How Home Computers Led to Fewer Women Coders

“Women Who Code” by Alaina Percival is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Thinking about the field of computer science may often conjure up images of youngsters sitting mesmerized in front of their monitors as they work on solving complex programming problems — and, of course, these youngsters are almost always male.

However, it turns out that computer science wasn’t always male-dominated. According to Steven Henn, in his article When Women Stopped Coding, for decades female students were as involved in studying programming, if not more so, than their male counterparts.

So what changed?

In his article, Henn points out a significant technological advancement that may have in fact had an adverse effect on the upward trend of females studying computers: in 1984, personal ownership of computers began to rise significantly. While this sounds like a fantastic opportunity for all who could afford it, the reality was very different.

The home computer was positioned specifically as a leisure product for boys, in the same way that toys like trucks and soccer balls are traditionally marketed, mostly leaving girls out of the equation. Meanwhile, cult classic films such as Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Weird Science (1985) further ingrained the cultural stereotype of computer science being an ideal field for men. Furthermore, a 1990s study revealed that the gift of a home computer was almost always intended for the sons of a family, even if daughters showed an interest in them too.

By the time these school children reached university, lecturers already assumed that they were familiar with many foundational aspects of computer programming, only to discover that female students were at a distinct disadvantage, simply because they had not had access to a home computer. Because of this disadvantage, many women dropped out of their studies, or were discouraged them from applying to these programs at all.

In a world where so many once male-dominated professions are witnessing more equal gender representation, there is hope that the field of computer science will be seeing more women joining its ranks in the future.