The United States and India: How Does Women’s Participation in Computing Differ?

Roli Varma

While the number of women pursuing degrees in computer science (CS) in the U.S. has declined (dropping from 37% to 22% between 1984 and 2005), in India it has increased (32% of Bachelor’s of Engineering in CS degrees and 55% of Bachelor’s of Science degrees in CS in 2005).

Two qualitative studies of women’s participation in computing may provide some reasons for this discrepancy. The first study was undertaken in the U.S., where the 60 students interviewed were from designated Minority-Serving Institutions; the second study was undertaken with 60 students at institutions where the main Indian minorities were included.  The combined study addresses the variation in women’s participation in computing by focusing on three key areas. The major findings follow each key area below.

Early exposure to and use of the computer

  • In the U.S. case study, almost 60% of students reported they did not have a computer at home while growing up; however, 76% had good or limited access to computers in their high schools. Very few used computers for simple programming, solving mathematical problems, and/or learning computer languages. There was variation in access to and use of computers by racial/ethnic lines.
  • In the India case study, over 90% of students reported they did not have a computer at home.  A little over half had access to computers in high school and intermediate college (11th and 12th grades). Computers were available in cyber cafés, but the women rarely had time to use them because they were preparing for their university entrance exams.  There was a little variation in access and exposure to computers along religious lines.

Academic preparation for a computing major at the university level

  • Women in the U.S. case study reported that teachers tend not to favor them when it comes to teaching in mathematics and computing.
  • Women in the India case study reported that teachers do not neglect them in mathematics and computing classes.

Perceived environment of the computing field for women

  • Women in the U.S. case study acknowledged the prevalence of a masculine culture even though they viewed themselves as different from the traits of such culture, and differed on the impact of it on them.
  • Women in the India case study viewed the field as women-friendly, mostly because it will provide good careers.

In India, I found that an overwhelming majority of female students had not considered changing their major from CS to another major; they were all in agreement on the use value of CS for women, even across religious lines.  In the U.S., when White female students considered changing their major, they preferred majors they considered to be people-oriented and friendly to women, such as psychology, biology, or liberal arts.  When U.S. minority female students considered changing their major, they wanted to move to information management, an IT field they considered less demanding.

Unlike their peers in the U.S., women in India have practical reasons (economic benefits), educational  reasons (strong background in math and science), and social reasons (higher status in society and support from family) to enroll in and continue in computing. Computing has been framed as a masculine field in the U.S.; this is not the case in India. These findings are consistent with studies conducted in other Asian countries. Therefore, it seems, the U.S. gender imbalance in computing seems country-specific, not a universal phenomenon.

What do you think? Do the findings surprise you? Or confirm your own hypotheses? Can/should the U.S. look to India for changing the image of computing?

You can read the full article here.

Roli Varma is a professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of New Mexico and Co-chair of NCWIT’s Social Science Advisory Board.