The “Ideal” Gender Ratio in Tech

I was recently asked, “What is the ideal ratio of men to women in the computing workforce?” while discussing issues of equity and education in computer science. (As my own addition, it should be remembered that non-binary people also exist in computing) The short answer is: my goals are to address access to computing education and activities, so there is no ideal ratio. The rest of this post is meant to address the long answer.

The idea that there might be an ideal ratio of men to women in the computing workforce is one that I think is directly correlated with the idea that men make up the majority of software engineers because they are truly the best at the job. The conclusion is then, if a company happens to hire a certain “Ideal Ratio,” they must be lowering their standards and hiring those with less aptitude. I think that you can only truly believe this if you truly believe that women are not as smart as men. [1]

Briefly ignoring the heavy gender bias factor, I’d like you to think about this instead: how did you get into computing? Are your parents software engineers, so you always knew about the job? Did you take a computer science class in high school, or participate in a computing after school activity or camp? [2] Did you first take a computer science class early in college and decide it was what you wanted to do?

Now imagine that your parents are not software engineers, or that you had never met a software engineer before your 20s. Imagine that your high school didn’t have a programming class (3 in 4 high schools in the US don’t! [alt source]) or after school club, or your parents couldn’t afford or didn’t enroll you in a computer science camp. Imagine your advisor led you away from your first college CS class, that no one showed you what computer science was like. If you’re a software engineer, you’re probably good at coding. You probably did well in your CS classes. If no one had shown you computing, would you have ever tried it?

I do not know of any standard primary or secondary school curriculum that currently [3] exposes every single student to computing. Even for those schools that offer computing as an elective within their curriculum, we know that there are factors that keep women away from advanced science courses. Students are, generally, required to take other subjects: math, English, history, biological sciences. The subjects may have their own issues, but I believe it would be difficult to say that students have never tried them.

As college majors have seemingly moved away from “what you study for X amount of years” towards “what you do in your [first] career,” it makes sense that students choosing majors would be, in some ways, choosing their ideal career path. [4] Even in those schools where students do not choose a major prior to admission, I can anecdotally tell you that those with undeclared majors have some fragment of an idea of what they’d like to study. If a student never gets the opportunity to try out computer science, I believe it is safe to say it is unlikely [5] that they will choose to study it.  When a student doesn’t choose to study computer science, they don’t end up in a large part of what is the current software engineering pipeline.

For those women who choose to study computing or who graduate with computing degrees, (in 2010, so a large part of the current workforce, 17.6% of computer science degrees were awarded to women) there is then the problem that a tech workforce already made up of men tends not to be very friendly to women and that departments may fail to retain women in computing majors. I think you can extrapolate what might happen from there. [6]

I can’t give you a numerical ratio for the perfect gender balance within the computing workforce, because the perfect gender ratio in computing is whatever ratio there might be if every person was given equal access to computing.

1. If you are recognizing this belief in yourself, I ask that you refrain from angrily commenting on my post. I’ve heard it before; and I really don’t care.

2. If you’re a bit older than me, maybe the right question is: did your parents buy you a computer and the main thing to do on it was code?

3. A few states, like Washington, are on their way to this requirement.

4. I was raised to believe college major != career path, but this viewpoint seems rare, and likely merits its own blog post.

5. Not impossible. I did it!

6. Or, the proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

I’d like to give a quick thank you to Elizabeth de Sae Silva, Josh Byster, Emily Laughhead, and Emily Rasmussen for some early feedback on this post.

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