with guns and ping-pong, often throwing in a bit of word processing into the mix. Our society began to mirror this marketing campaign and then its goals became the new normal.

“This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution. It helped define who geeks were, and it created techie culture.”           ~ Steve Henn

And all the tech-driven movies of that decade pounded us over the head with the same narrative: “awkward geek boy genius uses tech savvy to triumph over adversity and win the girl.” This narrative implanted our society’s first inherent bias against heroines in the field of computer science.

To this day, most women avoid the discipline of computer science  –  while the early 1980s boasted at least 36% of women majoring in computer science, the 2010s have flattened out to less than 19%.

Researchers conducted studies, interviewing computer science university students in the 1990s to glean what inspired computer majors to pursue their professional trajectory. Hundreds of interviews later, Harvard University professor and researcher Jane Margolis penned “Lost in Translation: Gender and High School Computer Science” with fellow investigators, affirming the deep gender divide.

The paper affirms that although there are plenty of computer science learning opportunities, schools nationwide continue to perpetuate the prior generation’s pedagogy of their formative years: computer science is geared towards males, leaving the females (respectively under- or non-represented in the profession) feeling isolated and insecure when considering the discipline as an academic or professional endeavor.

Margolis’ team uncovered evidence of institutional discrimination in the university computer science classroom: reports of instructors discriminating between the delegation of assignments and their expectations of students, further ostracizing the minority of females in the program.

“We found that the scientific heart of computer science is ‘lost in translation’ at the high school level,” writes Margolis, Estrella and Goode, “and, thus, the field continues to lose the participation and interest of a broad layer of students, especially females.”

The media—a primary source of information concerning societal norms and news, especially for younger people and particularly for students without access to real men and women working in the field—has further propagated this bias and perpetuated the social construct of The Lone Male Programmer. Today, a new cultural obstacle is the growth of the brogrammer, “a shorthand term for a macho, just-out-of-the-dorm culture that’s being imported from college campuses to startup offices.”

“People ask me all the time: ‘What is it like to be a woman at Google?’ I’m not a woman at Google, I’m a geek at Google. And being a geek is just great.” ~ Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, former engineer at Google

Female-Oriented Solutions

In 2013, for the first time in the history of digitized university enrollment records, the women who enrolled in an introductory computer science course outnumbered the men: there were exactly 104 males and 106 females in that Berkeley University lecture hall. And, indeed, Berkeley and Stanford are two of a handful of universities that have enjoyed a notable uptick in female computer science students—a phenomenon that coincides with the “reimagining” of those computer science classes, particularly introductory ones: “Berkeley put more emphasis on the impact and relevance of computing in the world […] each class begins with a discussion of a recent tech-related news article.”

Research shows that such revamps also cater to what entices both genders when it comes to computing; as a general rule, girls appear more intrigued by the creativity and the potential to positively impact the world. Berkeley professor Dan Garcia helped to redesign his introductory computer science course, explaining, “Everything that turns women off, we reversed it.”

Pop culture is beginning to shake things up, too—and not just in the world of Barbie dolls. HBO’s critically acclaimed Silicon Valley, a parody about the startup culture, cast two new female protagonists in Season 2. Google and the Geena Davis Institute paired up to develop the representation of Hollywood’s female hackers, a handful of which have included Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Trinity of The Matrix, Chloe O’Brian from 24, Abby Scuito from NCIS, and Felicity Smoak in Arrow. But these intelligent, capable and empowering women in Hollywood’s tech world remain the exception, not the rule.

To change cultural norms, we must change behaviors—and to change behaviors, we must revamp mentalities.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW), promoting female equity and education since 1981, offers 10 suggestions for encouraging female participation in STEM fields:

  • Take a moment to examine and acknowledge your own inherent biases, with the pledge to transform them.

  • Remember that engineers are made, not born: mathematical and scientific prowess are not in our genetics—they’re the result of exercising the muscle we call the brain.

  • Let the girls in your life tinker. Let them break toys. Let them get dirty. Let them fail. Let them fix.

  • Become an Advocate. Ensure your school upholds Title IX—it applies to STEM education as much as it does to athletics.

  • Present engineering and computing as disciplines centered on creativity and making an impact on the world, which requires high levels of emotional intelligence and creativity, whether that means constructing bionic limbs, solving droughts and famines, or preventing cyberattacks.

  • If you’re a female engineering or tech professional, seek opportunities to serve as a mentor for other girls and women; champion female co-workers and other women in your field through groups such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing or the Society of Women Engineers.

  • If you’re a male engineering or tech professional, don’t sit on the sidelines—but do refuse to sit on panels that don’t include at least one woman. It’s easy to become complacent when an entire industry exists to perpetuate the status quo which benefits you. You should be empowered by the goals of diversity in the profession, not threatened by it.

  • If you’re an employer, hold managers accountable for hiring and promotion decisions; discourage any biases or gender stereotypes. You lead by example in setting the tone and culture for your organization.

  • If you’re a manager, you can try removing gender information from job applications and evaluations—research shows that biases still exist, regardless of equal credentials.

  • Wherever you are in the organization rankings, leverage whatever power you must clarify that encouraging and retaining female technical professionals is among your priorities; the higher your rank, the more power you must leverage.

Image Source: AAUW

There is a growing urgency to empower and encourage women into STEM-related fields. More than ever, this facet of our culture needs to change. The solution is simple and straightforward: embrace and encourage women into the discipline. The industry is already suffering beneath the weight of unfilled computer science jobs and the shrinking talent pool, opening a door of opportunity.

As the adage says, change only comes when the pain of transformation is overshadowed by the pain of remaining static.

As Shaherose Charania, CEO of Women 2.0 said, “Women no longer have an ‘if I can’ mindset. Now it’s more about ‘how I can’—be in tech, start something in tech, fund something in tech. That shift is exciting! And it happened because we created a network where we show, daily, that women are innovating.”

About Avani Desai

Avani Desai is a Principal and the Executive Vice President at Schellman & Company and has more than 15 years of experience in IT attestation, risk management, compliance and privacy. Avani’s primary focus is on emerging healthcare issues and privacy concerns for organizations.

More About Avani

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