Study: Tech gender gap widening

Though more young women are studying math and science in schools, a new gender gap is emerging in technology education.

3 min read
When Anita Borg heard that a new technology gender gap is emerging in America's schools, she was not surprised.

"I said, 'Not news to me,'" said Borg, a computer science researcher who recently launched the Institute for Women and Technology.

In fact, the study--conducted by the American Association of University Women and released today--simply confirmed research Borg and others have been doing for years.

"Girls have narrowed some significant gender gaps," AAUW executive director Janice Weinman said in a statement. "But technology is now the new 'boys' club' in our nation's public schools."

Today's study concluded that while the gender gap is closing when it comes to math and sciences, a new gap is emerging when it comes to technology.

"I'm delighted to hear the gap is narrowing with math and science," Borg said, adding, "I'm not the least bit surprised with the technology gap.

"There are all sorts of other things going on that would lead me to believe that is probably true. We've known for a time that the number of women getting bachelor's degrees in computer sciences is dropping like a stone," she noted.

Specifically, the study looked at the types of classes that girls take, the types of computer programs used to teach, how often girls use computers, and how comfortable they feel on computers.

Problems range from the types of things girls are studying to their attitudes about computers.

The study found that girls make up only a small percentage of students in computer science classes, that they rate themselves lower than boys on computer ability, that they use computers outside school less often, and that software programs reinforce gender bias and gender roles, according to the AAUW.

For instance, only 12 percent of the math software used by girls had female characters, Little said. "We do see stereotypical roles in much of the gaming software." The AAUW studied software from in 1995.

Girls also felt less comfortable with technology, in part because they didn't use it at home, she added.

Some have argued that girls and women are simply naturally less inclined toward computers and technology.

But Little said the roots of disparity appear to be much more malleable than the genetic code and in fact, the report makes several recommendations on how to close the gap, such as creating programs more attractive to girls, structuring computer time to encourage use by girls, and training teachers more effectively.

"We certainly don't think it's biologically determined," she said. "We think it can be opened up. Some of the people who create the programming are following stereotypical ways of using images of women and men."

Borg added that she also has heard the argument that girls and women simply opt out of the computer field. She said she might believe that except that for a brief period in the 1980s, women started getting degrees in greater numbers.

According to a study by professor Tracy Camp of the Colorado School of Mines, in 1983 and 1984, 37.1 percent of all computer science graduates were female--but that number dropped to 28.4 percent in 1993 and 1994.

"There was this great bubble in the '80s, and those women are still in the field and they're making tremendous marks," Borg said.

Now, aside from changing the way schools teach computer sciences to girls, high-tech companies need to realize the potential that women and girls offer, she said.

Congress is creating a commission to study whether women face a "silicon ceiling" when trying to get--and keep--the most lucrative jobs in the high-tech and science industries.

"It is a double-edged sword of getting companies to realize the tremendous value that female technologists can bring to their organizations and realize that everything they can do can have an impact on making sure women come through the pipe and when they get there, they stay," Borg said.