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BLOG: Women computer science grads: The bump before the decline

Robert L. Mitchell | April 5, 2013
1986 was a good year for women in IT. In May of that year, 15,129 female students graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer science in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, that was the high water mark -- and the beginning of a precipitous decline.

1986 was a good year for women in IT. In May of that year, 15,129 female students graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer science in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, that was the high water mark -- and the beginning of a precipitous decline.

This historical trend may help to explain why the bench of women IT professionals isn't as deep as it could be today. But why did women's interest in IT degrees surge in the '80s, only to wane again over the next 25 years?

By 1996, just a decade after hitting that all-time high, the number of female CS graduates had dropped by more than half, to just 6,749.

Female CS bachelor's degrees by year

Then the situation appeared to begin correcting itself, with the number of women CS graduates gradually rising to a high of 15,483 by 2003, slightly exceeding the 1986 number. But there was a catch. While the trend of decline and revival tracked with the overall numbers of CS graduates over the same time period,

the gains by women actually weren't keeping up with the overall increase in the population of CS grads. More men were filling those seats than women. As a share of all CS bachelor's degrees granted that year, females had slipped almost 10 points, from 37% in 1984/1985 to 27% in 2003. The overall trendline was clearly downward, as seen below.

CS bachelor's degrees granted by sex

From 2004 to 2011, female CS graduation rates rapidly lost ground both in terms of the actual number of graduates and in relative percentage terms. In 2011, the latest year for which the DoE numbers are available, just 7,594 of the 39,589 CS bachelor's degrees awarded went to women. And for the last four years (2008-2011) the proportion of women CS graduates seems to have bottomed out  at 18% - the lowest ratio since 1974. Meanwhile, decades later on the other end of the career spectrum, the number of women CIOs today sits at a paltry 12%, according to Boardroom Insider.

Women have done slightly better in pursuing graduate-level CS degrees. In doctoral programs women have made slow, steady progress, earning one in five degrees in 2011.

CS Doctor's Degrees Granted by Sex

On the other hand, the percentage of CS master's degrees granted to women peaked in 2004 at 34% but by 2011 that number had dropped to 28%.

CS Master's Degrees Granted by Sex

There's been much debate as to why the relative number of female CS graduates has fallen. Everyone has their own opinion as to the real reason why there aren't more women moving into IT careers. And in 2010, The American Association of University Women released its "Why So Few?" study, which placed the blame in part on social pressures and attitudes starting in high school.

 

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