In 1985, nearly 40 percent of computer science degrees went to women, but that number has fallen ever since, to just 18 percent today.
Yesterday, Stanford University unveiled promising news: Computer science has overtaken biology as its female students' most popular major.
At Stanford’s southern California rival, Harvey Mudd College, computer science is the No. 2 major for female students. The field's growing popularity among women, despite the tech industry's "boys' club" reputation, is helped by organizations committed to closing the gender gap in science and technology, like Girls Who Code and Ada Developers Academy.
Stanford women’s computing success may also owe something to the school's Silicon Valley environs, as well as its vibrant community for female majors, including student group linking current undergrads to alumae mentors in the industry.
Mentor support is key to changing a work culture still dominated by men, who make up nearly three quarters of the tech workforce, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
Without female role models, eager young women may give up on the field, said University of Maryland’s Penny Rheingans.
"If students struggle in class and have few peers and faculty that look like them, it’s easy for them to think, 'maybe I’m not supposed to be here, either,' " she told US News.
Part of the challenge is breaking into a culture of young, male grads who thrive off the coupling of intense, irregular hours and a cool-guy start-up atmosphere that resists being "bogged down in protocol" like human resources and sexual harassment reporting procedures.
But that can lead to an anything-goes atmosphere, said Julie Ann Horvath, a former GitHub developer, in an interview with the New York Times. "If there is no structure, that's actually more harmful to marginalized people," she said. "It's just unprofessional. Tech needs to grow up in a lot of ways."
Many women report finding tech an unwelcoming field plagued with sexual harassment, as Ellen Pao’s lawsuit against Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers brought to light, although the judge ruled in favor of the firm.
Advocates for women’s colleges have long argued that all-female classes, along with intern opportunities, are the ideal incubator for women in science and programming.
But co-ed campuses are also waking up to the discrimination women face in tech fields: maleness alone makes a candidate twice as likely to be hired for a math-related job, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
Recently, engineering major Jared Mauldin inspired outrage that quickly turned to adoration when he penned an op-ed in the Eastern Washington University newspaper which began:
To the women in my engineering classes: While it is my intention in every other interaction I share with you to treat you as my peer, let me deviate from that to say that you and I are in fact unequal.
Those who read further saw Mr. Mauldin’s message take an unexpected turn, as he began reeling off examples of the bias female scientists face, from elementary classrooms to the day they become a "diversity hire" at a high-tech company. He concludes
When I experience success the assumption of others will be that I earned it. So, you and I cannot be equal. You have already conquered far more to be in this field than I will ever face.