Why Aren't More Girls 'Geeks'?
Gender Gap in Computer Science Due to
Pervasive Stereotypes, Too Much Choice Too Early
By Inga Kiderra
in computer science are overwhelmingly earned by males, according
to a new study of 21 nations, but significant country-to-country
differences in the gender gap imply that much more than genetics
is at work.
Coauthored by Maria
Charles, professor of sociology at the University of California,
San Diego, with Karen Bradley of Western Washington University,
the study was presented Aug. 13 at the 100th annual meeting
of the American Sociological Association in Philadelphia.
government practices that minimize choice and prioritize merit
may actually result in more gender-neutral distribution across
fields of study,” the researchers write.
Charles and Bradley
analyzed data compiled in 2004 by the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) on higher education degrees
awarded in 2001. Examining seven fields of study, including
engineering and math/physical sciences, Charles and Bradley
calculated representation factors for each country by comparing
male-to-female ratios in a program to those same ratios in other
academic programs (which controls for international differences
in women’s enrollments).
They found, as expected,
that on the whole women predominate in such traditionally female-typed
fields as education and health and lag behind in stereotypically
masculine fields. In computer science, females are underrepresented
in all 21 of the industrialized countries considered.
They also found that
extent of the difference in male-to-female ratios varies a great
deal. Males are overrepresented among computer science graduates
by a factor of 1.79 in Turkey, on the low end, to a factor of
6.42 in the Czech Republic, on the high. That is, male overrepresentation
in computer science in the Czech Republic is more than three
times more extreme than in Turkey.
In the United States,
the “male overrepresentation factor” is 2.10 and
in the United Kingdom, 3.10. (See figure for all 21 nations.)
of women’s underrepresentation attests to the persistence
of deep-seated and widely shared beliefs that men and women
are naturally different and that they are suited for different
occupations,” Charles said. “But the fact that there’s
so much cross-national variability suggests there’s lots
of room for country-specific cultural and social influences
to play out.”
There is little evidence,
though, Charles said, for standard arguments of social evolution:
The most economically developed countries do not produce the
greatest numbers of women in computer science. Nor is there
a strong correlation with more women in the workforce or in
high-status jobs or in higher education generally.
math achievement does not equate with better representation
in stereotypically male fields, the researchers find.
Broad cultural support
for equal opportunity is also not a good predictor. None of
the study’s highest-scoring nations – Turkey, South
Korea and Ireland – the authors note, is particularly
known for gender-egalitarian attitudes or practices.
of being free to pursue your preferences is compatible and coexists
quite comfortably with a belief in essential gender differences.
This essentialist notion, which helps to create what it seeks
to explain, affects girls’ views of what they’re
good at and can shape what they like,” said Charles, who
is also co-author of the award-winning book Occupational
Ghettos: The Worldwide Segregation of Men and Women (Stanford
UP, 2004; in paperback Aug. 2005).
In response to women’s
perceived interests and preferences, Charles said, modern societies
diversify their educational systems and set up niche programs
targeted to women – vocational degrees in tourism-hospitality,
for instance, or early childhood education. Service-dominated
economies, another feature of industrialized democracies, likewise
result in more “pink-collar ghettos.”
“There is no
doubt that collective beliefs holding that men are naturally
‘better’ at math and science are major factors that
influence women’s choices of college majors – and
determine the climate in math and science programs worldwide,”
“When we emphasize
choice and hold up self-realization as an educational goal,
girls will often freely choose poorly paid, female-typed fields
of study that are in line with a conventional feminine identity
and stereotypes about what girls are good at,” she said,
adding that such tendencies appear to be especially pervasive
in the most affluent, industrialized societies.
What countries with
the best female representation in computer science seem to have
in common, Charles and Bradley observe, are governments that
“exert strong control over curricular trajectories”
and require substantial math and science coursework. In South
Korea, for example, math has to be studied through grade 12
and science through grade 11. The Irish require math and science
throughout secondary school. State-mandated exams then control
entry to universities and specific academic programs.
The policy implications,
Charles said, are clear: “Rather than letting people take
what they expect to love (or expect to be good at), educational
systems should insist on more math and science for all students.
As other research has repeatedly shown, choices made during
adolescence are more likely to be made on the basis of gender
stereotypes, so we should push off choice until later.”
The research is supported
by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Spencer
Foundation and the American Educational Research Association.
It will be published as a chapter in a forthcoming book from
MIT Press, Women and Information Technology: Research on
the Reasons for Underrepresentation.
Male “Overrepresentation Factor”: Computer
Science Programs, 2001
Values give the factor by which men are overrepresented
in computer science programs in their respective country,
relative to their representation in the other fields of
Media Contact: Inga
Kiderra, (858) 822-0661