For decades, women were leaders in computer science but then, in 1984, their representation in the field dropped dramatically -- in a way unseen in any other scientific or technical field. In an excellent segment on NPR's Planet Money, Caitlin Kenney and Steve Henn unravel the mystery of what happened to cause women to drop out of computer science in astounding numbers. And, what they discover offers valuable insight on how gender stereotypes, especially as they pertain to children's toys and marketing, can have far-reaching and unforeseen effects.
The 15-minute podcast is a must hear to truly understand what happened during this period but, in a nutshell, the Planet Money team determined that it was in the early 1980s that the narrative first emerged that computers are for boys. The first personal computers weren't much more than toys and they were marketed almost exclusively to boys and men. Computer geek culture also began to emerge during this period and TV shows, movies, and video games all reaffirmed that computers were the domain of boys.
By 1984, the first generation of students who could have had a home computer entered college. Research at the time found parents were much more likely to buy computers for boys than girls and many more boys had experience programming prior to entering college. As a result, many young women discovered that they were already significantly behind their male peers from day one and, often facing discouragement from their fellow students and professors alike, women left computer science programs in droves.
Interestingly, prior to the introduction of the home computer and the gendered marketing of it as a 'boy' device, women were very active in the field and saw a sharp increase in their numbers between 1970 and 1984. Their representation in the field peaked in 1984 when 37% of computer science degrees were awarded to women; by 2011, according to the Computing Research Association, that number fell to 12%. The segment also explores successful efforts at several elite computer sciences programs, such as those at Carnegie Mellon University and Harvey Mudd College, to turn this trend around.
For parents who would like to encourage their Mighty Girls' interest in technology, early exposure to programming is highly recommended since many children only interact with technology passively. A great way to introduce kids, ages 9 and up, to programming is via new DIY systems that allow you to build real programmable computers on your own such as the "Raspberry Pi Ultimate Set" (http://www.amightygirl.com/raspberry-pi-ultimate-set) and "Sparki: The Easy Arduino DIY Robot" (http://www.amightygirl.com/sparki).
For a wide variety of toys that introduce programming concepts and electronics to kids, check out our new post, "Wrapped up in Science: Top 40 Science Toys for Mighty Girls" at http://www.amightygirl.com/blog?p=10528