WiCS has gathered historical and current statistics about the representation of women and other underrepresented gender identities in computer science, in order to understand the current status of women+* in computing and to identify trends.
Everyone is always interested in the current statistics. But we encourage you to look also at the historical data, which suggests that the “natural” ratio of women+ in computing ought to be much higher than it currently is. And we encourage you to look at the worldwide data, which suggests that the underrepresentation of women+ in computing in North America might be due to cultural issues rather than to innate aptitudes or interests of women+.
*In the statistics below, "women+" students refer to students who have self-declared their gender to be either “Woman/Female” or “Another Gender Identity”
Undergraduate Admissions/Enrolment (at Waterloo)
Here is information about the representation of women+ in all four of Waterloo’s computer-science degree programs (including Computer Science, Computing and Finance Management, Software Engineering, and the Business/Computer Science double degree program).
Fall admissions data are not official until November of each year. Preliminary information about Fall 2023 admissions to Waterloo’s undergraduate CS programs indicates that
- Computer Science has admitted 91 women+ (24.1%)
- Computing and Finance Management has admitted 17 women+ (26.6%)
- Software Engineering has admitted 50 women+ (39.4%)
- Business/Computer Science double degree program has admitted 31 women+ (30.7%)
- IN TOTAL Waterloo’s CS programs have admitted 189 women+ (26.4%)
The percentage of women+ admitted into our various programs fluctuates a lot each year, especially in the smaller programs, but as you can see from the chart below the total representation of women+ (represented by the black line below) has been steadily increasing.
The number of women+ admitted each year has also been going up. In recent years, Waterloo has been admitting roughly 150-180 women+ students into its CS programs each fall. (Fall 2020 was an anomaly because of COVID.) With those numbers, it is likely you will find peers who have similar backgrounds and interests as you.
Increases in the percentage of women+ admitted to our CS programs each year have led to overall increases in the enrolment of women+ in CS at Waterloo over the last several years. Moreover, the percentage of women+ among students who transfer into CS from Math is typically higher than the percentage of women+ who are admitted to CS directly from high school. The internal transfers of women+ in CS are typically made by students who took no computer science in high school, applied to Waterloo Math, discovered computing when they took CS 115 or CS 135 in their first year, realized they were good at it and decided then to apply to transfer to CS.
These days, the total number of women+ enrolled in our various CS programs hovers around 1000.
Graduate Enrolment (at Waterloo)
The total percentage of women+ in our CS graduate programs has remained relatively stable. As the number of students in our graduate programs has increased, the number of women+ students has increased proportionally, and the increase in numbers helps to create a larger community of almost 100 women+ graduate students.
WiCS graduate students run welcome events for new students and organize joint social events and discussions with other affinity groups, such as Women in Mathematics (WIM), Women in Engineering (WIE), and FemPhys.
References: Institutional Analysis & Planning, University of Waterloo
Women Faculty (at Waterloo)
We collect information about the representation of women+ among the CS faculty every few years. In 2023, we count 24 women CS faculty:
Undergraduate Enrolment (in Canada)
The graph below shows the most recent statistics on the enrollment of women in undergraduate programs in computer science at 15 universities across Canada. Each line in the graph is an anonymized university. The black line is the average enrollment of women among the 15 institutions (based on the numbers of women and men enrolled in CS at those institutions).
There are several takeaways from these statistics.
- The representation of women in undergraduate computer science is increasing nationally – slowly, but steadily.
- The representation of women in undergraduate computer science varies wildly by institution.
Waterloo is the gold line on the graph. As you can see, the representation of women in computing at Waterloo has been below average for several years. Unfortunately, Waterloo is at a bit of a disadvantage in attracting women students into its CS programs because most of its CS students are admitted directly from high school; but many high-school women have little experience with computing and are hesitant to apply to a degree program if they know little about the discipline.
You can also see from the graph that the representation of women in computing at Waterloo has been growing at above-average rates – in part due to the initiatives and community-building of WiCS.
References: Informal communications with faculty from 15 universities
Undergraduate Enrolment (CS vs. STEM)
One of the more interesting sets of data shows the rise and fall of the representation of women in university degree programs in computing over the last 50 years.
When universities first started to offer undergraduate degrees in CS, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the representation of women in these programs rose quickly -- often faster than they were rising in other STEM disciplines. Representation peaked in the United States and Canada in the early 1980s, and then started to fall, even as the proportion of women in other technical disciplines continued to rise. The fact that computer-science programs used to have student populations that were 35%-40% women surprises a lot of people. We generally think of the representation of women in CS as being perpetually low.
Everyone asks why the representation of women fell so far from its peak. Many people attribute this decline to the advent of the personal computer. When personal computers were first introduced, they were marketed almost exclusively to men and boys and they were marketed heavily to electronics hobbyists, who were mostly men. Families tended to buy them for their sons, or they bought a computer for their kids but the earliest computer games and software had little appeal to girls so girls spent less time using computers than boys did.
The biggest problem was that personal computers were relatively rare. Schools, libraries, and homes didn’t have enough computers for everyone, which meant that there was competition for access to the machines. The boys were keener, and they dominated in their access to computers.
By the time these students reached university, the men typically had more experience using and experimenting with computers than the women had, which made the women feel like they were behind before their computer studies had even started! Even women with the strongest math and technical skills gravitated to other technical disciplines, where the playing field was more even.
This experience gap appears to be narrowing. For one thing, personal computers and digital devices are becoming ubiquitous. Almost all students arrive at university with some working experience and comfort in using technology. Moreover, students of both genders participate in coding camps in greater numbers. As a result, the gender gap between boys’ and girls’ usage and comfort with computers is narrowing, and we are starting to see increases in the enrollment of women in computer science programs.
References: U.S. National Center for Education Statistics
Undergraduate Degrees (in CS, worldwide)
If there really were innate differences between men and women with respect to abilities or interests in computing, then we would expect to see the same levels of underrepresentation of women in computing worldwide. But as the statistics1,2,3 below show, the representation of women graduating from university-level computer science degrees vary wildly by country.
For comparison, the representation in Canada in 2015 was a little less than 20%, and in the United States in 2015 it was a little more than 20%.4
The fact that there are these differences in different countries suggests that there are significant cultural differences and biases at play – biases both with respect to women and what they are capable of doing and biases about computing.
1 OECD dataset showing Distribution of graduates by gender in fields of education (including the field Information and Communication Technologies), 2018.
2 UNESCO dataset showing Female share of graduates in Information and Communication Technologies, 2011-2018.
3 Statistics Canada, “Proportion of male and female postsecondary graduates, by institution type and status of student in Canada”, Table 37-10-0020-02, 2018.
4UNESCO dataset showing Female share of graduates in Information and Communication Technologies, 2015.
Graduate Enrolment (In Canada)
Below is a chart showing the representation of women in graduate CS programs at 15 universities across Canada. It is difficult to identify enrolment trends in graduate studies because graduate programs are relatively small, thus even small changes in the number of women may lead to large swings in the percentage of women in any individual program. The percentage of graduate student women in CS at any university varies quite a bit; but the overall average of women in CS graduate projects across Canada has been increasing slowly but steadily – despite the increased demand for technical women in industry.
References: Information about enrolment in Waterloo CS graduate programs comes from the Institutional Analysis & Planning Office at the University of Waterloo. Information about the enrolment of women in graduate CS programs across Canada comes from informal communications with faculty from 15 universities.
As the chart below shows, we lose women+ from CS at all stages of their studies.
Women are also less likely than men to enroll in CS programs in university.3 The last several data points show the representation of women at different stages of CS studies in the same calendar year.3 As such, one cannot claim that the depicted lower representations of women at progressive stages in CS studies constitutes actual attrition of women at these stages. However, the fact that the representation is lower at every stage is worrying. Note that the percentage of women in graduate programs is higher than the percentage of women who graduate with a Bachelors’ degree in computing – the primary reason for this difference is that a large number of women in our graduate CS programs are international students.
Many of the WiCS initiatives aim to identify and address possible causes of attrition (leaks) of women enrolled in university-level CS programs.
1 Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, “Report on the Pan-Canadian Assessment of Reading, Mathematics, and Science”, Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, PCAP 2016.
2 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),2018 results.
3 Statistics Canada, “Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university”, ISSN 2291-0840, 2013.
4 Computing Research Association, “The CRA Taulbee Survey”, CRN Vol. 33, No. 5, 2020.
Women in the Tech Workplace
For the last five years or so, tech companies have released diversity reports that have shown a light on the representation of women and other minorities in the tech work force. Here is data collected by DiversityReports.org from 2020 and 2021 diversity reports showing the percentage of women who hold technical roles at a number of the top tech companies. Overall, about 25% of professional computing roles in the 2020 U.S. workforce are held by women.2
Every tech company and tech workplace culture is different. Don’t judge the entire discipline of computing by the culture of a single company or a single team. Ask your friends and colleagues about what it is like to work at different companies. During interviews, ask about the company’s philosophy and practices with respect to creating inclusive mindsets and teams.
If you experience problems with your boss or your team, try to transfer to another team or move to another company: leave the hostile environment, not the discipline.
1 Company diversity reports, as reported by DiversityReports.org
2U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” Table 11. Employed and Experienced Unemployed Persons by Detailed Occupation, Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity, 2020.