Celebration of Women in Computing - Socal

Breaking the Code for Girls

Percentages of Women getting STEM degrees
Percentages of Women getting STEM degrees

This post is a bit more on the personal side. As a woman in computer science, I’ve gotten used to being one of few women in the room. I often don’t even notice it anymore. But the truth is, I’ve never understood why more young women don’t pursue CS (Computer Science).

Far more women pursue mathematics than CS, as well as chemistry and biology etc. so it’s not the “Girls aren’t good at math” stereotype. The only STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) majors that fare worse than CS are Physics and the more traditional engineering disciplines – civil, materials, mechanical etc.

Maybe a lot of girls don’t see themselves on a construction site wearing a hard hat (and kudos to those who do!), but most middle and high schoolers are comfortable with computer use. So why do girls shy away from CS?

It turns out that many boys in middle school get into programming because of their engagement with video games. Since fewer girls get into gaming, and fewer games are aimed at girls, they don’t have this same natural transition. By the time they get to college, the CS classes are filled with boys who have been programming for several years, which can be very intimidating to both male and female newcomers to the field.

Change Is Possible

Celebration of Women in Computing - Socal
Celebration of Women in Computing - Socal

In recent years however, there has been a big push at engineering schools to increase the number of women pursuing CS at an undergraduate level. One school in particular, Harvey Mudd College, has more than tripled the percentage of women in CS to an astonishing 42 percent. I went to Pomona College, and took all my CS courses at Harvey Mudd from 1997 to 2001. The running joke at the time was that the ratio of men to women at Harvey Mudd was Pi to one (haha), but that was actually the ratio at the school, the ratio at the CS department was more like 10 to 1.

So how did they bring about such a huge change? In 2006, Harvey Mudd appointed a new president, Maria Klawe. The school was in the process of revamping their introductory computer science classes and together with the CS department, designed courses that took away some of the intimidation factor and improved support and community factors for the women. You can read more about it at the NYTimes.

Maria Klawe at UCSD

I recently saw Maria talk at UCSD and part of her talk focused around inspiring a sense of community and encouragement among women in CS. All too often, we’re so busy making sure we’re as good as the guys, if not better, that we forget to build a camaraderie with the women. We’re so busy proving to ourselves we’re not different from the guys, that we gloss over the ways that we are. I learned about something called the Impostor Syndrome, where a lot of women feel they are faking it, despite being ridiculously accomplished in their field. It’s not that only women have these issues, but that when women have them, they have fewer role models to look around at and think, “Well she’s doing it, so I can too!”

So if you’re in Computer Science, male or female, look around and see if you can’t encourage a young woman who’s got the talent to be a great engineer. Help them go to a Grace Hopper Celebration, a computing convention just for women. The truth is, Computer Science is a great, well-paid field, that is applicable to almost any aspect of the world you can think of. We just need to spread the word that it’s not a twitchy, anti-social boys’ club, but a fun, exciting and varied career option for women as well.


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