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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.

But it's perplexing to make sense of some theories when one looks at the timeline. If social pressures and cultural attitudes were to blame, one would think the numbers would have been consistently low. On the other hand, if social attitudes had changed for the better over the last four decades, one would expect to see a gradual improvement over time. The same applies to changes in the market, such as negative perceptions of IT careers as outsourcing took hold in the '90s and '00s. The numbers also don't track with the unemployment rate, and even if they did, again, one would expect both men and women to be affected evenly.

So why did the relative number of women choosing computer science as a baccelaureate major rise so sharply between 1971 and 1986, only to stall and decline so steadily and steeply over the next 25 years? What accounts for the bump?

With the percentage of women graduates in computer science at a 39-year low it's a question that still lacks a definitive answer. If educators and guidance counselors knew what brought more women into IT in the early '80s, perhaps the CS degree could finally get its mojo back.

Source:  U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), "Degrees and Other Formal Awards Conferred"


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