Six women computer scientists from the University of Washington respond to an essay about why women don’t pursue computer science as often as men.

Share story

This summer, University of Washington computer-science lecturer Stuart Reges created a stir when he argued in an essay in the online journal Quillette that while women can code, they often don’t want to — they often choose different careers instead.

Reges said the industry may have already harvested all the low-hanging fruit by eliminating overt discrimination and revamping policies and procedures that favored men. And he feared that descriptions of the tech industry as toxic for women could have the self-perpetuating effect of keeping them out of the industry.

Reges’ essay caused such heartburn that Hank Levy, the director of the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, posted two strongly worded responses to the essay, explaining why he and other top leaders at the school think Reges is wrong. The Allen School is considered one of the top schools for computer science in the country, and it has done better than many schools at attracting women, who account for about 30 percent of undergrads and Ph.D. candidates.

What do women computer scientists have to say? We’re publishing six short essays from UW women in tech and academia, describing their own personal experiences, and asking what forces they believe are keeping women from joining the tech industry. We wanted to know if they think overt discrimination has indeed been eliminated, and if policies that favored men have changed enough to make a difference.

Anna Karlin

Karlin is the Microsoft Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the UW’s Allen School. This is an excerpt from a longer essay she wrote for Medium titled “Why Women (and Everyone Else) Should Code.”

In Why Women (and Everyone Else) Should Code, I argued against Reges’ contention that “having 20 percent women in tech is probably the best we are likely to achieve.” In short, I believe the low numbers are due to a combination of complex and evolving factors. Among these is that fewer girls than boys study computer science (CS) or programming in high school. Hence, when they get to college, fewer of the women have been exposed to the excitement of CS, and they do not necessarily appreciate the countless ways they can use CS to make their mark on society.  

But times are changing. For example, from 2007 to 2017, the number of males taking the AP computer science test went up by a factor of 7, whereas the number of females taking the test went up by a factor of 11. Programming and CS are slowly becoming standard in K-12 education, in part due to the amazing work of In fact, 45 percent of the students currently taking’s CS courses are female and the vast majority of these students are in K-8. Based on current trends, there is every reason to believe that the growing tidal wave of students majoring in CS in college will eventually include a much larger percentage of women.

In his article, Reges argued that inherent differences between men and women result in differing levels of interest in computer science. Of course I agree that there are differences between the genders. But how they relate to behavior and decision-making is complicated, and we are far from fully understanding the complex interplay between genetics and socialization. Before we throw up our hands and conclude that genetics is largely what limits women’s participation, we must first do as much as we can to address unequal societal influences.

Reges’ position is further complicated by the way he seems to dismiss the negative experiences of women in technology. Surely, empathy must have a place in our environment. When we discount the feelings and experiences of others, we not only sacrifice our ability to understand, we sacrifice our ability to find common ground.

I truly feel that as a computer scientist I have the best job in the world. But this controversy makes it clear that we still have much to learn about how to discuss diversity issues productively and with empathy for all.

Jennifer Mankoff

Mankoff is the Richard E. Ladner Professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the UW. Her work applies technologies such as machine learning and 3D printing to improving inclusion in and accessibility of the digital future. This is an excerpt from a longer essay she wrote for Noteworthy titled “Why don’t women want to code? Ask them!

One of the ways in which we fail women in computer science is by assuming that we know them. This assuming is, for the most part, neither egregious nor unusual. However, such assumptions create unequal access even in environments that are supportive and awake to the importance of supporting women. Many of these differences could, of course, be experienced by men, as well. This does not diminish their importance — women’s issues are often about human issues that can improve everyone’s lives if addressed.

One example is the assumptions of people who are gatekeepers to the next career step that a woman is not interested in pursuing computer science. In my case, my college adviser assumed I’d be going to medical school and did not guide me toward the courses I’d need in computer science. During my senior year, when he discovered his assumption was wrong, there was little time left to fill in the blanks in my education. It is easy to assume the wrong thing about someone, and this is where implicit bias can creep in. It is far better simply to ask.

Assumptions can also influence reputation and future career success. Unfortunately, subtle pressures can impact reputation-making and thus career advancement. One example is one of my first research efforts. My research was used as an example in a paper I was not invited to contribute to. This falls in a gray zone: It was a lost opportunity for me to do enough work for publishing credit. Engaging in research and authoring a paper based on it may still not be sufficient for appropriate credit attribution. It is more common for men to get credit for collaborative work than women, something I experienced when a student wrote in a publication draft that an idea of mine originated with a collaborator — even though progeny of the idea had never been discussed.

So why don’t women code? Foremost, I think this is the wrong question to be asking. In many careers that women choose, they will code. In my opinion, a more relevant question is, “Why don’t women choose computer science more often?” My answer is not to presume prejudice, by women (against computer science) or by computer scientists (against women). I would argue instead that the inequalities faced by women are dangerous to women’s choice precisely because they are subtle and pervasive; they exist throughout a woman’s entire computer-science career, influencing both choice and reputation (and thus career success). Their insidious nature makes them hard to detect and correct. Disadvantages accumulate and they affect whether people stay in the field.

So the next time you wonder why a girl or woman is leaving your room, your class, your major, or your field, I encourage you to consider the possibility that maybe she is simply tired of being in an environment where she must navigate these types of situations. Even better, don’t assume: Ask what you can do to support her.

Julie Letchner

Letchner is a Ph.D. alumna of UW’s Allen School and a longtime advocate for underrepresented groups in computing. She currently leads the data science team at Seattle startup Textio. This is an excerpt of a longer essay she wrote on her blog

Women in tech play whack-a-mole defense over our entire careers. Larry Summers? Whack. James Damore? Whack. Local mole Stuart Reges? Not in my backyard!

Reges’ recent essay argues that the low proportion of women in tech is due to a simple lack of interest. Critically, he attributes our diminished interest to innate gender-related qualities, dismissing the roles of societal influence and industry culture on our choices.

He is wrong.

The problem with Reges’ theory of women in computing is that it disregards the voices of women in computing.

Though Reges is aware of the stories and statistics documenting the marginalization of women and other underrepresented groups in tech, he dismisses all of this literature as a dangerous and false narrative of oppression. Harassment, underpayment, slower rates of promotion … these simply do not exist in Reges’ world. His reasoning is fully self-centered: He has always taken pains to be inclusive; the women in tech that he speaks to are enjoying their experience.

The controversy surrounding Reges’ essay is not a difference of opinion. It is a difference of experience, made hostile through willful ignorance. That Reges, a man, finds our situation unrelatable is precisely the point.

When moles dismiss our experience, we are appropriately angered. But it is when they face no consequences from our shared community that we start to feel desperately and hopelessly alone. A handful of obnoxious moles is not nearly as toxic as a community that allows the moles to thrive.

It is the feeling of isolation, reinforced by every new mole who pops up unchecked, that leads us to despair. It is the experience of alienation, punctuated occasionally by outright discrimination, that fuels support groups and op-eds and lawsuits. It is this perpetual state of not belonging, of not being heard, of having to fight just to remain stationary, that drives many of us away from computing.

By popping out of his mole hole so publicly, Reges has presented the University of Washington with an opportunity. UW has demonstrated a commitment to reducing institutionalized barriers to diversity. Reges has demonstrated a commitment to pretending that those barriers do not exist. UW must now demonstrate its values through its response.

UW’s Allen School cannot claim leadership in inclusion while a high-profile faculty member is undermining its diversity efforts. An inclusive computing curriculum should not require students to confront the most toxic elements of tech culture before they’ve even glimpsed the incredible opportunities that make the toxicity worth enduring.

The Allen School hasn’t announced any changes to Reges’ planned teaching schedule. What will he say this September to the students who have the courage to disagree with him? What will UW’s commitment to diversity mean to the unfortunate women in Reges’ classes, if they enroll at all? What will happen when he applies his attention and selective reasoning to other underrepresented groups in tech?

Women leave tech for many reasons. Reges has turned himself into yet another one. In doing so he has put UW in a difficult spot. The university increasingly bears as much responsibility for the consequences of its inaction as Reges does for his willful ignorance.

As a proud alumna of the Allen School, which I know to be overwhelmingly filled with allies, I hope and believe that UW can do better. Please demonstrate your leadership — for your students, for your faculty, for your alumni, and for the worldwide community that looks to you to set an example.

Wanda Pratt

Pratt is a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington. This is an excerpt of a longer essay she wrote titled “Why women can’t just get over it” for Medium’s “Code like a girl” section.

“Why don’t women just ‘get over it’?” Even if you haven’t heard someone ask this question, many of us have felt men — even those outwardly supportive of women — express this sentiment. My answer is embedded in the story of my career as a woman in STEM — from my early days as an undergraduate engineer and professional computer programmer, through a master’s degree in computer science and doctorate in health informatics, to my current position.

Over the past 30 years in these STEM positions, I have experienced many forms of overt discrimination — from a boss commenting on my breasts, to an adviser discussing his fantasies about me, to discovering that I was being paid substantially less than my male peers. I also faced far more pervasive, covert microaggressions — such as repeatedly being interrupted in meetings, having my ideas attributed to a man and hearing skepticism about women’s capabilities in STEM. These negative patterns started at the very beginning of my career, when people commented that my success stemmed from extra advantages women in the male-dominated STEM fields have, rather than from my abilities. Such comments undermined my sense of self-confidence for much of my career and contribute to the lack of women in STEM today.

Many people are unsurprised by my experiences of discrimination decades ago but are amazed that such barriers still exist. As a professor, I teach an undergraduate computing and society course. Last year, I asked my students to describe why they think women are underrepresented in STEM fields. I received horrifying responses, such as “Tasks in tech seem too heavy for women to complete,” “Women are usually not that good at math and computer science,” “Women’s main task is to raise kids,” “Men are better at logical thinking than women,” etc. I was dumbfounded that students would put their names on such statements and submit them to me — a woman grading their responses. I know these misconceptions and problems will continue until more people are brave enough to speak out about them.

For far too long, I and many other women in STEM have suppressed our reactions to these obstacles; that denial was a coping mechanism. Now, we have an opportunity to raise awareness about these problems and encourage efforts to stop these overt and covert forms of discrimination. Women need to know that they are not alone in their experiences and that they can succeed if they choose a STEM career, despite the obstacles. Yet, we cannot expect dramatic increases in the number of women in STEM until we vigilantly watch for and call attention to inequities, solicit women’s voices in all situations, and purposively seek out and support women as speakers in events, as investigators in grant proposals, as recipients of prestigious awards, as authors for influential publications, as strong leaders in organizations, and as vital contributors to history. Women will not “get over it” until stories of struggles like mine are rare and until incidents of harassment, exploitation and violence toward women disappear.

Katherine Van Koevering

Van Koevering is a Ph.D. student studying machine learning at Cornell University in upstate New York. She graduated from the University of Washington magna cum laude with Interdisciplinary Honors, a B.S. in Statistics and a B.S. in Computer Science. She grew up in Seattle and has gone to local public schools.

In my personal experience, many barriers to women entering computer science exist long before college. In high school I was three years ahead in math. The advanced classes were often majority male. In group projects, I quickly discovered that in order to be taken as seriously as my male classmates, I had to prove that I was not only as good, but better. Frequently, only after I had shown that I could work faster and more accurately than the boys in my group would I be heard.

Even in college I still encountered bias. I was directly admitted from high school to the computer-science program at the University of Washington, which is very hard to achieve. However, numerous times my classmates, both male and female, told me that I was only directly admitted because I was a girl — despite the fact that gender is not considered in admissions. I was even told that I should drop out of the program to make room for a more deserving man. More than once, I had to prove myself just like I did in high school. However, rather than respecting me for my coding skills, men who had not yet been admitted to the program often became defensive and refused to work with me. Fortunately, I always felt supported by administration and professors. The bias I encountered was from peers. Unsurprisingly, I never encountered this in statistics, my other major.

Most people I talk to who are not in STEM have a very good idea of what a computer scientist looks like (usually a white male with few social skills, a hoodie, and an unhealthy obsession with video games alone in a dark basement). However, they have only a vague idea of what a computer scientist does. When a friend from high school built himself a computer, many people recommended he investigate a career in computer science. Another friend who read calculus textbooks for fun never received the same suggestions. However, for many CS trajectories, math may be a much stronger indicator of interest. At UW, I never once touched the inside of a computer — but I have done a lot of math. This (usually unintentional) reliance on misinformation means women often don’t fit in the public conception of “computer scientist.” Rather than just suggesting CS to basement dwellers in hoodies, I would suggest it to anyone who likes logic puzzles, organizing information, or mathematics.

I have also become more aware of how bad the worst of tech can be. One only needs to look at recent news to see horror stories of hostile workplaces. I have more than once questioned if pursuing tech is really worth a potentially lifelong battle for equal treatment. However, instead of pretending that bias doesn’t exist, I would rather be prepared to meet a hostile environment than be surprised by one.

Despite the challenges, I pursued computer science. I was inoculated against stereotypes and bias from a very young age. I was encouraged by my parents and those around me to pursue STEM. And I knew many women and men who were engineers, scientists, professors, and mathematicians and they became my role models. I love computer science. I love what I do. And I am convinced that there are many, many more young girls and boys (and others) who would love it, too.

Isabella Smith

Smith graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in computer science in June 2018, and will be working at Microsoft as a software engineer beginning this month.

As a woman beginning my career in the field of computer science, I was very disappointed to read Stuart Reges’ article. Reges was my instructor for the first two computer-science classes I took at UW, and I worked for him for a year as a teaching assistant. While he has every right to express his views, I feel that it was irresponsible for Reges to publish his piece because he is an important figure in the computer-science community at UW and his opinion has the power to influence the students’ decisions.

Throughout my college experience, the male-dominated culture of tech made me question my place in the field of computer science. While I haven’t experienced any overt discrimination, I have often felt like an outsider in the tech community. For example, my male peers would sometimes talk down to me and other female students in a way that they wouldn’t do to other guys.

If Reges had published his article prior to my being in his introductory classes, I would have felt even more intimidated and unsure of my place in the field of computer science. There are already so many things that make women in tech question our place in the field, so having an instructor publicly argue that “women don’t code” is a way to guarantee that more women will feel they don’t belong in computer science.

Before moving to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, I was born and raised in a small town in rural Tennessee. I attended school in a low socioeconomic district from kindergarten through high-school graduation. I was always interested in computers as a kid, but I never considered a career in technology growing up, for there were no computer-science courses offered in my hometown.

In late high school I was struggling to decide what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go to college. My older brother, who works as a software engineer, encouraged me to pursue computer science at UW.

It was a difficult and scary decision to move to Washington to pursue a degree in a field I had no experience with. There were many instances during my freshman year where I felt doomed to fail. After a challenging first year, I was accepted to the computer-science major.

After three years in the field, I disagree with Reges’ sentiment that men and women are fundamentally different and that this difference accounts for the gender disparity in tech. I believe one of the reasons why women avoid traditionally male-dominated fields is that girls and boys are still treated differently. Therefore, if the percentage of women pursuing computer science has plateaued, it’s not because this is “the best we are likely to achieve.” Instead, such a plateau could indicate that there is more work to be done in other areas, specifically in K-12 education, to encourage boys and girls equally.

A plateau could also mean there is still more work needed to make the tech community inviting to women. The community stills feels like a boys club where femininity is frowned upon. I’ve had female friends stop wearing dresses and skirts at work because they felt their male co-workers didn’t take them seriously when they donned feminine attire.

Thus, while workplaces and universities have made progress toward equality by implementing pro-diversity policies, the tech community must become more welcoming to a diverse range of people. I feel that Reges’ conclusion that the industry has already done all it can to eliminate the gender disparity is misguided. Rather than accepting defeat that this is as good as it’s going to get, the tech community should extend efforts to encourage girls of all ages to pursue any interest they may have in technology, and should work to make the community more inclusive to everyone.