NPR's Planet Money team of Caitlin Kenney and Steve Henn dove into the data to uncover what went down in the mid-80s to drive women out of the field.
"There was no grand conspiracy in computer science that we uncovered," Henn said. "No big decision by computer science programs to put a quota on women. There was no sign on a door that said, 'Girls, keep out.' But something strange was going on in this field."
Kenney and Henn noted that society in the 80s could be broken into the computer haves and have-nots – and because of a targeted advertising culture, men tended to have computers. This gave men a leg-up in the classroom.
"Ads for personal computers, they were filled with boys," Henn said.
Kenney continued, "What's so striking about them, besides the super-cheesy 80s music, is men and boys. In this Commodore 64 ad, there's sort of this dorky 12-year-old, sitting at this computer, and he gives this finger salute to the camera. In fact, in most of these ads, it's just men, all men."
"Actually there was one woman in this ad," Henn added. "She was in a bikini and she was jumping into a pool."
It was unclear why advertising agencies in the 80s decided that computers should be marketed toward men, but larger society picked up on the trend, with movies (Weird Science, Revenge of the Nerds, War Games), journalistic pieces and books that painted men, not women, as computer geeks.
Starting in 1995, UCLA Senior Researcher and author Jane Margolis conducted a study of Carnegie Mellon's Computer Science degree path and found that half of the women in the program ended up quitting, and more than half of the women who dropped out were on the Dean's List – they were doing well.
"If you're in a culture that is so infused with this belief that men are just better at this, and they fit in better, a lot can shake your confidence," Margolis said.
While growing up, women were often in a position of having to ask to play with a brother's computer, but men never had to ask to play with a sister's computer, Margolis found.
Margolis and the Dean of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon at the time, Allan Fisher, refined the university's Computer Science program to be more inclusive, offering an intro course for people who never had informal coding training – those who didn't grow up with access to a computer. Five years later, in 2000, women composed 42 percent of the program and drop-out rates between men and women were mostly equal.
"Across the country, other schools have done similar things and had success," Henn said. "Harvey Mudd, the University of Washington in Seattle. Turns out this is not an impossible problem to solve."
[Image: Quoctrung Bui/NPR]