The Forgotten Ones — The Stories of Women That STEM Pushed Aside
More than half of women in computer science leave midcareer, and it’s definitely part of a bigger pattern — I wanted to explore why.
Note: this story has been revised and can be found here.
As a high school girl who wants to go into STEM, it can be a little daunting.
I’m really passionate about gene editing and global sustainability, especially climate change. I’m currently doing research on where my two passions intersect; how I can solve the core issues that cause climate change using gene editing techniques like CRISPR.
Sure, more women are going into STEM than ever before, but there is still very much a culture of women being pushed aside by a male-dominated field.
And this problem existed long before the tech boom in Silicon Valley.
In the early 1800s, Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was the world’s first computer programmer. She was friends with Charles Babbage, who conceptualized the idea of a giant “Analytic Engine” (or a computer). However, it was Ada — a mathematician — who actually understood the promise of his idea. She wrote the first-ever algorithm for a computing machine in the mid-1800s, but her legacy and contributions aren’t wildly known.
Later that century, Mileva Mariċ was born. The name is uncommon to most, but she would later become the first wife of the one and only Albert Einstein. Though she was more than just his wife — there is some evidence that Mileva’s ideas actually contributed to his success. Some even argue that his success was surrounded by her original ideas. Mileva died in 1948 with many historians debating her legacy.
Even more recent than this, Elissa Shevinsky was at her friend’s house in September 2013. They were watching the livestream of a Hackathon showcase where two men revealed their app idea: it was called “Titstare,” an app where you take pictures of yourself starting at…well, you know. Elissa was disgusted at the fact that the (mainly male) crowd was laughing and supporting the idea. She took to Twitter to share her disgust along with other viewers, when even her male business partner defended the app, saying it wasn’t misogynistic.
As a teenage girl who loves innovation and hopes to be part of the next generation of women making things happen, I find this disgusting.
Elissa thought so, too. She eventually decided she couldn’t work for him anymore.
If it happens once, it’s an accident; if it happens twice, it’s coincidence; if it happens three times, it’s a pattern.
It’s no secret that women love what they are doing in tech, and there’s no lack of female talent either. But, offhand comments like these made by men in a predominantly male field make women feel like outsiders and that they don’t actually belong in the industry.
According to Harvard Business School, 56% of women in computer science leave midcareer. In order for them to stay employed and liked in the workforce, they have to put up with the “bro-culture,” so nothing actually changes.
The road they’re on is built for success, just not their success.
It’s hard to definitely say it was intentional, but as the tech industry took off, the path to success became catered to the success of men.
In order to “succeed” within the computer science industry, to attain the same level of respect and recognition that her male peers were getting, Elissa felt pressure to keep her mouth shut. She didn’t complain, she just became “one of the guys” in order to fit in, even if it meant that it put her in awkward and uncomfortable scenarios.
To Elissa, the workplace wasn’t about work anymore. It was about trying to stay on the good side of all the men around her. And if she didn’t, she could be joining the 56% of women who quit midcareer.
When asked why women aren’t in computer science, compared to other aspects of STEM, Lauren Weinstein, a consultant at Google answered honestly, “…these guys are just jerks, and women know it.”
This cycle of fear causes a feedback loop, one that won’t change if no one speaks up:
No women in computer science → Bro-culture continues → Women feel alienated → They decide to go along with it or they quit their jobs → The misogynistic culture is not put in check (and the cycle continues)
Of course, making women responsible for the behaviour of men is an ignorant way to view the cause of misogyny and sexism in the workplace, but we must recognize that change won’t happen unless there is an inciting incident.
This one of the cool moments that the Laws of Physics applies in real life too.
The barriers holding women back
This article is not to say that major progress when it comes to equality in the workplace, especially in fields that have been historically dominated by men.
In 2017, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report found that more women are entering STEM than ever before, and more women are taking on traditionally male roles, like public safety and construction.
But according to Girls Who Code, 24% of computing jobs were held by women in 2016, but it’s expected to fall to 22% by 2025.
Even more than that, according to a study done by Accenture and Girls Who Code, 37% of computer science majors were female in 1984. Only 18% were women in 2014.
So, what gives?
My take: the lack of normalization for women in the computer science industry.
It’s been a pattern since the 19th century and because nothing has changed in terms of normalization for women to be in STEM since then, the problem continues to persist.
Though the idea is so simple it’s actually makes a ton of sense.
Men enter an environment where misogyny is so deeply rooted, so they grow accustomed to a mainly male-dominated field and the culture that comes along with it. Women who actually enjoy computer science to feel alienated once they enter the field.
Young girls see the patterns — women speaking out about the experiences they’ve had but nothing actually changing, so computer science becomes a turn-off to them.
And the cycle continues.
Weeding out deep-rooted ideas
The solution to this is simpler than it seems and involves a little bit of psychology.
This idea comes from the idea of an emotional bias called the status quo bias. The basic idea is this: society won’t challenge the status quo if the perceived risks outweigh the benefits.
This idea causes people to choose the “default option,” without considering if the other options may actually be better. A prime example of this was insurance law choices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania: in both states, most people chose the default option. However, in New Jersey, the cheaper option was the default option, but in Pennsylvania, the more expensive option was the default option. People don’t even look at the perceived risks, they just stick to the default.
In this case, the perceived risks for women are that if they challenge bro-culture within the tech community, they could lose their job or be alienated by their coworkers.
For men, the perceived risks for challenging the status quo would be women taking their jobs, or jobs they believe that they should have.
When you lay it all out like this, it sounds ridiculous!
One of the only reasons that alienation women in the tech industry persist is because everyone is afraid to lose their jobs!?
If you really think about the benefits of having women be more accepted in computer science, it would be that more people have the skillsets to hold a job in computer programming. Companies get the most valuable employees and having so many skilled people drives competition and innovation.
If you ask me, THE BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE PERCEIVED RISK.
If you think about it this way, it really doesn’t make sense for the alienation of women to be even happening.
Of course, just telling an entire industry to change their entire point of view is easier said than done. It’s actually a huge reason why women don’t speak up or take a stand in the first place — because the odds seem ridiculously stacked against them. But, we need to remember —
If the rate of change is faster than the status quo can oppose, the status quo will change.
Movements like #MeToo is an example of what can happen when women and men of all changes stand together to advocate for change.
Thinks that we can do to kickstart the process include:
1. Introducing computer science to girls in middle school.
A study done by Accenture and Girls Who Code found that girls’ interest in computer science peaked in middle school, making it the ideal opportunity to introduce the field to girls. Websites like Codecamedy and Scratch along with other free resources make learning to code incredibly easy at home. The integration of computer science to middle schools also promotes an equal opportunity for boys and girls, which may decrease the misogynistic culture at a young age.
2. For those already working in computer science: ask yourself, “What have you got to lose?”
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but when you break down the logic of people on either side of the coin, it becomes flawed. If you are a woman who works in the computer science industry and has experienced stories like Elissa’s, ask yourself if you are experiencing status quo bias, and think of what would happen if you chose to do something differently. If you are a man who is wondering what they could do to help, reach out to those you know who may or may not have experienced something, and if there was any advice that they’d be willing to give you to make your workplace a more desirable place.
Many people question the point of having women in the computer science industry and STEM in general. Their logic mostly consists of, “The tech industry works fine without females, who should they join?”
To that, I say: why the hell not?
People like Melinda Gates think so too, announcing that she was committing 1 billion dollars to promote gender equality.
Yes, changing the culture of the tech industry is a monumental task. But doing nothing and expecting something to change isn’t the way to ensure that the next generation of computer scientists want to innovate and create.
Hi! My name’s Eliza and I’m a 15-year-old Innovator and The Knowledge Society (TKS). I’m super passionate about gene editing and global sustainability. I’m currently doing research on how we can use gene editing techniques to solve climate change. Feel free to connect with me on Linkedin or subscribe to my monthly newsletter!