With coding clubs for girls springing up in high schools and universities around the US, and even Victoria Secret model Karlie Kloss posting pictures of her coding on Instagram, the campaign to attract girls into the field of computer science is flourishing. But somehow, even without the support of gender progressive slogans, the percentage of girls among Chinese international students in American universities majoring in computer science manages to be even higher.
A study from Washburn University finds that female computer science professors account for 20% of the faculty in the US, while in Chinese universities, the rate is 36%. As a Chinese female international student majoring in computer science myself, I find that this relatively high percentage of female representation applies to Chinese computer science students as well.
“Computer science is a major that a lot of [Chinese students] will try out. It is thought to be the most demanding but also the most ideal major,” Elizabeth Jiang, a student majoring in computer science in UCLA, said.
The popularity of computer science as a major is deeply rooted in the international Chinese student community in American colleges. It feels like Chinese people from different generations all agree that CS is a superior choice, and not just for men.
“Just major in computer science. So many people around me wish they studied computer science in college now,” a Chinese international student in graduate school advised me. Even when a classmate’s mother asked my roommate about her major and received “Math” as an answer, she in turn gave the bewildered response: “Why don’t you pick computer science?”
Career Choice Starts in High School
One obvious factor that contributes to this encouragement of women to major in computer science is the need to find a job.
“When I went to the career fair during freshmen year, most of the positions were related to computer science, so I switched to CS thinking that it would help to find a job,” Sherry Wang, a female computer science student, said.
Jiayu Zhao, a female computer science student at UCLA, agrees. “There are relatively more Chinese and Indian students in my CS class, but I think this totally makes sense. CS would be useful no matter what fields they go into in the future.”
The usefulness of computer science thus makes it a fairly economically rewarding major choice, especially to international students who intend to find jobs in the US. This makes taking an introductory computer science class almost obligatory among Chinese students, girls or boys alike.
“I first took CS out of conformity, everyone was taking it.” Wang said.
I’m among those girls, too. A typical picture of my CS introductory classes consists of a group of Chinese international students in the front row, and sitting in about half of the seats are women, listening attentively to the professor or pondering their homework projects. And female Chinese international students take up a substantial part of the overall female population in class.
Apart from the usefulness of computer science, the focus on math and science education in China also draws women to enter the CS world. Although few high schools in China provide proper CS classes, subjects such as math and physics are regarded as more important than art or history. This becomes obvious in terms of exams, which mainly test science-related subjects. By contrast, subjects such as history and social science are optional, and arts and music are not tested on at all.
By the second year of high school, students are required to choose from either a science or liberal arts track. Typically one out of five classes will be made up of “liberal arts” students. Despite the fact that girls are disproportionately represented in “liberal arts” classes, a significant number of female students still choose to focus on science and go on to study science subjects in college.
Be Careful What You Wish For
The need to get a job and a public education that disproportionally focuses on science encourages more Chinese female students to experiment in computer science. Many in the US might envy that, but there are downsides to the emphasis on, too.
Girls, similar to boys, may have more chances to be exposed to science and trained intensively in math in the Chinese education system, but schools tend to ignore the importance of education in art and social science. My roommate Abby’s words might resonate with every student that has attended a typical Chinese school: “Art classes are supposed to be ‘robbed’ by math teachers, and history classes are meant to be spent doing math homework.”
This lack of art education leads to obvious problems when students enter college, where some of my high school classmates struggle with their motivation, because they don’t enjoy their math-oriented majors but find it hard to switch into liberal arts in the rigid Chinese college system. Even those who are attending American college, where one has much more freedom in choosing what to learn, struggle as well.
This lack of balance between science and art education also reinforces a message that science is somehow “more valuable” and intellectually challenging, which gives students interested in art extra pressure to choose a science major.
“The general conception of art students … [is of someone who] cannot succeed in science and has no choice,” Abby says.
And a higher percentage of women in the field of computer science also does not automatically mean gender equality. My interviews with several Chinese international students in the US and my own experience both show that, from elementary school to high school, there are still voices from teachers and parents implying that girls are not suited for math and physics.
“If a boy did well in math, he is smart and has the potential to be ‘great’ at it; if a girl is good at math, the teacher will mostly think that she works hard.” Abby said.
This unbalanced investment in boys in the science classroom did not stop China from surpassing the US statistically in the study of Washburn University, but it may also be why the percentage of female faculty is still 36% instead of 50%.
Notably, my interviews with students show that even though the usefulness of computer science and a solid foundation in math and science might be what attract Chinese female students to enter an introductory computer science class, it is a genuine interest in coding that developed later that draws students to commit to a computer science major.
“I took a computer science class and found it very interesting. I was not a person that can easily focus, but I realize[d] that I can concentrate for a long time when I’m coding,” said Sherry Wang, who maintains an excellent GPA and is currently an intern at Amazon.
Collaboration is another common source of enjoyment from computer science. Every student I spoke with says that being able to talk with other Chinese students makes the learning process easier and more fun.
“Although there are relatively few female students, I met a lot of smart girls in the class. We help each other out and working in groups makes computer science more enjoyable,” Zhao said.
Economic reasons and a heavy focus on science may be why China has more female computer science faculty than the US, or why Chinese women are over-represented in CS classes. However, efforts still need to be made to cultivate classrooms that value arts as well as science, girls as well as boys, which may be the only path to get from 36% to 50%.