Prof Dame Wendy Hall, a director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton, points to the wide variation in gender ratios in computing internationally, which she argues would not be seen if there were a universal biological difference in ability between the sexes. While only 16% of computer science undergraduates in the UK – and a similar proportion in the US – are female, the balance is different in India, Malaysia and Nigeria.
“I walk into a classroom in India and it’s more than 50% girls, the same in Malaysia,” says Hall. “They are so passionate about coding, Lots of women love coding. There just aren’t these gender differences there.”
In fact, in the west, female participation in computer science has plunged since the mid-80s, while female participation in medicine and other scientific fields has increased steadily. . . .
“Women were turned off computing in the 80s,” she says. “Computers were sold as toys for the boys. Somehow that cultural stigma has stuck in the west in a way that we can’t get rid of and it’s just getting worse. The skills gap is going to get huge.”
Addressing the gender gap isn’t only an issue of perception. Companies with homogenous workforces make worse products and earn less money, argues Guha. “We know large numbers of women are struggling to get funding. A female founder is 86% less likely to be funded than a man,” she says. “That’s crazy when we know the return on investment is higher; it is about 34% higher for companies with a gender diverse leadership. It’s not about ‘corporate social responsibility’: a diverse range of thinking will bring better value for the company.”
Hall invokes her late mentor Karen Spärck Jones, a pioneering British computer scientist who campaigned hard to encourage more women into the field. As she used to say: “Computing is too important to be left to men.”