Geek Tragedy: Why Do IT Firms Lack Diversity?

By Glenn Ellison

Posted on February 14, 2018


The underrepresentation of women and minorities in the IT workforce is a longstanding concern. IT firms lose the potential benefits of a diverse workplace and the failure to attract talented women and minorities contributes to the overall shortage of highly trained workers.


The 21st century has seen strikingly little progress to diversify the IT workforce, mirroring a lack of progress in education. Substantial progress will likely require sustained effort on multiple fronts.


Only about one in four US workers in mathematical or computer science are female, and this fraction has held strikingly steady since the early 2000s (see Figure 1). Recent increases in minority representation are encouraging, but much of the longer trend is at best just keeping up with the changing composition of the US labor force. For example, between 2000 and 2015 the proportion of Hispanics working in mathematical or computer science increased from 5.1% to 6.8%, but at the same time Hispanics in the full US workforce increased from 12.1% to 16.4%.

Image: Figure 1-Computer Science and Math Professionals

Looking Back: Diversity in College Programs


The lack of success in diversifying IT workplaces mirrors another lack-of-success story: there has been little progress in diversifying computer science programs at US universities (see Figure 2). Black representation rose in the 1990s but declined in the past decade. Hispanic representation has had a slow but steady increase.

Image: Figure 2-Computer Science BAs

Each group now comprises about 10% of recent bachelor’s degrees in computer science. But both groups remain underrepresented and the increase in Hispanic representation just follows the trend in the overall college population. More strikingly, female representation was up to 37% by 1984, but the past 30 years have seen a long decline to about half of the peak level. This decline was noticeably steep in the late 1980s and mid 2000s.


There is a vast literature on women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A wide variety of potential causes have been explored, including biological differences, childhood influences, treatment by teachers, reluctance to enter male-dominated fields, biases in evaluation and family demands. A wealth of evidence illustrates the relevance of many of these mechanisms.


The outcomes in college computer science, however, are not like those of other STEM fields. In the 1970s and early 1980s the trends were similar. Women were gaining ground in many male-dominated fields, reaching near parity in biology and mathematics by the mid-1980s. Computer science diverged from the path at this point. In engineering and the physical sciences, the proportion of female BAs continued to rise for another 20 years after that of female computer science majors started to fall (see Figure 3). In the past decade the trends have again become similar, with all three fields experiencing a leveling off.

Image: Figure 3-Fraction of BAs Female: Computer Science vs Physical Sciences and Engineering

Why has the experience of computer science been so different? Some have pointed to the early 1980s as a time when popular culture developed an image of the single-minded, poorly socialized computer geek that jarred with many women’s self-image and aspirations. It is also perhaps noteworthy that students started to arrive on campus with experience of programming PCs in the mid 1980s; and cohorts graduating in the mid 2000s were the first to have completed high school after the dot-com boom. Young women have been noted to have lower self-assessments of their mathematical ability than comparably accomplished young men, and this can deter them from entering technical fields. Increased pre-college exposure to computers could have shifted the freshman experience from one where male and female students arrived on campus equally inexperienced in computers to one where freshman women were or felt behind.


Looking Further Back: Diversity in Advanced High-School Work


Even apart from self-confidence effects, students are more likely to pursue and persist in majors for which they are well prepared in high school. It is presumably very relevant that fewer women and minorities enter college with strong computer science backgrounds. For example, in 2014 the population of students with passing grades (3+) on the AP Computer Science A exam was just 18.7% female, 2.6% black and 5.6% Hispanic.


The underrepresentation of minorities is not hard to understand: access to high-quality high-school computer science classes is limited. In 2010 less than one in ten US high schools had any student take the AP Computer Science exam, and computer science classes are disproportionately found in schools serving students of high socioeconomic status.


In a recent joint paper with Parag Pathak, we note that a number of US public school systems have recently abandoned race-based affirmative action admissions policies. Given that many large urban systems have traditionally offered advanced classes only in a few magnet schools, this may be an additional obstacle to increasing access for talented minority students.


The male-female gap in high-school computer science course-taking is not directly attributable to girls not having access. The gender gap in AP course-taking is much larger in some STEM subjects than others (see Figure 4). Girls achieve the majority of passing scores on AP Biology and over 40% of them on AP Chemistry, but comprise a much smaller fraction of those taking AP Physics and Computer Science.

Image: Figure 4-Fraction Female vs Popularity of AP Science Tests

Why are outcomes so different? One potentially relevant observation is that the AP courses with smaller gender gaps are taken by many more students. A first biology course is usually required of all students and taken early in high school. Courses in computer science and mathematically-rigorous physics courses are usually not required and are taken later, if at all. High-school girls in general are doing very well: they get better grades than boys; take at least as many advanced courses, etc. Different expectations about course choices may make a very big difference in the gender gap.

A paper of mine with Ashley Swanson (Ellison and Swanson (2010)) finds that the gender gap in high-school mathematics competitions is larger than the gender gap in SAT scores when we look at comparably high performance levels. This indicates that high-ability girls are choosing not to participate. When we look at extremely high performance levels, the gender gap is smaller at the highest-achieving high schools. One explanation is that more girls at the high-achieving schools may be pursuing advanced math because they are part of a like-minded community. This suggests that the gender gap in advanced computer science may narrow if the subject becomes more common.


Recent Efforts in High-School Computer Science


Microsoft, Google and other tech firms have supported a number of efforts to bolster high-school computer science education. This includes both out-of-school programs like Girls Who Code and Made with Code, and in-school programs like Microsoft’s TEALS, which connects high schools with volunteers and has expanded from four schools in 2010-2011 to 162 schools in 2015-2016.


Overall AP participation has recently grown (46% more tests were taken in 2016 than in 2010), although by 2010 AP Computer Science participation seemed overdue for an increase – it had not grown at all between 2000 and 2010 whereas overall AP test-taking increased by 153%. However, there are substantial challenges. Many schools offer no computer science classes at all, and many schools lack teachers with sufficient expertise. In schools that newly offer AP Computer Science, the results are often quite poor.


Finally, we come to some good news. The growth of AP Computer Science since 2010 has been a great success story. The number of students taking the exam has nearly tripled in just six years. The number of students with passing marks has grown nearly as fast.


The gender gap in AP Computer Science has narrowed: the percentage female among students with passing marks increased from 17.5% in 2010 to 22.1% in 2016. Hispanic representation also increased from 4.9% in 2010 to 7.5% in 2016. The percentage of black students increased slightly, but then fell back to the 2010 level. Again, this may reflect the greater challenges of improving minority outcomes: many schools serving minority communities lack the physical and/or human resources needed to offer computer science courses; and we do not yet know how restrictions on affirmative action have affected access to magnet programs.


While the percentage increase numbers are not so striking, looking at the number of passing students from each group is more encouraging: the number of black, Hispanic and female students with passing marks on the AP Computer Science exam have each more than tripled in just six years. The 7,674 girls who passed an AP Computer Science exam in 2016 is a very small number for a country the size of the US and pales in comparison with roughly 80,000 girls passing AP Biology, but it is much more encouraging than just 2,201. Minority counts remain very low in absolute terms.


Summing Up


The loss of undergraduate women since 1985 sets computer science apart from other STEM fields, and there have been only small improvements in minority representation. Diversifying the IT workforce will require a variety of efforts at the employment, retention, and advancement stages, but IT firms must look beyond their own practices. A large effort to improve undergraduate outcomes will also be required.


One factor contributing to low female and minority representation at college level is the disparity in advanced high-school work. The challenges of increasing female and minority representation are different. Computer science courses (let alone high-quality ones) are simply unavailable in the high schools that many minority students attend. Increasing female participation is probably a case of making computer science a normal part of any student’s program – high school girls are doing very well in many other areas where their success is expected.


The recent surge in AP Computer Science is an indication that some progress is being made. The gains in diversity in advanced high-school coursework are not yet very large. And it will be a few years before we will see if they are followed by improved diversity at colleges. But it is encouraging that concerted efforts have helped produce a large surge in participation accompanied by some progress in diversity.




Ellison, Glenn and Parag Pathak (2016), “The Efficiency of Race-Neutral Alternatives to Race-Based Affirmative Action: Evidence from Chicago’s Exam Schools,” NBER Working Paper 22589.


Ellison, Glenn and Ashley Swanson (2010). “The Gender Gap in Secondary School Mathematics at High Achievement Levels,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24 (2), 109-128.



The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, MIT economics professor Glenn Ellison and the Toulouse Network for Information Technology (TNIT). “Geek Tragedy: Why Do IT Firms Lack Diversity?” will soon be published in TNIT’s newsletter.



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  • Glenn Ellison
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