How did computer science end up “catching a sex”?



The Gender Gap in IT

A digital divide between sexes in IT has been observed on both a European and world-wide scale (1), on one part concerning this field’s *use* (mainly in developing countries), but more precisely concerning its *mastering*.

In France, while 30% of women work in computing jobs, the sex introduces an essential difference as we approach the core of passionate programmers (Breton, 1990). In fact, this discipline’s evolution is especially interesting because in opposition to other scientific disciplines, the number of women has dropped since the end of the 80s. While a computer engineer’s training was one of the courses that included the most women in 1980 – with 20% – they are now only 11,5% in 2000 (2) (Marry, 2004). This decline appears inexorable, whether the sector is undergoing crisis or strong economical upraise. The INSEE (French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies) has discovered that “men’s position in consulting and assistance activities is still reinforced since 1992. Since 1995, they represent more than two thirds of the effectives in computing activities, and their share grows constantly”. (INSEE, 1999)

In the Times when Computer Science was a Feminine Discipline…

In the 70s, computers were considered to come directly from the typing machine tradition – a technical object mostly associated with women (Gardey, 2001). The computer was seen as an office machine and computer science was considered as one of the socially acceptable jobs for a woman engineer, since it came from the tertiary sector.

One can notice that this perception of IT jobs still exists in countries such as Malaysia (Lagesen and Mellström, 2004). In the Computer Science and IT University at Kuala Lumpur,
Department officials and the Dean are all women. From the descriptions they make in their interviews, a feminine construction in IT jobs obviously subsists:

  • computer science is a job that does not demand physical strength
  • taking part in computer science hardly ever causes physical injuries
  • computer science doesn’t get you dirty
  • computer science is an office job, that even allows you to work from home

With Microcomputers, Computers become Men’s Science.

Microcomputers arrive in France in the early 80’s. Boys are the first equipped, as usual for all technical items. They are also the main – if not exclusive – users of family computers. Around these computers grows a society of technophile teenagers, hostile to girls, at an age where identity stakes encourage them to take a position as a male image. In common belief, microcomputers represent the entire computer science sphere, and computer scientists are perceived as an adult version of these young technophiles. Twenty years later, this prejudice towards science students (women and men) still survives. Despite the diversity that exists in the uses of a computer – and in the evolution of these uses – a computer scientist is still first perceived as a developer.

The Computer Scientist Cliché Today

The image carried out by a minority of enthusiastic computer scientists becomes more and more persistent on the profession’s image. Since the year 2000, magazines selling “computer mythology (3)” have appeared in news kiosks. This situation is paradoxical as a genius developer’s profile is not something businesses are looking for. He is generally perceived as technically brilliant, but also as asocial, unable to work in a team, as a rebel to any kind of hierarchy, impervious to the requirements of productivity. In addition, less than a third of computer science jobs require programming. However, this visible minority of computer science enthusiasts (who’s ambiguous image – sometimes a terrorist, sometimes a Robin Hood – attracts, fascinates or repels) has become a reference in science students’ practices and speeches. Because of this, it has been observed that many girls are turning away from these sectors, by fear of having to identify themselves with this ideal type, or to be compared with it. At the same time, the few girls that engage in these kinds of studies are those who have a vision of IT rather in line with these realities.

Since 2005, computer science departments in universities have noticed that the pool from which they recruit in is running low (though we can not yet say that there are difficulties in filling up courses), some groups no longer have a single girl. Until the year 2000, if the number of women studying computer science had decreased, this number had remained roughly stable. Nowadays, the disappearance of girls in computer studies is approaching.

Author: Isabelle Collet
Source: This article has been published in “La vie de la recherche scientifique”, December 2006, n°367, p. 38-39.
Translated into English by Julia Buchner and Delphine Lebédel

* This expression comes from Delphine Gardey (2004)
1. In the case of Europe, see in particular the SIGIS survey: Strategies of inclusion: gender and the information society : and also : WWW-ICT – Widening Women’s Work in Information and Communication Technology :
2. Source: CNSIF, ID Report from 1972 to 1995. For the year 2000: Catherine Marry ‘s calculations are based on manpower charts made by the French Ministry of National Education’s school (Ministère de l’Education Nationale)
3. Sometimes, this refers to technical reviews that provide tips and tricks, and also to tabloïds tossing around fantasies about network security, piracy, etc.

BRETON, P. La tribu informatique. Paris : A.M. Métailié, 1990. 190 p. ISBN : 2864240866
COLLET, I. L’informatique a-t-elle un sexe ? Hackers, mythes et réalités. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2006
GARDEY, D. La dactylographe et l’expéditionnaire. Histoire des employés de bureau 1890-1930. Paris : Belin, 2001. 321 p. ISBN : 270113045X
GARDEY, D. « Humains et objets en action : essai sur la réification de la domination masculine ». In Chabaud-Rychter D. et GARDEY D. (dir), L’engendrement des choses, des hommes, des femmes et des techniques. Paris : Editions des archives contemporaines, 2004 p. 239-267. ISBN : 2914610033
INSEE. Les services en 1998, Synthèses n°33, 1999
JOUËT, J. et PASQUIER, D. « Les jeunes et la culture de l’écran (volet français d’une enquête comparative européenne ». Réseaux, 1999, vol., n° 92-93
LAGESEN, V. et MELLSTRÖM, U. « Why is computer science in Malaysia a gender authentic choice for women ? Gender and technology in a cross-cultural perspective ». Symposium Gender & ICT : Strategies of Inclusion, Brussel : 2004
MARRO, C. et VOUILLOT, F. « Représentation de soi, représentation du scientifique-type et choix d’une orientation scientifique chez des filles et des garçons de seconde ». L’orientation scolaire et professionnelle, 1991, vol. 20, n°3, p. 303-323
MARRY, C. Une révolution respectueuse : les femmes ingénieurs ? Paris : Belin, 2004. 288 p. ISBN : 2701133726
SCHINZEL, B. « Why has female participation in German informatics decreased ? » Women, work and computerization : spinning a web from past to future, Bonn : IFIP, 1997

2 responses

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  1. dmp wrote on ::

    Very interesting article!

    Now, I was just remembering the “Math Sup” and “Spé”, specially the M’ year – 30 boys, 2 girls (the other M’ at Janson didn’t have any girl that year…).
    The M’ year was preparing us for Polytechnique, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, or the ENSAE (none of them being dedicated to Computer Science, as a side note).
    These numbers may or may not be representative (that was thirteen years ago), but anyhow, other figures apparently show that nowadays Science PhD count only 20% women.

    My point being: I wonder if there really is anything *specific* with *computer* science, that would make the situation there different from science in general…

    … although that’s what the author seems to suggest at the start of the article, but I find the figures, vocabulary and statements rather confusing/dubious:
    * a computer scientist ( is only *remotely* connected to a computer engineer ( which himself has little in common IMHO with a software engineer ( – so, what are we talking about? IT stuff in general?
    * during the past ten years, the *vast* majority of people in the IT field I had to work with were self-taught and had no IT-related degree (be they men or women).

    I’m not saying the actual gender proportion is any better than what the figures suggest, just that deducing a trend from somewhat blurry numbers of a relatively new and (still, at least in France) explosively growing discipline to conclude a profession has less and less women is such a wide stretch that IMHO it actually deserves the point rather than prove it.

    That being said, I certainly agree the profession could and should use more women, not only in marketing and executive positions, but at R&D and software development positions as well.

  2. dmp wrote on ::

    “deserves” -> “doesn’t serve”. Franglais 🙂

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