Despite the constant lamenting of low female-to-male ratio in the tech industry, the poor representation of women in technical roles hasn’t always been the case. According to some NPR research, some of the world’s computing pioneers were women. And for a while, there were actually more women studying computer science than men.
But ever since personal computers arrived in American homes, that number began to plummet. This was thanks to the notion that computers were for boys -- so male students naturally had a leg up because they had the opportunity to learn programming languages in their spare time.
According to Girls Who Code, 74% of young girls in the US are interested in STEM fields and computer science but by the time they make a decision on their academic or professional careers, a shifts occurs.
Today, only 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees and 26% of jobs in this space are held by women. The reason for this might be a pipeline problem, and this TechCrunch article suggests that women may be losing inspiration at this key stage of their career -- which could be a lack of resources or mentorship.
While the US-focused research on the topic provides a global context, our research team wanted to see if the same pipeline issues were affecting computer science (CS) programs in Asia. In collaboration with 60 universities, we extracted the number of female students in undergraduate computer science programs across Asia in 2015, and this is what we found.
Out of the surveyed schools, two universities reported a majority percentage of female students in their CS programs. The National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan tops the list with a whopping 81% of female students in their CS program, where 451 out of the enrolled 558 were women. And in Malaysia, the Universiti Teknologi Petronas enrolled 200 students last year with 120 of them (60%) being female.
Other than that, other schools came fairly close to the 50% mark in terms of enrollment, with both Chang Gung University in Taiwan and Mahidol University in Thailand enrolling 48% female students. Respectively, Chang Gung accepted 179 women out of 373, while Mahidol enrolled 432 out of 892.
On the other end of the spectrum, universities in India and Japan has reported some of the lowest numbers in terms of female representation in computer science programs. Out of 89 students at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, only 2 are women (2%). And at Hiroshima University in Japan, only 5 out of 142 students are female, which makes up just 4%.
In South Korea, the numbers are just as grim as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology enrolls just 17 women among 345 CS students (5%). Also at 5% enrollment is the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, where only 5 out of 110 students are women.
As investors in Southeast Asian tech companies, Monk’s Hill Ventures is naturally in staunch support of women in STEM -- particularly in the fields of computer science. We believe not only in equal access but also that gender imbalance within the tech industry will eventually lead to a lot of missed opportunities in the long run.
While this is not to say that those without a technical background won’t make excellent tech entrepreneurs, we do believe that women with CS backgrounds are very well-equipped in building and leading technology startup companies.
Thuy Truong, a serial tech entrepreneur that was hailed by the BBC as ‘Vietnam’s startup queen,’ studied computer science at the University of Southern California. As the founder and CEO of Tappy, her startup was the first in Southeast Asia to be acquired by a Silicon Valley company and she was also on Forbes Vietnam’s 30 Under 30 list -- an accolade given to talented young entrepreneurs. She told us that her technical background has certainly been an advantage when hiring smart engineers and how essential it was to learn how to code outside of school.
“Having a tech background was definitely helpful in recruiting tech talent. USC’s CS program is very unique, it’s both practical and challenging. The professors at USC would not teach you about coding,” she said.
“I remember most of my classes were about the history of computer science, system architecture and why certain technology was created. The students learn how to program different languages by themselves,” she said and noted that the logic and the science behind the system was more important than anything else.
“When I interview candidates for my company, I want to make sure that they have a very strong foundation in computer science because these are the people who are interested in self-learning and will be with the company in the long run. Technology is changing everyday and the engineers are the ones who created these changes,” she said.
For Aihui Ong, the founder and CEO of Love With Food that’s worked for the likes of Accenture and PeopleSoft before becoming a serial entrepreneur, choosing to study computer science at the National University of Singapore was a turning point in her life. After dropping out of secondary school and entering the workforce at age 17, Ong decided to return to the education system by homeschooling herself.
“I got back into the education system and when I went to NUS, my first choice was computer science. I love math and I wanted a skill that gives me mobility and a skill set that’s recession proof. It paid off, I was offered seven jobs in the US as soon as I moved there,” she said.
As for Amy Gu, her CS degree was an extension of her eclectic background which eventually led to a high flying career in the tech industry. Besides studying computer science, Gu also has a journalism degree and a Stanford MBA under her belt and has worked for top tech companies including China Mobile, Udacity and Evernote. She’s now Managing Partner at Hemi Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm that backs seed stage startups.
“What I can say is that by having a computer science degree early on helped with the fundamental understanding of technology. However, technology changes so fast so I have to keep learning all the time in order to be up to date,” she said and shared how her broad educational background has made her a well-rounded person.
“Computer engineering taught me how to think logically; journalism taught me the curiosity to keep my mind open; business taught me to think creatively under a purpose,” she said.
Whether it’s guiding your tech startup towards an exit, landing top jobs overseas or paving the way for a career in the tech industry -- it’s palpable that a background in computer science created a strong foundation for these women.
Looking forward, despite the tech industry still being extremely male dominated, recent news may indicate that the tides are turning. Dartmouth University, this spring, became the first national research university to graduate more women than men in its undergraduate engineering program. Out of 119 graduates, 64 were women which made up 54% of the graduating class of 2016.
Around the globe, many are rallying around the mission to get more women back into STEM disciplines. Besides the White House running a number of initiatives to encourage more participation by young women in technical fields, programs such as 1,000 Girls - 1,000 Futures from the New York Academy of Sciences are directly tackling the pipeline problem at the secondary school level.
Here in Asia, non-profit organizations such as Destination Imagination in Singapore educates teenage women ages 10-15 to get creative in technical fields; and there’s also Indian Girls Code -- a program in India run by robotics education company Robotix that inspires girls to aspire towards computer science and technology careers.
These movements and stories are encouraging and we believe it won’t be too ambitious to say that the future for women in STEM, particularly in computer sciences fields, looks a lot brighter than it does today.
Click here for the complete set of university data that we compiled.
Monk's Hill Ventures is dedicated to learning more about what women experience within the STEM and CS fields. Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are keen on participating in future research projects or surveys on women in the tech world.