Study Finds Computer Science, Modern Languages Most Gender-Polarized Majors at Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

More than seven out of every ten Swarthmore graduates in Computer Science, Physics, Engineering, and Philosophy are men, Swarthmore institutional research finds.

Beginning in 2001, Swarthmore recorded the gender breakdown of majors and minors graduating in each class. Sahiba Gill ’12, Managing Editor of The Gazette, tabulated the majors from the classes of 2001 through 2011, excluding those majors with fewer than four graduates in any year. The study demonstrated that over three quarters of the students majoring in Physics, Philosophy, and Computer Science were men, and over three quarters of the students majoring in Modern Languages, Art History, and Art were women. The preponderance of men in many of the most quantitative disciplines, such as Mathematics, Engineering, and Computer Science, was one of the most striking results of the studyThe most egalitarian major was History, a department with effective gender parity in its majors over the past ten years. However, the gender polarization in major selection among Swarthmore students seems to be caused by broader gender norms, not by institutional practices.

The findings at Swarthmore mirror national undergraduate trends: 12 percent of computer science majors nationally are women, 20 percent of engineering majors nationally are women, and 25 percent of Physics majors nationally are women. Swarthmore’s Computer Science major is the most polarized, despite the one half of the Department’s tenure-track faculty who are women and the Department’s aggressive efforts to recruit and retain female students.

The female faculty host a monthly “Women in Computer Science” luncheon, in order to develop a sense of community for women interested in Computer Science. They aggressively market their intro to Computer Science course to freshmen, in order to ensure that more women are exposed to the discipline early enough in their college careers that have the opportunity to pursue it as a major or minor. They have also changed the primary programming language used in the course to Python, which is more accessible for those new to the discipline.

However, Professor of Computer Science Lisa Meeden said, “The real problem is the lack of exposure high school students have to Computer Science.” This lack of exposure allows misperceptions about Computer Science to fester. Some of the most common misperceptions, that computer scientists are all “solitary, balding, pale men” who work in “basements without windows” deter women who typically neither identify “nor particularly want to hang out with” this stereotype. Tia Newhall, Associate Professor of Computer Science, said that women often prefer collaborative learning exercises, and pursue disciplines that they think will allow them to “help the world.” The image of the computer scientists writing code by himself just doesn’t have much appeal.

The professors noted that even many of their most successful female students decide not to pursue the discipline because they don’t identify as scientists. Meeden said, “One of our best graduates… kept telling us, ‘I just don’t see myself as a computer scientist,’ and we were begging her to continue with the program.” Professors face a Catch-22: because there are so few women pursuing computer science, the stereotype of a computer scientists is not female-friendly, and because the stereotype of computer scientists is not female-friendly, few women pursue computer science.

Nationally, computer science is becoming more unbalanced rather than less. The percentage of people majoring in Computer Science who are women has decreased by over half since 2000. It’s unclear whether Swarthmore’s Computer Science department will manage to buck the trend or not.

But Swarthmore is no academic utopia, and stereotypes inculcated in students before school continue to affect academic decisions.

“I hope some day we achieve gender parity,” Newhall said.


  1. At least we can be sure that those few women who are into computer science will tend to like it because they have personally chosen it. Contrast that with taking up a major because peer pressure had guided you into it. What’s to dislike?

  2. This article is totally imbalanced! You focus completely on CS (/physics/phil) where there are mostly men, and don’t question why there aren’t more men in art and modern languages. Are they doing anything to get dudes?

  3. Good question Saxon. We should have mentioned that this is the first in a series of articles on gender disparities within disciplines.

    You ask an interesting question: Are the Art History Professors wringing their hands over the fact that so few men study Botticelli? Stay tuned to find out.

  4. As a woman majoring in CS and Engineering, I really appreciate this article! The gender disparity is especially noticeable in my upper level classes.

    I also agree with Lisa Meeden that part of the problem is early exposure to CS. I never touched CS in high school, though my school did have a robotics club and offered AP Computer Science. It wasn’t until I took CS21 my sophomore Fall at Swarthmore that I realized computer science was fun.

  5. I just wanted to reiterate that the stereotype of a computer scientist as someone sitting alone in a cubicle writing code is just not correct. Computer science, like all science, is fundamentally a collaborative endeavor. Some of my best memories from having a job in industry and from graduate school are of working as part of a team to solve hard and interesting problems, where much of the work was not the coding itself, but the design process.

    There are lots of important real world problems that need to be solved and having a more diverse technically skilled work force to tackle them is crucial.

  6. CS is not really Science by any recognizable definition. It doesn’t surprise me that women aren’t interested in careers where job descriptions commonly include ridiculously inappropriate terms like “kick-ass”, as if to somehow reassure desk-bound males of their athletic prowess.

    The jobs are in CS however. Maybe the real issue is that men and women have a different view of the job market as their preferred mechanism for social advancement.

  7. I’m a male that has degrees/studied/worked in Chemistry, Biochemistry, CS, and Engineering (EE). I have experience with elementary teachers of my children and as someone who taught chemistry to elementary teachers. In teacher education, we were told about a survey of fourth graders. Nearly every female wanted to be an elementary teacher. Males were all over the map esp. fireman, policeman, astronaut, athlete, etc. Some of my children’s female elementary teachers voiced pride in parent meetings that they were ignorant in science and math like they assume most people to be. No male teacher tried to win my empathy for their being ignorant in math. My college students in chemistry who were going to be elementary school teachers were generally woefully ignorant of math and science – and often complained that they shouldn’t have to know math and science to teach young children. Given that there is no compelling reason to be educated in math and science (jobs are not more plentiful and salaries aren’t significantly higher), the system will continue to perpetuate this ignorance IMO. I’m not sure it’s a problem. I’m waiting for a study to convince me it’s a problem. Claiming gender diversity is needed doesn’t convince me that diversity is needed or that it is currently lacking. Gender diversity may be lacking, but not necessarily diversity.

  8. I agree there are discernible differences in academic interest and skill among men and women, particularly at the upper-levels of the academy. Historically, some of this was no doubt due to discrimination or false notions of gender, but what about now? Many complain that women are under-represented in the sciences, but I don’t hear the concern extended the other way–why don’t more men in this day and pursue humanities? Why are we not more incensed about male enrollment in, say, MFA programs? At a certain point, I think we should be willing to admit that men and women, *on average*, have different aptitudes. I realize Dr. Summers, then president of Harvard, made this politically incorrect observation at the expense of his job, meaning this is dangerous discussion territory indeed. But really, if the topic is science, why not admit that, scientifically, different people gravitate toward different disciplines? Not superior, not inferior, just different.

    • This is just plain not true. We are not living in the 1950s. Women do not go to college to “snare a man”; certainly women do not go to SWARTHMORE for that purpose. The women who are at Swarthmore are there to learn (as are most women, yes, even those in the humanities). Furthermore, where is the evidence for women and men having “different reasons” for getting a degree? Most young people go to college to get an education AND to improve their resumes–it’s not an either-or. Also, we agree that there is an inequality of outcome. We agree that it is not necessary to force an equality of outcome. But the entire POINT of being worried is that there is still not a clear indication that the inequality of outcome ISN’T due to the pervasive gender norms in our society. It is NOT easy to be a woman in science (as one, I guess I’ll use my own anecdotal evidence to attest to this, at the risk of being less than rigorous here), and having fewer women in science makes it harder. So it’s easy for it to be a self-perpetuating loop. Also, something that has been bugging me about a bunch of these comments: why are men underrepresented in the humanities? A very obvious answer is that ALL THE WOMEN WHO ARE NOT IN THE SCIENCES are driving the percentage of men down in the humanities. So, worrying about one DOES by necessity entail “worrying” about the other. Also, everything Alex ’12 said. Everything.

  9. Danielle, seriously? We’re still having this argument? Yes, for the most part, institutionalized discrimination keeping various sexes from different fields is absent, but that does not make the only other possible reason aptitude. In fact, every study that I’ve ever seen done shows that without stereotype threat being primed, women do just as well if not better than their male counterparts in math and scientific reasoning. No one except you said that the major difference was because of an inherent difference in skill level because it’s been proven time and again not to be true. And on a personal level, though I was never good at science, I taught myself calculus in high school and did quite well on the AP BC exam, so I would almost definitely been fine being a math major here, but chose instead to be a humanities major for other reasons.

    There is so much more that goes into choosing a major than discrimination. It has to do with how we feel about the field in general, how we feel about the students that we would consistently take courses with and work with, our experience with the department, our misconceptions about the field (very well covered in the original article), and our general exposure. I went to a women’s high school, and while they were very good at encouraging us into the general sciences (I think about half of my graduating class was planning to go into them), we didn’t have woodshop or similar and our computer science was a joke. So I came in not particularly predisposed to departments like engineering and comp sci that felt foreign to me. If I had ever tried, the experience would probably have been quite different, but I, like many of us, never got past that step.

    And your point about males in the humanities is classic argument derailing. It is straight out of the example list of arguments put against feminists (“but what about the men?”). I’m interested to hear what these departments say in the second part of this series, but I’ll answer you right now. I can’t speak for Languages, but the reason that people aren’t putting up a fuss about Art and Art History being currently mostly female graduates is because an enormous percentage of the artists who make it are the men. I’m sure if you have any familiarity with art you know that historically most of the artists who make it into the canon are male, and though it’s improved, that is still the case. I know of one female living artist (Cindy Sherman) who is both fairly widely known and selling her work at a comparable price level with the majority of her male peers. And it’s a pretty similar story with art historians. I’ve taken five art history courses here and at least 70% of the articles I’ve read have been written by men. So in the humanities, once you look past undergraduate level, men are doing just fine.

  10. 1. Everyone should read Alex ’12’s comment because it’s excellent.

    2. To those asking why there isn’t more of a fuss about men in humanities, there’s a simple, pragmatic answer: jobs of the future are in technology. That does NOT mean we should ignore a well-rounded education for all. In fact I think the study of humanities is crucial for everyone. But it does mean that if we don’t pay particular attention to the gender imbalance in computer science, we’re in danger of an economic future in which women are left out of the dominant job market…again.

    These gender questions aren’t just academic wheel-spinning (or at least they shouldn’t be). They have practical consequences for women’s futures in the ever-changing work-place. And the danger about the theory that women’s abilities mainly lie outside of the hard sciences is not that it might be true, but rather that all hard evidence indicates it’s not true. The danger is that a myth has been circulated and people perpetuate it DESPITE the fact that all the scientific studies on the matter are inconclusive at best…this is pretty unscientific thinking so it’s ironic that it’s being used to pass judgment on women’s scientific ability.

  11. Alex, I by no means was implying that women don’t have the capacity for a math/science based skill-set. In fact, in regards to general aptitude, I think women tend to score better than men. I was discussing elite performance in math and science for which my understanding is that men tend to congregate at the very highest (and very lowest) edges of the bell curve.

    I don’t think a concern about men in the humanities was ‘argument derailing’. Indeed, I think there’s far more societal judgement against a guy who likes poetry than a girl who likes computer science. Almost every college in the nation now has some sort of soft affirmative admissions policy for men, since gender ratios are increasingly outbalanced with high school girls out-performing their peers time and time again. Many co-ed schools are now almost 70 percent female.

    You mentioned your high school frustrations and the lack of opportunity in certain fields you might have enjoyed. I don’t think that the experience stems from attending a “women’s high school”, since almost all co-ed public high schools across America fail to properly expose students to the hard sciences (and the humanities…).

    Of course women can succeed in science! I think Swat science departments would LOVE to have more of them and that competent female scientists are in hot demand. What I AM saying is that many women (myself most definitely included) simply don’t gravitate toward the sciences out of personal choice or preference. Ultimately, a woman has to make that decision herself.

    As for the Art History argument that women professors are reading about old dead Renaissance men anyway, that’s true. But aren’t most math/science theories also put forth by men? Sadly, women were left out of the historical picture for far too long. But I don’t think compensating for that means muting concerns about males.

  12. Danielle, you say: “What I AM saying is that many women (myself most definitely included) simply don’t gravitate toward the sciences out of personal choice or preference. Ultimately, a woman has to make that decision herself.”

    I agree with you here, but I think you’re undermining your original argument when you say that they don’t migrate towards the sciences out of personal choice. You are right: many women aren’t in the sciences out of choice, NOT out of inaptitude. So the question has to be why so many women don’t choose the sciences. I would argue that it has a lot to do with what they are told from a young age they are able to do, what their perceptions of the field are, what their perceptions of the department at Swat are, what their perceptions of a potential career are . . . countless factors are important for this choice. But it is crucial to understand that women don’t eschew sciences because our brains aren’t capable.

  13. Danielle, you may not have meant to say that men and women have different skills, but you did. Right here:
    “At a certain point, I think we should be willing to admit that men and women, *on average*, have different aptitudes.”
    And before this becomes a semantics lesson, the dictionary definition for aptitude is “a natural ability to do something.”
    I can fully accept that it isn’t what you meant, and I’m glad of it, but they are your exact words, stating an inherent, mental, biological difference between the sexes (or genders). You have to take accountability for the words that you have used, especially on the internet where it’s easily checkable. And yes, sometimes that means backtracking and saying “I know how that came off. That’s not what I meant.”
    I’m not sure if you didn’t really read my post or if it is much less clear than I thought it was, which is definitely possible, in which case I am really sorry and plead early morning, so I will expand on a couple points that you brought up in your reply.
    I was generally quite happy with my high school. It was an exceptional education that I know from observation freshman year prepared me much better than many of my peers for college academics. We had exceptional hard sciences, and very good math as well. Part of my teaching myself calculus had to do with skipping levels, not because there was none available. (That I definitely should have pointed out, but different paragraphs, having to get ready for class. Bad excuses.) What they lacked was a shop class, which are a common staple at most co-ed, public high schools (though often packed with mostly males), which is often the impetus for people going into engineering, as it’s often focused on solving similar issues on a much smaller scale. And computer science was one of few areas that they weren’t very good.
    Everyone is familiar with the fact that men have historically dominated pretty much every field, at least what we are conventionally taught to credit, but that is absolutely not what I said about art and art history. Men are still dominating in these fields. Alive ones. Still producing work. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Guerrilla Girls, but they are a movement of anonymous female artists predominantly focused on getting the work of female artists seen. Their most famous campaign “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met?” focuses on an institution that does show predominantly older art, but many of their campaigns focus on galleries, which tend to show recent to current art, or Hollywood, or MoMa, which is also centered on current work, targeting them for showing less than 10% female-produced art.
    This is not muting concerns about males. This is about not caring so much that they haven’t gotten the last ten percent yet.

  14. I would also like to point everyone to the above posts by Alex ’12, as they are excellent and informational.

    However, I would also like to address the “What about the men?” concern voiced a couple of times here.

    In particular, Danielle, as part of your concern regarding this issue, you state: “Indeed, I think there’s far more societal judgement against a guy who likes poetry than a girl who likes computer science.”

    While this may be true–though I remain unconvinced that men suffer more societal judgment than women–that doesn’t strike me as really the main issue with how people choose their majors. It seems to me to be less of the vague “but I’m not supposed to like this” feeling and more some combination of several of the following, in addition to other issues:

    – “I’ve never been exposed to this, so it’s not accessible to me”
    – “People like me (whether that means gender, orientation, ethnicity, whatever) don’t really do this/ don’t really do this successfully, so I shouldn’t try”
    – “Other pressures on me (like an expectation that I provide well for a family or the expectation that I handle most of the home/child care) make jobs in this field difficult to balance”

    Interestingly, if there is such a stigma against men liking things like poetry, that brings up questions as to why men should avoid such things. I’d like to hear other theories, but I’m leaning towards those fields being associated with femininity, and men being discouraged from “feminine” fields because femininity itself is devalued in our society*.

    As for the general concern that there being fewer men in certain departments, what do we even know about why that might be? I wonder if part of the skew in those departments is a sort of secondary imbalance caused by women not majoring in sciences, thus driving the number of women in not-sciences up.

    *I realize that I’m not really backing up the fact that US society devalues femininity, but I will direct you to the rather patriarchal nature of our society, and that should start to clear that up.

  15. Arguing about gender equality is just a distraction from the real issue: union thugs forcing us to study the arts/humanities in the first place. lol

    • Sara, Derailing for Dummies is an awesome site, but I think you just walked into a very successful trolling.

      Men are more stigmatized for doing poetry than women are for doing computer science? I disagree. Have you ever met a hipster?

      Sara, on the point that “People like me (whether that means gender, orientation, ethnicity, whatever) don’t really do this/ don’t really do this successfully, so I shouldn’t try”, I think a good way to demonstrate this is to try and name 10 objects invented by women. Or 5. And put that Google away. I can only name one, and it’s the zipper. I chalk that up to messages inculcated early in our schooling that say that ingenuity is best left to the menfolk.

      Danielle, thanks for giving me good grounds to dismiss you. A little advice: you can be ideologically conservative without citing old truisms that don’t hold up in modern science. A good place to start in your quest to be relevant would be to read one of the 10419 articles that pops up on PubMed when you search “human sex determination”. If that’s too daunting, try reading one of the 277 of those articles that were published this year.

      In the meantime, I’m going to go look at some of the art of Cindy Sherperson.

  16. Though more seriously, even though “Soren” is clearly a troll, I thougt it was a nice opportunity to make Derailing for Dummies available to everyone.

    But thanks for the warning!

  17. While I have read and understood all points made in this discussion, I have to say that for me personally, most of my choices in choosing my major were based on whoa that looks crazy hard! As a younger first generation college student I can tell you that while talking to my class mates, this was also the basic behind most of theirs as well. Women can think wow that looks cool I would really like to do that, and then when we find out what it takes our first thought is, really its not that cool. It has to be something that grabs you and you can be passionate about in order to find the drive to see it through. If someone can find a while to make computer science appear more interesting than just video games you will get the female ratio that seems to be lacking.

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