I don’t know about you guys, but here at Microsoft we hear a lot about “diversity in the workforce“. It’s something I think about rather a lot — it’s hard not to when you work with smart, talented people who were born quite literally all over the world. Strolling east to west along just my hallway I pass offices of coworkers who grew up in Jordan, the United States, Canada (that would be me), Italy, England, Mexico, India, Russia, the Philippines, and Australia — and that’s just one hallway!
Across the hall from me there are a series of signs written in English, Italian, Arabic, Chinese and Norwegian giving translations for useful phrases, like “this feature is totally unusable!” and “Where the hell is Andrew? I need that spec by Thursday!” Yesterday a bunch of us got into a conversation over lunch about historical and modern differences between Islamic and Italian banking systems — which is actually more interesting than it sounds. One of my favourite perks of this job is that I get to work with people of such varied life experience brought together by a common passion for developer tools — it certainly is odd how life works out, isn’t it?
That’s not to say that this isn’t a little worrying though. Two things worry me. First, recently naturalized Americans and/or foreign nationals (like me) are expensive — I have a stack of green card paperwork in my filing cabinet that I wouldn’t want to drop on my foot, and the lawyers who produced that paperwork didn’t come cheap. Second, men outnumber women on my team even more so than the foreign-born outnumber the domestic-born. My team has women in all disciplines — development, testing, program management, user education and product management — and they are all talented, smart, and fun to work with but for some reason there simply are not very many.
Why so many foreign nationals? Why so few women? Hard questions. I don’t know the answers. I thought I might poke around the web and see if I could find some data.
I found this fascinating table which lists the number of computer science graduates in the United States broken down by degree, year and sex since 1966:
Here’s a graph of Bachelor degrees awarded by American universities in CS/Math each year from 1986 to 2000. (I was unable to find more recent figures — if anyone has them, I’d love to see them.)
Two trends immediately come to mind. The first is that, though there has been a considerable recovery since the immense trough of the 1990’s, the United States is still pumping out fully ten thousand fewer people per year with CS/Math degrees than the 1980’s. (And that trough confuses the heck out of me. There was massive investment and huge buzz about information technology in the 1990’s, fortunes were being made and yet students fled the field in droves, only returning when the bubble was about to burst. Why?)
The second trend, is that the percentage of CS/Math degrees granted to women has fallen every single year since 1985 (except for an insignificant bobble in 1991), falling from 39.5% to 33%. 2000 was worse than 1966 on a percentage basis!
Clearly this data has something to do with the fact that I work with so many foreign nationals and so few women. But the above is a pretty facile analysis of very thin data, I know. If any demographers out there have better data, or explanations of what’s going on here, I’d be interested to hear your opinions.