In Percentage of Bachelor’s degrees conferred to women, by major (1970-2012), Randal S. Olson posted the following image:
He makes the point that there is no “STEM” gender gap. Indeed, the sciences and math are doing fine on gender balance. There are, however, large gender gaps in the engineering and computer science on one side and health professions, public administration, education, and psychology on the other. The post with this graph talks mainly about the computer science and engineering gender imbalance, which is somewhat larger than the gender imbalance on the other side (particularly if you take into account that about 60% of bachelor’s degrees now go to women). He talks about the other side of the gender imbalance in The double-edged sword of gender equality, though without shedding much more light on the subject.
Computer science is a particularly strange case, as it has seen more fluctuation both in raw numbers of students (data not shown here) and gender balance than any other field. Other fields have seen large shifts in gender balance, but they have generally been gradual and nearly monotonic—not reversing course in the early 1980s. It seems to me that the biggest drops in the ratio of women in CS came at times when the overall number of students in CS was dropping (like after the dot-com bubble burst in the 2000). When CS grew, the number of women grew faster than the number of men. When CS shrunk, the number of women shrunk faster than the men. Perhaps if CS education had had a steady growth, rather than the boom-and-bust cycles that have plagued it since the late 1970s, it would not have had such a mysterious rise and fall in proportion of women in the field. The boom-and-bust cycles are not driven by the real need for CS degrees, but by media hype about relatively small shortages or excesses of personnel. I believe that the demand for CS degrees has been stabler than the supply (unlike most other fields, where the supply has been steady even as demand has fluctuated). Sorry, I don’t have statistics handy for that, and I’m too lazy to spend hours going through the government databases trying to match up labor market information with degree information.
Fixing the gender gaps so that most fields can draw from the full population will be difficult. Getting more men into the health professions and education could probably be solved fairly easily by paying more—and there is no societal need for more psych and public administration majors than are currently being produced. But, because CS is already a high-paying field for which there is more demand than supply, the difficulty of getting more women to choose and complete the major is a societal problem that seems difficult to address.
Some people have suggested that eliminating H1B visas for importing temporary CS workers (who are predominantly male) might help. I don’t think that the number of H1B visas is large enough to make that big a difference, though I support replacing the H1B visas with green cards. If there aren’t enough American workers in a field, we should import the workers on a permanent basis, not with a temporary indentured-servitude system that just serves to export the technical expertise when the workers are sent home.
Some people have suggested that a big part of the problem is the disrespect women are treated with in some workplaces—which would help explain the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, but not why female high-school and college students are not entering the field. Student choices in high school and college are shaped much more by peer pressure and mass media than by anything about the future workplaces—so the problem is one of changing the culture in high schools and colleges—a difficult task. There has been some success at some smaller schools (like Harvey Mudd), but a large part of that has come from aggressive admissions policies that aim for gender balance in the field at admissions time—a route not open to public schools, who can’t apply large differences in admissions based on gender.
I’m currently in charge of a bioengineering program, whose graduating class was about 36% female (13/36), and a bioinformatics program that is so small that statistics are pretty meaningless (only 2 graduates a year, both male this year). I would like to see the number of women in majors increase, particularly in the concentrations that lead to higher paying jobs (the concentrations that are further from MCD biology). We get a few students switching to the bioengineering from MCD biology, but not many, as those students don’t take the rigorous math and physics needed for the bioengineering degree—we really have to get our students in the first year. I’m still trying to find ways to reach those students who would be good engineers, but don’t realize it until too late.