The Ivy ceiling
May 29, 2012  

The percentage of women in computer science is tiny, and it’s getting worse. Like a lot of people, I think this is bad for computer science. It makes the field less interesting, less engaging, less relevant. Compare, for example, a site like The Setup (mostly men, talking about their computer setups) to The Great Discontent (a mix of men and women talking about their careers in design). With all due respect to The Setup, there’s a lot more going on at The Great Discontent, even though both are tech-heavy.

We’ve been talking for decades about ways to increase the number of women in computer science. I think it would help to look at the bigger picture: there are lots of fields with few women. For one, there aren’t many female Senators or Representatives in Congress—a shortage that is far more consequential than the one we have in computer science.

Computer science would be better off trying to increase the number of women in all fields rather than just computer science. Not only would this attract powerful allies, it also offers a clear path forward that computer science is well-positioned help with. Specifically, many computer scientists are graduates of or professors at the elite academic institutions that tend to produce Senators, Representatives, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and so on. And there is good reason to believe that the Harvards, Princetons, and Yales of the world are suppressing their supply of female graduates, in favor of men.

In the United States, women are doing better than men by many measures. They get better grades, they score higher on tests, they are more likely to graduate from high school, and close to 60% of college students are women. For some mysterious reason, however, schools like my own alma mater, Princeton, accept men and women in roughly equal numbers. These schools also employ an opaque, “holistic” approach to admissions that seems to result in little year-to-year variance in gender balance, regardless of applicant pool, a result at odds with national trends.

The admissions policies of elite schools matter. They determine to a great extent the makeup of our nation’s political, academic, and business leadership. These schools are also wealthy, non-profit institutions, receiving tax exemption and other benefits in exchange for their pursuit of the advancement of education and society. We should hold them to this bargain. It’s hard to argue that men deserve a leg up in society to make up for historical discrimination. We should demand that elite institutions explain how their admissions policies are helping, and not harming, society.

If the gender balance of Ivy League schools matched that of US colleges as a whole, it would increase the number of female Ivy League graduates by 20%. That’s a huge effect. There’s no way to know for sure how this would affect computer science, but my bet is that it would improve the field’s gender ratio. It’s also a smarter battle to fight: fair admission of women to college will have far broader support than a push for more women in computer science.