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A History of Diversity in Computer Science

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

By Alicia Weston (Guest Blogger)

Hands on a keyboard with a colorful background

Photo by: Ron Lach for Pexels

Women and other members of various minority groups are just as capable of leading in STEM fields. We've previously highlighted Amalie Emmy Noether in our article on her contributions to mathematics. After obtaining her degree from the University of Erlangen and receiving her doctorate, she would come to develop Noether’s Theorem. This would get her acknowledged by Albert Einstein as “the most significant mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” So when exactly did the higher education of women in STEM, and more specifically computer science, begin? How far have we come since then? Keep reading for a closer look.

Women in computer science

Women’s contributions to science and technology have largely been written out of history. Maryville University highlights some notable women in science and talks about Ada Lovelace who came from a background of the sciences after having been taught these subjects at her mother’s insistence. Her paper on looping would be published in 1843 under an alias, a century after the first institute of higher education for women in the United States was founded in 1742. The title of the mother of computer science is shared by Lovelace and Katherine Johnson, with Johnson’s biography featured by NASA for her calculations that made orbiting around Earth and landing on the moon possible for humans. Born in 1918, Johnson was handpicked as one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. She later co-authored 25 research reports and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. These two accomplished women are merely two out of many, but both characterize pivotal moments in the history of women in computer science. Women today make up 47% of the workforce but closing the gender gap for good remains an uphill battle.

Computer science and minority groups

Back in 1992, 70% of computer science grads were white. WIRED’s write-up on women and minorities in tech listed the disproportionate numbers of students in computer science who were Black, Hispanic, or Asian in history. Even if there was a general population growth boom, white people are still earning college degrees at more or less the same rate as in 1991. Why? A definitive conclusion cannot be made yet, but evidence points toward systemic shortcomings. Black and Hispanic students are at a disadvantage because they are less likely to have access to computer science course offerings in K-12 education, or even computers at home, compared to their white counterparts. This affects their likelihood of having an interest in computer science. This shows us how the diversity gap in our education is inherently affected by economic resources as well.

Moving forward

Legislative measures to legalize diversity in computer science are only half of the solution. More than 75 recruiting sessions held by 60 companies identified how recruiters alienated female applicants by using sexist jokes and presentations that displayed only slides of men. tEQuitable founder and CEO Lisa Gelobter says women of color also tend to work twice as hard to receive fundraising, which is why many black women like herself start mission-oriented or social impact businesses that may be considered too niche for funding opportunities. The number of women studying computer science continues to fall despite more women earning college degrees today. Every child must have equal access to learning computer science in early education so they can be encouraged by support networks and role models to pursue careers in that field. The efforts of organizations like Code Savvy and Girls Who Code that partner with schools to establish tech programs for female students and other underrepresented students are crucial, alongside the efforts of universities that seek to make computer science courses more accessible. We all have a role to play in bridging the gap. We can start by acknowledging the field of computer science and the roles of unsung heroes throughout history to our family members and peers. With a collective effort, we can break down barriers of discrimination in computer science.

Supporting Code Savvy is another way you can help bridge this divide in our community. Volunteers are also always needed, so please don't hesitate to reach out!

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Prepared by Alicia Weston

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