That girls are bad at STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) subjects is a pervasive and harmful stereotype that remains far too common today. But in an introductory computer science class at UC Berkeley last spring women outranked men in enrollment — there were 106 women and 104 men — for the first time.
Yes, the numbers are subtle, but they indicate a growing trend of women and girls asserting themselves in a field largely dominated by men. The percentage of female computer science majors at Berkeley nearly doubled from 2009 to 2013, to 21%. Stanford has seen female computer science enrollment grow markedly, from 12.5% in 2008 to 21% in 2013.
Image Credit: Associated Press
Still, according to a 2009 report by the National Science Foundation, women earn 57% of bachelor's degrees, but only 12% of computer science degrees. Female scientists and engineers only made up 27.2% of the industry. (To put into context, women make up 58.1% of the overall workforce.)
A 2008 study by the Association for Computing Machinery showed that while college-bound boys associated words like "interesting," "video games" and "solving problems" with computing, girls thought of terms like "typing," "math" and "boredom."
These results impact the overall demographics in the tech field. Despite the heavy visibility of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg, according to a recent study by law firm Fenwick & West, nearly half of 150 Silicon Valley companies — 45.3% — have no female executives at all, and a plurality of those companies — 43.3% — have no women on their boards. This is not just mind boggling, but inherently damaging to one of the U.S.'s largest and fastest growing industries. According to a study by the Kellogg School of Management, more diverse teams make better decisions and have better problem solving capacities.
Further, according to a Harvard Business Review study, 52% of women in science, engineering and technology leave the field and don't return.
So while the Berkeley course enrollment figures may not be a watershed moment, it is a small but hopeful step. As Michelle Obama said in 2011, "If we're going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we've got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math."