Why did the percentage of CS bachelor's degrees going to women peak in 1984?



As shown by the following graph, the percentage of bachelor's degrees going to women in the US has increased over time in almost every major, with the dramatic exception of CS, which peaked in 1984 at 37%, then fell drastically, never to rise again above 20%.

Graph showing percentage of bachelor's degrees conferred to women in the US by major (1970-2012)

Why are the numbers for CS so different from every other field?

This is relevant to CS education for those who want to make sure that students have equal opportunity regardless of gender.


Since some readers seem to have misunderstood my question, let me be explicit that I am not asking why fewer women than men study CS, nor do I mean to imply that people should not be free to change their own majors. I am asking why the proportion of CS bachelor's degrees in the United States going to women fell dramatically after 1984.

Ellen Spertus

Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 4 408

I read an article that said it had to do with teaching capacity, and the need professors felt to make the field more competitive. This is detailed in Nat's answer to the OP's other question, but this explanation hadn't come up in the current thread, so I wanted to share: https://cseducators.stackexchange.com/a/2972/294

– David White – 2018-04-02T08:56:32.860

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– thesecretmaster – 2017-07-28T17:05:17.377



Obviously, there is no way to definitively know the answer to this question. But my favorite theory has to do with the advent of the home PC, and the original marketing of computer games to boys. The strongest support for this theory is the timing, which means that I must now give the obligatory caveat that correlation is not causation.

Basically, the theory goes like this: as the home PC started to sell, the good folks in marketing had to choose which groups they would target with their limited ad dollars. The earliest games that came out involved balls and shooting anyway, so young boys were chosen as the target market. And thus began a generation of young boys who logged hundreds or thousands of hours with computers, with no corresponding boost for the girls.

As this generation of children reached university age, more boys signed up for computing majors, and professors began to tailor their classes towards this majority of people who already had some background. Girls who did come in often felt like fish out of water (and abandoned the major), leaving us where we are today.

It does not have to be so. There are inroads being made into this problem, and I am hopeful that with the total infusion of computers into all of our lives that is going on now, the timing is right for this problem to begin to fix itself, as the experience differential has begun to level out.

Ben I.

Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 17 660

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– thesecretmaster – 2017-07-28T17:04:44.387

My cousin got her CS degree in '79. I got mine 6 years later in '85. My family got an Apple II in '77 while my cousin was in college. I was in high school and I thought the Apple II was the coolest thing in the world. I was surprised that my cousin wasn't really interested in the Apple because at that time it couldn't do much that would apply to her school work or her professional future. In other words, our interest in CS was of a different sort. She seemed to be more interested in the profession, but I was interested in the gadgets. – Greg Graham – 2017-07-31T00:37:34.737

1Hey, @GregGraham! Thanks for the comment. I hope we hear more from you around the site. Being active on here has really been the best PD I've ever had. – Ben I. – 2017-07-31T00:39:33.820

I will try to get involved. I just found out about the site, and it looks like it will be very helpful. – Greg Graham – 2017-08-01T13:17:17.463


Not having been around at the time, I searched timelines and came up with some interesting data:

As Ben said, marketing targeted men. Advertisements featured boys on personal computers. That was how it started.

IBM and Apple marketed the first personal computers in 1977. Apple launched the Apple II and advertised their new product. Their ads, as stated, featured men using the brand new computer3. IBM soon followed suite. Apple's product might well have contributed to the effect displayed by the graph in the question.

To quote reference #1:

Kenney continued, "What's so striking about them, besides the super-cheesy 80s music, is men and boys. In this Commodore 64 ad, there's sort of this dorky 12-year-old, sitting at this computer, and he gives this finger salute to the camera. In fact, in most of these ads, it's just men, all men."

This shows us how things started.
From there, social media, and social trends took it to worse levels. Movies, books and other media showed men as computer geeks.

A study of Carnegie Mellon's Computer Science degree path shows that half of the women in the program ended up quitting, and more than half of them were on the Dean's List.

So, effectively, it was marketing which piled things up with advertisements featuring men exclusively. "Cultural" changes lit the pile up and it's been burning since.

Later on, towards the 2000s, this trend continued (but the "fire" was burning lower than in 1985).

Recent efforts have been successful, and with the rising awareness to the issue, it looks like a solvable one.

So effectively, the reason for the difference is a process. One that marketing started, and the social narrative took to a higher level. But that can be changed, and a part of education is teaching students to help change this narrative.


  1. J. Conditt, "What happened to all of the women coders in 1984", link
  2. D. Sims, "How Apple and IBM Marketed the First Personal Computers", link
  3. D. F., Smith, "Did the Computer Science Gender Gap Begin in 1984?", link


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 4 569

Was there computer advertising in the early 1970s when these people were children? At an age when they were forming ideas about their gender roles? This seems doubtful to me. – axsvl77 – 2017-07-24T14:56:19.937

1@axsvl77 The advertising was for personal computers, which came about in the 80s... Those who were children then were affected (boys "promoted" and girls "rejected"). From there, the narrative I describe took over. – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-24T14:58:35.353

1@ItamarG3 Yes true. But the question is about people graduating in 1984, not those who were children in the 1980s. Your answer is certainly relevant for those graduating in the 90's. – axsvl77 – 2017-07-24T15:08:31.813

1@axsvl77 the question asks why the numbers in CS are so different. All other fields don't see such a radical decrease. This drop happens more towards 1990. Also, I'll correct myself: PCs started spreading and being advertised around 1977. – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-24T15:21:43.397

@ItamarG3 The title is "Why did it peak in 1984" – axsvl77 – 2017-07-24T15:23:55.853

2@axsvl77 I edited my answer to address that. Also, a peak is only a peak if there is a drop after it. – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-24T15:36:17.937

I find this answer very interesting, though a bit sad. This would mean that back then people already had the wrong impression that CS is about computers. Probably the bad wording in the English term "computer science" doesn't really help, either. Although the same phenomenon happens for instance in my country (Italy) where the word is not a direct translation of "computer science". – Andrea Lazzarotto – 2017-07-25T17:01:29.713

you're right, but It's not too late. As long as people are educated to destroy that unfair narrative, and build a new one where prejudice and the thought that women don't belong in CS are nowhere to be seen. Education is the key, IMO – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-25T17:05:45.633

@ItamarG3 The problem is that even if everyone is completely fair-minded, the fact that there's such a big gap is itself a potential reason that may put women off. So you end up in a vicious cycle, or at least a trap, that's hard to escape from – Ben Aaronson – 2017-07-27T17:00:24.823


Women just like some majors more than others. For whatever reason, they dominate (source):

  • Health Professions;

  • Social Work;

  • Education;

  • Psychology;

outnumbering men by at least 3-to-1 in all of those fields. Each woman who spends all of her time studying to become a doctor is a woman who isn't studying to be a computer scientist.

The clear common ground between those four fields is that they're highly social and focused on helping others. By contrast, men dominate the fields that are perceived to be the least social, i.e. Computer Science and Engineering.

There's also some variation based on how math-heavy a field is; for example, women are relatively more likely to do Biology than Physics. But, that effect doesn't appear to dominate. For example, women are fairly well-represented in Math and Physics. Also, women may choose Biology more often because it's a popular major for students planning to go to med school.

Asking students directly

If you're an instructor in high school or college, then you have direct access to students around the time that they're making their study choices. So, asking them what they want to do and why seems like a good path toward personal understanding.

You're probably going to hear stuff like "I want to help others" more from the women and "I like computers" more from the men. Ultimately, their major will be their choice, so it's all about understanding what they want.

Two big peaks for CS degree obtainment, regardless of gender

Looks like CS degree granting has gone through two big peaks during this time:

enter image description here

The first peak, around 1985, is before my time. However it's my impression that there was a major loss of momentum around those years. The term "AI winter" was coined in 1984, suggesting that pessimism was prevalent enough to assign it a name in discussion. Presumably this pessimism dissuaded incoming college students from selecting CS, causing the drop a few years later when they graduated.

That second peak looks like it's centered around 2004/2005, suggesting that students were really optimistic about Computer Science around 2000/2001. And those years were the peak of the dot-com bubble, which started its clear burst in late-2000. It seems probable that the dot-com bubble bursting dissuaded incoming students from going into CS then, too.

Females in specific also followed this trend, and had the same peaks:

enter image description here

The peaks look more pronounced for women; presumably if we had a graph of just men, we'd see their enrollment had a milder response.

I'd speculate that this implies that women cared more about the optimism/pessimism about Computer Science happening at the time than men did. This is, optimism had a stronger pull to get women in, then pessimism also pushed them out harder. This push/pull effect can be seen in the relative CS degree obtainment plot:

enter image description here

As shown, women chose CS relatively more often until the peaks, then relatively chose other majors after the peaks.

Not a bad thing

So women like being medical professionals more than programmers - awesome! As long as people are freely choosing what they want to do, then that's exactly what we should be striving for.


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 848

"The first peak, around 1985" that looks like people who got access to home computers (ZX81, Apple II, BBC B etc) while "normal children" where out playing with their friends. The only fun thing you could do on most computers at that time was learn how to program them. – Ian Ringrose – 2017-07-24T13:02:53.497

1I agree that people should be free to choose their own majors. My question was not meant to imply that any number was ideal, just that the delta seems mysterious. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-07-24T18:46:58.793

4At the risk of sounding cliché, "Health Professions; Social Work; Education; Psychology;" all have one element in common: the desire to help/nurture people. I admit I (a male) choose to do psychology at AS level (alongside a BTEC in video game design) but I chose to do it because I wanted to understand people's psychology/behaviour, not because I wanted to help people. Ultimately that "wanting to solve mysteries" is what attracted me to programming instead (and it was a darn sight easier than understanding people). (Plus I kept disagreeing with the established theories of psychology.) – Pharap – 2017-07-24T21:12:07.957

7" For whatever reason..." This question is asking what that reason is. I think at best it's incomplete to say "women just prefer certain fields." That's already a pretty dubious statement, but in this context it's missing the entire point of the question. – Kevin Workman – 2017-07-24T21:44:03.240

1@KevinWorkman The point of "For whatever reason" in that line was to separate referenced numbers from my own answer. This answer does discuss multiple factors; they just weren't provided in that line. – Nat – 2017-07-25T01:21:24.640


@Pharap That also align with how even juvenile monkeys have gender-separated interest on toys. The males prefer toys with wheels from dolls, while females have no strong preference. So even without advertising or peer pressure, there's a measurable difference.

– Martheen – 2017-07-25T02:25:28.553

Would down-vote if I could. It's just a nonsense, non-answer to say that "women just don't like CS as much as men". – None – 2017-07-28T07:51:29.127


I find it amazing that nobody here even mentioned the possibility that men simply find programming much more interesting than women do.

The question can only be answered with a hypothesis so I will give you mine:
In the 80's personal computers became more common; boys liked them, girls didn't. There that's it, that's the whole explanation, the simplest and using Occam's razor the better one.

Part of ItamarG3's answer supports my hypothesis:

A study of Carnegie Mellon's Computer Science degree path shows that half of the women in the program ended up quitting, and more than half of them were on the Dean's List.

Why did they quit? Because they didn't like it.

As to the rest of his answer and the other answer I find the whole notion of advertisements creating reality ridiculous. Advertisers base their ads on reality, not the other way around.

I will finish with a personal anecdote:
When I was a kid in the early 90's I went to an evening school. Part of the curriculum was programming and all the boys immediately liked it.
It wasn't advertised in any way and there was certainly absolutely nothing done by the teachers that would imply that it is more for boys than for girls.
Because we liked it so much we pushed for more and more programming lessons until at some point it became more or less a programming school, no girls remained at that point...


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 327

4So, in essence, you're saying the same as I am, but without marketing decisions influencing the market. I certainly have no data to show that games would have targeted girls in a parallel universe, so I can't really argue with you. No way to tell. – Ben I. – 2017-07-24T01:32:27.833

2@BenI. Sure, I have no problem with your answer. I was annoyed that nobody suggested mine as a possibility. Before we can solve a problem we need to know if it is solvable. – Oleg – 2017-07-24T01:58:48.487

2Having done a BTEC in game design, a HND in computing and an AS level in Psychology, I'm quite convinced that interest is one of the driving forces. My BTEC class had one female who was more interested in the stories than the technology. My HND class had 3 females, 2 were there because they already had IT jobs at the college (odd considering they weren't very IT literate), 1 sat quietly in the corner and ended up leaving for reasons we don't know, got replaced by another woman (~27) who ended up leaving because she decided IT wasn't really for her... – Pharap – 2017-07-24T02:12:37.633

2... In my psychology course, there were 2-3 males (including me), everyone else was female. I ended up leaving because I found it was too much work on top of the demanding game design course and game design was more important to me. I could be wrong, but I think, advertising aside, a good chunk of it is down to actual interest. (Disclaimer: my childhood also began in the 90s.) – Pharap – 2017-07-24T02:18:31.463

4+1 for Occams Razor, and for matching my experience (in the business world) - I do work with plenty of women, but even those of them that can and do program as part of their daily work, do it more matter-of-factly "because they can" and want to get something done. The colleagues who do the more driving stuff (trying out new programming paradigms, hardcore debugging of 3rd party modules, going the DevOps rouet etc. etc.) are 99% men. Purely based on interest, as there is no perceptible discrimination here in my company (there are precious few of the "needed" profiles anyways...). – AnoE – 2017-07-24T10:32:50.943

1@Oleg Was this in the USA? It sounds like a different culture. Certainly not China though – axsvl77 – 2017-07-24T13:36:35.807

2@axsvl77 This was in Israel. There was a huge immigration from the Soviet Union in the early 90's and there were lots of people who couldn't find jobs adequate to their expertise and they were also dissatisfied with Israeli education, so they created a network of evening schools for ex Soviet Union kids (All the teachings were done in Russian, they even tried to teach Russian grammar but we weren't interested). Those kind of evening schools were specific to Israel in the early to mid 90's, they don't exist anymore. Also if I remember correctly it was 2 times a week for 3-4 hours each time. – Oleg – 2017-07-24T14:02:45.463

@axsvl77 I just checked and apparently they do still exist. It became much more organized and serious and it's not only for Russian speakers anymore . You can find some info in English here if it interests you.

– Oleg – 2017-07-24T14:16:59.903

25Computer Science departments in the Middle East are heavily female. I don't think a purely biological answer is satisfactory. – nova – 2017-07-24T14:17:16.303

20@nova I very much agree with you; likewise with Chinese women in CS. It cannot be biological. However, cultural gender roles are certainly important. I wish I knew enough about the US feminist movement and its impact on child rearing 1966-1984 to comment why in the US males would be more inclined to like CS, and why US females did not. – axsvl77 – 2017-07-24T14:22:41.570

1If advertisers cannot "create reality" then why does advertising exist? The entire purpose of advertising is to change people's behavior. – Casey – 2017-07-24T14:49:01.443

2I am not sure that the theory that millions of years of evolution have lead the women to be less interested in CS than men is "simple". I think that explaining the under-representation of women in CS with a societal point of view instead of a biological one is much more simple. – Tom Cornebize – 2017-07-24T15:10:09.787


@nova and axsvl77 Please support your claims with data from reality. In Israel 27% of CS students are female and according to the source many of them don't work in programming after graduation. In China only 20% of programmers are female source , and from my personal experience working with a 10 person Chinese development team they were all male.

– Oleg – 2017-07-24T15:24:23.660

1@Oleg you mention that it happened in Israel, and I just asked a family member (who has been around to see what you describe) and they said almost exactly what you say. – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-24T15:31:33.060

1@Casey Advertisers want to sell as much of their product as possible, they do market research, find out what demographic is interested in their product and target their ads toward that demographic. The processes are of course very complex and they can be wrong during their research and somewhat augment reality. Market Forces still apply and ads will adapt to reality even if they were somewhat responsible for creating it. – Oleg – 2017-07-24T15:36:06.503

@TomCornebize If X and Y are different in A then assuming the difference is caused by X != Y is the most simple and natural explanation. – Oleg – 2017-07-24T15:43:17.577

1350% female at CMU Qatar, 70% female at U Qatar. Not Middle East but SE Asia: Mayalsia is 52% female in CS. Perhaps I should have said the Muslim world rather than the Middle East. My Iranian friends maintain that women are naturally predisposed to Computer Science. But Physics, that's a man's field. – nova – 2017-07-24T15:56:34.413

@TomCornebize First you have to define white and differences between white and not white in a meaningful way, if you can do that then yes you should start with that assumption, falsify it and only then proceed looking for other more complicated explanations. – Oleg – 2017-07-24T16:38:52.890

4@nova Thank you, that was very interesting and informative. A couple quotes from the Qatar article: computer science is considered a lesser degree here, part of the attraction of computer science for women is that it can be done from home and Malaysia: three primary influences on students going into CS were their personal enthusiasm, parental interests and wishes, and job prospects, the last two were much more important than the first one. This aligns perfectly with my hypotheses, in those countries personal interests are less important. When women can choose most don't choose CS. – Oleg – 2017-07-24T18:11:04.637

2Thanks for your reply. My concern about your explanation is that it does not explain why so many women graduated in CS in 1984 and the years preceding but not afterwards. If women are much less likely to enjoy programming (which is a fine hypothesis), why didn't they drop out of the CS major after taking freshman programming classes in 1980? – Ellen Spertus – 2017-07-24T18:45:55.163


@Oleg Parental pressure and job prospects are issues in the US, Europe, and Israel as well. It could be that they just point the other way. My parents didn't want me to pursue CS because they felt I'd be around a lot of guys who didn't respect women. Also consider India (~30% female) as a case study.

– nova – 2017-07-24T18:56:23.010

@axsvl77 It's worth noting that in China maths is considered to be much more important than in the west and children are pressured into learning it. I suspect there may be some pressure into learning CS stemming from the same pattern of thought given how much overlap there is between the two subjects. – Pharap – 2017-07-24T20:55:27.653

4@Oleg Please support your claims with data from reality. Please explain why "girls simply don't like CS" is a valid statement. – Kevin Workman – 2017-07-24T21:05:23.457

@EllenSpertus The question was more general before your clarification, I have no idea what happened in the early 80's that caused this phenomena and I don't find any of the other answers convincing. Thank you for acknowledging the possibility of a biological explanation this is really all I wanted. – Oleg – 2017-07-24T23:36:25.450

@nova Not in the same way that they are in the west, western culture is much more about individualism. And 30% in India is still quite low. – Oleg – 2017-07-24T23:46:23.010

@KevinWorkman LOL, nice try but that wasn't a factual claim, it was a proposition based on the fact that there are differences between men and women. Now this is something I can provide data for but if you believe otherwise you won't find it convincing so I'm not going to bother. – Oleg – 2017-07-25T00:00:47.173

2@KevinWorkman to rephrase Oleg's response to your comment, he seems to be working from a falsificationist perspective where one formulates a bold conjecture and looks for disconfirmation. So there is no need to "support (the conjecture) with data from reality" the way one would have to support a statement of fact. My only beef with this conjecture is that, as Ellen Spertus points out, it doesn't answer the question. – Jared Smith – 2017-07-25T13:04:51.460

2This answer even if (trivially) correct, is useless. The poster wanted to know why things got this way. This "answer" merely takes one obvious baby step down the road without fundamentally answering the "why" question. This is like answering "Why are there more home runs this year?" with "Because batters are hitting the ball better." – T.E.D. – 2017-07-26T21:39:35.497

1Would down-vote if I could. This is a non-answer, mere speculation with little to back it up and is contradicted by evidence posted in the comments. – None – 2017-07-28T07:52:46.023


Computing was historically a female-dominated field. "Computers" used to be mostly women working out mathematical calculations. With the advent of mechanical and then electrical computers (during WW2, when men were sparse already), these women were drafted to do the data entry and cross-checking. When input complexity evolved from entering numbers into a calculator to actual programming, it took a while for men to realize that it required actual thinking. There's a famous Grace Hopper quote about how women are naturals at programming because scheduling assembler instructions is just like dinner planning. Up to the 70s, most men wouldn't touch a keyboard because "typing is for their secretaries". Programming was something you did while you waited for marriage.

Once the "computer revolution" started and people realized how important programming was becoming, there was a massive influx of men into the field. I wouldn't be surprised if in absolute numbers, there are still more women in CS today than in 1984...

Further reading: http://mentalfloss.com/article/53160/meet-refrigerator-ladies-who-programmed-eniac https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/09/what-programmings-past-reveals-about-todays-gender-pay-gap/498797/


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 321

I think the theory here is that the early part of the graph shows an accelerated take-up 1970-1980, encouraged by the prevailing gender assumptions (these were the pre mini-computer children), and after that the boys started to realise they could do this. Would need to compare male and female degree counts to investigate further. – Sean Houlihane – 2017-07-24T09:12:02.683

2Well, I don't have exact survey numbers on what people thought about computers and gender in the 70s and 80s, so I can't tie specific data points together. But the shift in people thinking of work with computers as a "job for women" to a "career for men" happened, and the timeframe looks like it would match up, so I think it bears considering as an explanation for the direction reversal in proportions of women that didn't seem to happen in other fields. – nengel – 2017-07-24T09:19:17.637

@ItamarG3 - I might be able to partially answer that: When I graduated with a CS degree in 1989, I discovered most of my new co-workers did not actually have a CS degree. CS degrees were still a pretty new thing, and I think there just weren't that many of us around until recently. Reference the blue bar-graphs in Nat's answer. – T.E.D. – 2017-07-24T16:43:39.853

I think you do an important job of setting up the context of how computer science was viewed in the 80s. I would not even be surprised if at that time people wanting to do what we now consider to be "computer science" would rather choose to start a degree in electronics. – Kolaru – 2017-07-26T14:00:59.743

This does not actually answer the question, and the closest it comes is just speculation. – None – 2017-07-28T07:57:06.390


While I have not seen any compelling evidence ether way. I as wondering if there is a true underlying gender element, or at least to deep to be fixed locally (with in CS).

I wonder if this is related to “what are female roles?” and “What is a computer?”.

For the first question, the answer is getting broader over time, so I don't think the answer lies here.

For the 2nd this seems to change a lot.

  • An automation controller (Jacquard).
  • A calculator (Babbage) (where the name came from).
  • A type-writer.
  • A fairground game.
  • A postal system.
  • A news paper.
  • A drawing sketch pad.
  • A a telephone.
  • A reference library.
  • A TV.

As our view of what a computer is changes, it affects who wants to be involved. However a computer is all of these (and more), and it is non of there. It is a modelling machine.

Therefore we need to show what computers can do, “what is in it for me?”. Use grate examples to engage with our students. (The more important question is not “Why did it happen?”, but “how do we fix it?”. Though the first question is an important step to the 2nd.)

I have recently been watching some videos by Bret Victor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pTEmbeENF4, making programming more like just using a computer, and making just using a computer more like programming. No need to program, to be able to automate a task. I was thinking that if his views come true, then there will be new different roles, for different people. Some of these may be liked more by women. [Sorry I have struggled to put in to words what is in the Bret Victor videos. As I write this apology, I realise that that is exactly the point he was making.]


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 7 268

@nocomprende Biology? – MKII – 2017-07-24T12:49:38.130

The original 'computers' were humans who were paid to 'compute' things with mental arithmetic. The most abstract description of a computer is "something with inputs, processing, and outputs", which arguably classifies a logic gate as a computer. – Pharap – 2017-07-24T21:15:53.570

@Oleg Personally I wouldn't conflate phones (e.g. Android) with 'computers' (e.g. Ubuntu). One is intended for texting, social media and being tracked by Google, the other is intended for sudo apt-get install emacs24 emacs24-el emacs24-common-non-dfsg. Granted Linux is at the core of Android, but we all know that a good 90% of the people who own an Android phone don't even know how to access the terminal, let alone what sudo is. – Pharap – 2017-07-24T21:19:40.383

@Pharap I was thinking of voip. But yes mobile phones are computer as well, and your point is exactly right. A mobile phone is not thought of as a computer. Our point of view of a computer changes, sometimes we don't even call it a computer. Sometimes we call the typewritter++ a computer. – ctrl-alt-delor – 2017-07-24T21:40:33.200

This is interesting but does not answering the question I asked. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-07-25T15:35:43.220


I suspect in the US it is a generational issue. A 22 year old woman graduating in 1984 would have been born in 1962 to parents who belonged to the Silent Generation. A 22 year old woman graduating in 1988 have parents who were Babyboomers. These two generations have vastly different values, and they raised their children with a different set of values.

When I look at the graph, it seems like Engineering and CS follow a similar trajectory, with Engineering not reaching a peak as high as that of CS, but still peaking around 84, then showing a declining interest. Perhaps these fields were not viewed as "feminine" by those raised by baby boomer parents, and unintentionally imbuing young women and men with gender roles making young men more inclined to like CS. In contrast, silent generation would be less likely to view CS with a gender stereotype; instead they would view it as a good or bad career for their children, with less regard for whether CS was "feminine" enough for their little girls. As a child of Baby boomers myself, I certainly could spot the difference in children of parents born in the early 1950's and the children those born in the late 1930's.

As the children of boomers - Gen X - become parents and their children are entering University, we might see this change. Somehow, though, it seems unlikely considering that many engineering and CS undergrads are international students anyways.


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 151

As a related concept, Mothers working as computers would be inclined to encourage their daughters to enter the same field.

– axsvl77 – 2017-07-24T15:32:02.703

I wouldn't expect a generational difference to be sharp but gradual. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-07-25T15:36:17.547


As computer science degrees began to turn into software engineering careers the programs began to take on the culture and workstyle of engineering programs. Unfortunately this often means women face gender stereotypes and marginalizing behavior at the hands of their peers. I believe this is why efforts to improve enrollment for women in these programs continues to fail and women who graduate with engineering degrees will leave or never enter the field.


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 51

Welcome to [cseducators.se]! This is a good answer. I hope we'll be seeing more answers and questions from you. – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-25T14:06:41.953

I worked with much more than 20 women (number of women in this "research") and never saw them face any kind of discrimination, nobody treated them differently, they had no problems participating in meetings and many were team leads. Nevertheless it is peer reviewed and published in a real journal so it's certainly valid to reference it in an answer. It's not even needed, saying "because it became more like engineering" is enough. This is the first answer that makes sense to me(even the lines converge), if you can also show it actually happened in the 80's it will answer the question. – Oleg – 2017-07-26T01:33:39.780

@Oleg - I suspect if we were to ask them, rather than take the word of a guy who was merely "female adjacent" at the time, we might get a different story. (Or not. We don't know. That's why I really am sick of discussions amongst men about this subject. We literally don't know what we are talking about). – T.E.D. – 2017-07-26T21:43:18.330

@T.E.D. That's a fair point, but I also think we should stop treating some crap based on 40 diaries as science (many people already don't). You also can't base your research only on peoples feelings, imagine a research about sexual harassment based on Zarna Joshi's diary. Hugh: My name is Hugh Mungus Zarna: This man just sexually harassed me!!!

– Oleg – 2017-07-26T22:48:58.630


The fall in CS degrees seems to match a rise in women getting degrees in business, psychology, science, and biology, which might be due to a higher proportional interest in those fields. Easier to use personal computers, which arrived in 1984 to '86 timeframe, and which could help solve problems in those other fields might have made those other fields more attractive.

That would also be about the time the tail end of the post-war "baby boom" would be graduating. Perhaps the youngest siblings in that demographic, or later those from smaller families, have different personalities leading to different interests (in careers, etc.) than first borns and older siblings in larger families raised during that boom.


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 1 373

Which hypothesis was downvoted? – hotpaw2 – 2017-07-24T23:42:49.150

Not a DV but this answer would be greatly improved by sources. – Jared Smith – 2017-07-25T13:12:12.287


There is one thing this graph is assuming and is certainly glossed over in the all of the answers is that a Computer Science degree has not meant the same thing at all over the years and may in fact have different meanings depending at what school that degree is earned.

Example: I was enrolled at SDSM&T back in 1989 as a CS major. But, their idea of Computer Science stemmed from an Electrical Engineer perspective. Programming seemed to be only an afterthought and only in support of teaching physical AND/OR gates at it's most basic level.

Fast forward a few years and a CS degree seems to imply programmer and not chip level engineer.


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 41

Welcome to [cseducators.se]. This is a very interesting answer! – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-25T16:34:04.923

1Interesting point, but do you have data that such changes were widespread just after the class of 1984 entered college? – Ellen Spertus – 2017-07-25T17:18:42.073

I graduated with a CS BE in 1989. At the time pretty much all CS degrees were given out of either the Math department or the Engineering, and that did somewhat stilt what was taught. However if your degree was accredited, then there was a base standardized curriculum that had to be taken. If your degree wasn't accredited, of course all bets are off, but that's still true today. – T.E.D. – 2017-07-26T21:50:23.183


I suspect that it mostly has to do with 2 peculiarities of the era.

1) Computer training programs which started ending in the early 80's (recession and layoffs).

2) Training in touch typing aka "business" classes in high school making computers "women's work"

Through the late 70's into the early 80's, there simply weren't enough people of any gender to fill all the new computer roles. So, companies like Westinghouse and Penelec (that I have first-hand knowledge of--but it applied to most companies of reasonable size) were basically paying for any warm body who wished to train on computers.

If you were a man, these new "computer" jobs probably weren't much of a step up. Working at Bethlehem Steel probably paid better. However, for a bunch of women who had been relegated to secretarial or factory floor support roles which effectively had little career path, these computer jobs were very much an improvement. In addition, most computer jobs had a typing component, and practically all women coming out of high school went through at least one course which included typing. This is something that men of the era would also regard as "women's work".

The recession clobbered a lot of businesses in 1981, so they killed all their training programs that were feeding women into computers. Of course, once the steel mills took a beating at the same time, these "computer" jobs didn't look so bad to the men anymore, either, so they started entering into the field from the bottom.

So, roughly 4 years after 1980/1981 (the amount of time to complete a CS degree), you see women peak and then it starts to decline.

Please do remember, though, that recessions were a bit more "phased" in the days before Internet time. Different sectors went down at different times. This is as opposed to now where a recession hits everything effectively simultaneously.

Andrew Lentvorski

Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 41


This is less of an answer, since we don't have enough data to hypothesize. However, we do see that the total number of applicants decrease, and begin to rebound for men.

The question may not be why it decreases for women, but why does it increase for men?

Similarly, we have to evaluate the other opportunities women of the time would have had. Were there any significant changes in financial aid? Was there a disparity after 1984 or a trend incentivising women to go into other fields?

Maybe shouldn't be so quick to assume that women were suddenly disinterested or disadvantaged.


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 117

1No, the question is specifically about women. Adding an answer to pose another question is not the way SE works. You can read the [answer] page to get more tips. Other than that, Welcome to [cseducators.se]! – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-26T08:21:11.493

2No, this is actually great insight. Just dawned on me, so I went back to this question, just to see the answer already here. The question specifically refers to the proportion, so men are part of that equation. Example: if CS was unpopular universally, but then men become more interested, but women remained uninterested, then we could see the proportion of women drop dramatically even though the change was caused by men('s changed interest), and not caused by women (or anything different they did). Such a change would affect the proportion. +1 for 2nd and 4th paragraphs. – TOOGAM – 2017-07-26T13:39:34.410


The real reason is more about the social issues: if you are a smart girl (or a smart boy) the rest see you as something bad (nerd, stuck up or other things), but it is worse for girls.

What you see at home also makes a difference: my mother had a job and she said that I did not need to take crap from any man, so I am the biggest nerd in the planet (and proud of it).

caitlin lopez

Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 31

6Hello caitlin, and welcome to Computer Science Educators! Unfortunately, this answer doesn't really address the question - why the percentage of bachelor's degrees specifically peaked in 1984. If you edit to address that, that would be great! I hope to keep seeing you around the site. =) – heather – 2017-07-24T20:25:31.460

Yay nerds! If you send a mailing address to my email (which is easy to find), I'll send you a genuine MIT Nerd Pride pocket protector. (You might want to use a parent's work address, rather than give your home address to a stranger, even if she is a professor.) – Ellen Spertus – 2017-07-24T21:18:32.453

1@EllenSpertus I think the majority of people here are actually in work and no longer live with their parents. – Pharap – 2017-07-24T21:23:12.847

@Pharap Yes, I may have been wrong to assume caitlin lopez lived at home. I'm happy to mail to her workplace if I misguessed. I should know better than to make assumptions. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-07-24T21:34:27.527

Good point. That may be part of the reason, however not very simple to prove and the peak at 1984 is still rather special somehow. – Trilarion – 2017-07-26T21:09:41.300

2I gotta say there were at least 3 other answers in here that barely addressed the question, and then only on the way to completely unsupported anecdotal (and arguably insulting) speculation. Yet this one arguably does address the question, provides an answer roughly equivalent to the one in the second-highest rated answer, and attempts to provide a first hand perspective to what is going on. Yet this is the answer that gets voted down into oblivion. If you want to see where the problem comes from, what happened to this post illustrates it perfectly. – T.E.D. – 2017-07-28T18:42:39.293


Very likely due to the influence of Grace Hopper.

  • 1964: Hopper was awarded the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award, the Society’s highest honor, “In recognition of her significant contributions to the burgeoning computer industry as an engineering manager and originator of automatic programming systems.”.

  • 1969: Hopper was awarded the inaugural Data Processing Management Association Man of the Year award (now called the Distinguished Information Sciences Award).

Likely young women reaching college age at about 1984 would have heard of her and been inspired by her example in years previous. After about then she was no longer making the news, so fewer signed up. This is only speculation of course!

  • 1971: The annual Grace Murray Hopper Award for Outstanding Young Computer Professionals was established in 1971 by the Association for Computing Machinery.

  • 1973: First American and the first woman of any nationality to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society.

Taken from Wikipedia.


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 15

4Welcome to Computer Science Educators! Your answer doesn't seem to answer what was specifically asked in the question. Could you edit your answer to address the specific question? – ItamarG3 – 2017-07-25T10:06:54.727


I observe that at the time of the decline in CS degrees there's an uptick in Business degrees. Was Information Systems introduced around that time?


Posted 2017-07-23T17:54:01.313

Reputation: 99

1Hi, welcome to [cseducators.se]! This is a bit of a stub answer. Good answers take a little more work. Could you flesh out your theory a little bit? – Ben I. – 2017-08-10T19:53:52.710