What would be of TV comedy without stereotypes? Certainly very different, considering that the most watched sitcom in the past season relies heavily on the view that a blonde girl’s I.Q. could be higher, and that tech and science oriented guys have disastrous performance in the social arena.
Although shows like The Big Bang Theory (and the british-equivalent, The IT Crowd) obviously do not aim at influencing the career paths of young teenagers, unfortunately they fuel the perception that tech and science are for socially-awkward geeks — a perception that drives people away from these fields, specially women in Computer Science.
According to the The National Center for Women & Information Technology, in 2010 only 18 percent of Computer and Information Science graduates were women. Down from 37 percent, in 1985. And data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows the downhill-trend continuing: 17.4 percent in 2012.
Why bother this gender inequality in IT? For two main reasons. The first concerns the benefits of diversity in the workforce: a more diverse pool implies a higher probability of reaching qualified workers, fostering creativity and innovation. Second, and more important, since technology is pervasive in all professions and personal activities, a lot of women’s demands are being neglected, for computational tools are developed by a working class formed mostly by men.
Women certainly have the skills required. In fact, according to a recent study in the U.K., based on the BTEC vocational qualifications exam, girls outperform boys in skills-based science and technology subjects. In particular, as reported by BBC, 15% of the girls taking the more challenging level gained the top grade — compared to 12% of the boys.
Aware of the problem, some schools are taking action to get more women in technology. At University of Texas (Austin) and Virginia Tech, for instance, new female students are put in shared housing with more experienced engineering students of the same gender. The initiative reduces intimidation (with respect to the male majority) and creates a sense of community. At NYU Poly, a summer program on cyber-security designed only for high-school girls was offered this year. Many attendees welcomed the initiative, claiming they feel more comfortable without the company of guys who “brag so much.” Similarly, Cornel NYC Tech teamed with nonprofit Girls Who Code to offer an 8-week intensive Computer Science course for middle school girls.
These are all interesting ideas, but unless they are adopted by most schools, hardly the gender gap numbers will change significantly. Since the nature of the problem is cultural, it would be better if big influencers, and women themselves, approached tech-related occupations in a way that is not so biased. Considering the enormous gender gap, women’s capacity, and the fact that IT occupations are projected to grow by 22 percent from 2010 to 2020 in the U.S., adding 758,800 new jobs (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), Computer Science is now probably the best option for girls deciding on their careers.
(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)