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Semantic Scholar is one of the projects pioneered at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. (AI2 Photo)

Today it’s mostly a man’s world in computer science — and a tally of the authors behind nearly 3 million research papers in the field suggests that could be the case for the rest of the 21st century.

The findings, reported by researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, point to how far the scientific community still has to go when it comes to gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

“In computer science and in other STEM fields, this kind of gender disparity has consistently been something that people have pointed to as a problem,” principal author Lucy Lu Wang told GeekWire. “It has definitely shown change and improvement over time. The field has made more of an effort to reach a more balanced gender status. But the data seems to show that even with all the progress, we are still not making the change fast enough.”

Wang and her colleagues tracked trends in study authorship as reflected in 2.87 million research papers that were published between 1970 and 2018. The papers were accessed using Semantic Scholar, the academic search engine created at AI2, and analyzed using a software tool called Gender API.

Lucy Lu Wang
Lucy Lu Wang is a Young Investigator at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. (AI2 Photo)

The year-by-year trend shows a sharp rise in the proportion of female authors, from around 17 percent in the 1970s to 27 percent in the last year sampled. But when the trend line for the existing data is projected into the future, the rising trend levels off in future decades.

“Under our most optimistic projection models, gender parity is forecast to be reached in 2100, and significantly later under more realistic assumptions,” the researchers report.

The likeliest scenario is that it will take until around 2137 for female authorship to hit the 45 percent level, which would satisfy the researchers’ definition of parity.

As a reality check, the research team also ran the numbers for biomedical researchers, as reflected in 11.63 million papers drawn from the top 1,000 journals indexed by the Medline database. Those numbers tell a better story: The projection pointed to gender parity in 2048.

“Our results are very consistent with previous studies,” Wang said.

They’re also consistent with real-world assessments of female representation in computer science.

The latest figures from the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators estimate that women make up 26 percent of the workforce in computer and mathematical sciences. The numbers are slightly more skewed for the subset focusing on computer and information sciences (24 percent) — but far closer to parity for mathematical sciences (43 percent).

And in case you’re wondering, the National Science Board’s survey says the workforce for biological and medical sciences is 53 percent female.

There’s an unusual twist to AI2’s analysis: Sometimes it’s hard to tell just by looking at a name whether the author is male or female. Such names include multi-gender monikers such as Taylor or Kelly, as well as foreign-language names. To resolve that issue, the analysis made use of statistical weighting derived from Gender API’s database. “Taylor,” for example, would be weighted in the statistics as 55 percent female, 45 percent male.

The researchers acknowledged that gender is not binary, but for the purposes of their large-scale study, they stuck with a male-vs.-female gender classification.

Why is it so hard to achieve gender parity in computer science? That question goes beyond the scope of the study, but Wang said her own experience may point to the effect of having fewer women in a field of research.

“I come from slightly outside this field,” she said. “I’m trained in biomedical informatics, which is somewhere between biomedicine and computer science. So I’ve interacted with both fields, and as I’ve gone more toward the computer science side, there is a dramatic difference when I attend conferences or interact with people. For a more junior scientist, I think it certainly can be a bit daunting at times.”

Lynne Reynolds, president of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Association for Women in Computing, noted that not all women in computer science publish academic papers. She pointed to her own experience as an IT consultant. “I would estimate that in my 10-year tenure with Covestic, I’ve likely written over 2,000 pages of documentation to support customers and projects. … So as a female author, I’m somewhat prolific, just not in industry ‘research paper’ circles,” she said in an email.

Reynolds said there’s “still a pre-existing disparity within tech leadership between men and women,” and that’s likely to contribute to the publishing gap.

“It’s a strong women who puts herself forward and really pushes for opportunities like performing analytical research and getting the results published,” she said. “Without strong backing, this likely doesn’t often happen.”

Although Reynolds hasn’t run the numbers with scientific rigor, she says women clearly hold their own when it comes to the computing industry,

“I have encountered phenomenal women in the industry – many are thought leaders – who do regularly publish and are known quantities within specific areas of IT,” she said. “I think of Kieran Snyder at Textio, Erin Anacker at WholeStory and so many others.”

For her part, Wang emphasized that the trend line isn’t set in stone.

“If we increase the rate of change just by a couple of percentage points, then you’re talking about giving women more of an opportunity to publish, giving women more of a chance to stay in their field,” Wang said. “I think that would be the kind of change that would be more dramatic.”

Update for 9:05 a.m. PT June 21: In an email to GeekWire, Hadi Partovi, CEO of the tech-focused education nonprofit Code.org, says the next generation could change the equation:

“While the gender imbalance in computer science is far from 50-50, in the K-12 school system we’re seeing a real improvement for the first time. In high school AP classes, 30% of the class are now young women (up from 18%), and in elementary school, 46% are girls. There’s still a long way to go, but we can all encourage these young women to stick with CS to change the broader imbalance after they graduate.”

In addition to Wang, the authors of “Gender Trends in Computer Science Authorship” include Gabriel Stanovsky, Luca Weihs and Oren Etzioni. 

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