Is the Increasing Scarcity of Women in Information Technology a Social Justice Issue?

Caroline E. Wardle, C. Dianne Martin and Valerie A. Clarke


The well-documented scarcity in the U.S. of women studying computer science (CS) and pursuing careers in information technology (IT) has traditionally been studied from a perspective that supports workforce needs. In 1986 the number of baccalaureates awarded to women in CS peaked at 15,000, representing 36% of the total awarded that year. In spite of much research and a few small programs implemented over the past 10 years, women earned only 10,500 of the CS baccalaureates or 28% of the total, in 2000. Even though there has been strong demand in the U.S. for highly skilled IT professionals over the past two decades, the IT labor market data mirror the data on degree trends in CS. The share of women in these jobs declined from 33% in 1990 to 26% in 2002. This means that society has lost women’s skills and perspectives in the design and development of IT systems prevalent in the world today.

On the basis of existing research, it is possible to identify the types of educational environments that are conducive to attracting girls to the study of CS and potentially into the IT workforce. While it is understandable that we as a society tend to view this scarcity as a societal workforce issue, it is also important to examine female under-representation from an ethical perspective. The question arises as to why we should devote resources to addressing this issue rather than retaining the status quo within the current educational and occupational systems. Whether the focus is on the allocation of resources within the educational system or the allocation of jobs within the employment system, the issue of the under- representation of women in CS and IT can be considered from the philosophical perspective of distributive justice using the four theories identified by Beauchamp and Childress (1994): libertarian, communitarian, utilitarian, and egalitarian.

The libertarian approach argues that human wants are best satisfied by market forces, that any imposed system, or attempt to interfere with the natural order, is a threat to the liberty of the individual. Thus, those who feel that they want CS training and can afford the training are the ones who are able to attain it. Libertarianism assumes that students are the best judge of their own abilities, their own potential, and their own job opportunities, and that they are able to make appropriate decisions. Libertarianism assumes that those who choose training in CS have parents who are able and willing to pay for that training. In terms of education, there are many concerns with the libertarian paradigm, as many educators would question the capacity of young students to make appropriate decisions, and the willingness of many parents to provide the necessary financial support.

The communitarian approach advocates using community-derived standards to determine the “good”, the “right” and the “virtuous” in a specific situation. In relation to CS, this might be seen as describing the approach adopted whereby the governing bodies of educational institutions determine the way students are selected and resources are allocated. Many would argue that the derivation of community standards is open to bias, abuse and exploitation, as those who are in control often argue for the status quo. They manage to impose their views on the community, arguing that their views are most representative of those of the community. Disadvantaged and minority groups are often ignored, while the interests of those in power are promoted.

The utilitarian approach is best described as the greatest good for the greatest number. This may provide the best description of the current position within CS education in schools where the male-dominated curriculum continues to attract males and deter females. Under this paradigm, marginal groups appear to have little to offer to the field, while having a high propensity to consume resources. Girls are seen as having fewer relevant abilities, such as mathematics ability, and less interest in CS than do their male counterparts. Those who benefit from the system are supportive of it, asserting that it provides the greatest good for the greatest number, and therefore provides the most benefit to society as a whole.

Egalitarianism implies that all members of society should have access to the resources of society and should share equally in the burdens of society. Rawls’ work on the principles of social justice (1971) offers a persuasive description of egalitarianism as it articulates the notions of equality, fairness, and opportunity. The egalitarian paradigm provides the basis for arguing that resources should be allocated to enable the maximum development of the potential of all individuals and to ensure that the burdens of providing those opportunities should be equally shared. It can be argued that this paradigm is most compatible with the US philosophy of equality for all, and that it provides a rationale for using existing research findings about the relatively low levels of participation by women in CS and IT to broaden access to these activities.

Using the egalitarian/social justice paradigm as a rationale, we will show that the decreasing numbers of women in IT is a major ethical concern for the individual, as well as for business, education, government and society as a whole. Compelled by a moral imperative, rather than by economics, it becomes clear that fostering IT educational and workplace environments that attract and retain women should be a high national priority. By examining the inhibiting factors identified by research on the IT workforce, as well as strategies that mitigate these factors, we will provide a set of recommendations for addressing this social and ethical problem. One of the greatest challenges facing IT fields in the coming decade is the need to develop and foster an environment that will attract and retain women in IT careers, thus enabling society to benefit from their talents and skills in the design and development of the IT systems of the future.

The views presented in this paper do not necessarily represent the position of the National Science Foundation.