The Comp Sci Boys Club

   Have you ever walked into a classroom where a computer science class is being taught? The first thing you will notice is that it’s almost all dudes. 

    I was talking to a female classmate last week who has been taking CS classes on and off for the past few years, and she said it has gotten better. There are now more women, but it is still predominantly men.  

   Of course, there are some academic circumstances where the situation is reversed. Walk into a social work classroom and there will be more women than men.  

   Does that mean that all things are equal? No, not really. Women’s work has historically been seen as being worth less than men’s. Fox News will tell you that this might have been true in the past but it is no longer true today. However, the data suggests otherwise. According to a US government report, women only earn 81% of what men earn.

   Often, computer science graduates can earn six figures annually after graduating, while the professions like social work, which are seen to be women’s work, might be lucky to earn half that. In addition, social workers are often required to have a master’s degree on top of their undergraduate schooling.

   In my experience as a computer science student at Brooklyn College, I’ve noticed that men make up three fourths of the classroom and they do the majority of the speaking in class.

   A recent CS graduate from a University in Virginia, who did not wish to use his name, said his experience was that the male to female ratio was even more than that, but it depends on the school.

   This is a bit surprising if you consider that women have had a long and prestigious role in the development of computer science which we should all hold gratitude for. Grace Hopper was a military service veteran in computer science. She created one of the first compilers (a mechanism for a human to tell a computer what to do via code), helped create modern programming languages with COBOL, and built standards for computing and networks for the department of defense. Finally, she gave us the term “bug” for a software error, because there was literally a moth in her computer that caused an error. She wrote in a log file 


   One of my favorite computer scientists is Margaret Hamilton. She coined the term “software engineer.” She is famous for many reasons, but most notably she was the lead developer of NASA’s Apollo flight software. She is credited for saving the Apollo 11 Mission by troubleshooting a computer issue right before Neil Armstrong landed the Lunar Module on the moon. She worked on other Apollo missions and Skylab. Before NASA, she was the Director of Software Engineering at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. There is a great picture of her from that era where she is standing next to a large man. Hamilton, a small woman in her twenties, appears to be fixing her hair. This picture directly contrasts with the fetishized masculine stereotype of what a leader should be. 

   Both Hamilton and Hopper were given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

   So what happened?  Why aren’t there more women in the field? What is the experience like today?

   Earlier this semester, I was walking around the Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina. I picked up a copy of Duke’s student newspaper “The Chronicle.”  In the February 6th issue, there was a story written by Paloma Rodney, a Duke student who was shut out of being on the development team of a popular student produced app. She was told that she wouldn’t be aggressive enough to work on the app. When Poloma looked at the “Meet the Team” webpage from the project, she saw that there was not one female in the group.  Considering that she wrote an op-ed in the student newspaper, I doubt that she wasn’t aggressive enough — that alone was a bold move. 

   On a personal note, I have never seen sexual harassment until I entered the tech field.  At a large financial institution, I saw a Indian man on a H1B visa get into the personal space of an Indian-American woman, who was right out of college and a junior software developer, when she was sitting down. He moved closer until his crotch was way too close. He later said to her from across the room “All you Muslim women are the same.” 

   Donna Ballman is an employment attorney. According to her book “Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired,” it’s almost impossible to win a human resource dispute with a racist or sexist coworker if that coworker is also not white. In tech, the managers are often not white. 

   Another woman, who wished to remain anonymous,  who works as a software engineer, said being a woman in tech has its perks, but in a bad way. She said that since there is a push to move women along in her science classes, there was always someone to help her with her work or just do it for her. Some TA’s advised her to cheat when she asked for help.  She feels that sometimes women don’t get the best education in science because they are not allowed to fail. She also noted that being one of very few women, she was never left alone. Guys would never let her have a moment to herself while in break from classes. They would approach her and ask why she was by herself.  

   Susan Fowler was a software engineer at Uber, who wrote a blog post which detailed sexual harassment from her supervisor and the human resource department that couldn’t care less. She eventually got the C.E.O. of the company to leave his position. It also got the conversation going about the women’s treatment in tech.

   There are organizations like Girls Who Code that have sprouted up in the past few years to help support women in the field. Most organizations have some sort of “women in technology” group as part of the corporate initiatives. 

   My computer classes at Brooklyn College have been diverse in some ways. The age of students ranges from 18 to 60 years old. There are full time students, part time students, and working professionals that come after work. Some of the students have transferred from community college. There appears to be such a mix of ethnic backgrounds that there is no visible majority. However, one thing is certain, there are not a lot of women.