International Women's Week: HP Developer diagnoses drop in CS majors

Editor’s Note: HP has extended International Women’s Day into a full week of activities honoring women in technology. Here at the Developers Program, we received perceptive insights about the decline of women in Computer Science from our colleague Noha Elarief.

By Warren Volkmann, Editor
​HP Developers Portal

Noha, an HP mobile print developer, knows what it's like to be the only woman in the class.Noha Elarief, a developer on HP’s mobile print program, has personal experience with the decline of women in Computer Science courses in the United States. It wasn’t that way in Egypt where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in 2004 from Ain Shams University in Cairo.

“When I came to the United States in 2006 to earn a Ph.D., I was shocked when I saw how few women were in my classes,” she recalled. “In Egypt, I would say about 40 percent of the students in Computer Science were female. In graduate courses at Oregon State University, there were usually only two or three other women in class. In once class, there were 30 males, and I was the only female.”

The gender disparity presented challenges that her male counterparts didn’t face.

“I preferred to partner with women on projects. I was coming from an environment where it was very easy to team up with other women in class. But in America, when I walked into class, I would look for the females and hope there were enough to do a project with.”

The percentage of women earning computer science degrees peaked in the early 1980s.Why so few women?

Noha attributes the lack of women in college computer classes to a lack of exposure for girls in elementary and high school classes. Even though her father is a professor of Computer Science, Noha didn’t learn about computers until she enrolled in college.

“I remember feeling that I didn’t know as much as the boys did. All these boys were going up to the board to explain things that I didn’t understand. I felt intimidated. Every woman I have spoken to has said the same thing. For many women, they go to college and that is their first experience ever with CS, and they get intimidated, like they are the only ones who don’t know anything. Their male teammates had years of experience – some already know how to code in many languages.”

“From the start, the boys had a lead. Even after all my years in CS, I feel that I am still trying to catch up with the boys. That gap is still there. I have to go faster to catch up. I would think that here in the U.S. in this day and age we would have something for girls in high school.”

To give girls the exposure that she never received, Noha volunteered for the Hour of Code event in Corvallis. She was part of an HP contingent – men and women – who went to Corvallis elementary schools to show third graders how to code.

“I think I enjoyed it more than the kids,” Noha said. “I would have loved to have had something like that when I was their age.”

Noha hopes that programs like Hour of Code will reassure young women that computers know no gender, and that they can be successful coding in a mostly male industry.

 

A closer look at the data

In 2013 Randy Olson at the National Center for Education Statistics compiled a chart (below with emphasis added) showing the percentage of Bachelor's degrees earned by women in the United States between 1970 and 2012.  Across all disciplines, women have taken their place beside men in university classes...except for Computer Science. - See more at: https://developers.hp.com/public/blog/hp-international-womens-week-women-computer-science-dropping-1980s#sthash.cy0aCmsA.dpuf​
The percentage of women earning computer science degrees peaked in the early 1980s.