Women in computing – Part 3


So, tech has some gender issues. As promised, in this final part of the series I’m going to talk about what’s being done to address this issue. However, I’m releasing Part 3 in two parts — don’t worry, it’s not going to be any longer. In this issue I’m covering what is being done at UW.

Let’s dive in shall we?

Is UW doing anything to improve gender imbalances?

Yes. The University of Waterloo is well aware of the diversity problems in CS, although the Cheriton School of Computer Science has lagged behind the engineering and math faculty (excluding computer science) in taking tangible steps towards improving program diversity. A good indication of this is that the Women in Computer Science (WiCS) committee (the general one) wasn’t founded until 2007, when the Women in Math committee noticed that female enrolment numbers were dramatically lower in CS than in the rest of the faculty.

The School of Computer Science is now running initiatives — on top of WiCS — that aim to help women transition into the program and succeed as CS majors. Jo Atlee, a CS professor at UW who has been active in the general WiCS committee, is working on integrating a discussion on diversity and discrimination into the Professional Development courses that all computer science co-op students have to take. She has shown the material to some upper year students who all had a similar reaction: “I can’t believe I’m in my fourth year and this is the first real discussion I’ve heard about these topics.”

Atlee has been focusing her energy on making sure that women on campus have the support they need to succeed in the major. Right now, that largely means helping WiCS improve their profile in the faculty and give them the assistance they need to continue to effectively run the events, workshops, and mentorship programs that have defined their recent efficacy. “It’s incremental development,” Atlee told me — in other words, she’s focused on taking things step-by-step.

While helping the current undergraduates is currently their priority, the university is also working at plugging the leaks in their own pipeline by organizing and running outreach initiatives that aim to raise interest in computing among young women in high school. The largest of these is a week-long female-only computing camp that attracts students from across the country. “We’re interested in promoting computer science [to women] as a career path,” Atlee said.

Starting at the beginning

When female students enter first year, they take classes that are inevitably dominantly male, and it can be hard for them to find a supportive community, especially under the pressure that adjusting to university can put on all students. “We’re still dealing with the perception of female students coming in and thinking that they’re not as good as everyone else in the program,” Atlee explained.

I talked about the first-year problem in the historical segment of Part 1 — when students become intimidated by their seemingly expert peers, and drop out. This happens disproportionately to women, who are not only intimidated but, as I explained in Part 2, at an inherent disadvantage because of their minority status.

Prabhakar Ragde, a computer science professor at UW, is in a unique position to observe this effect. He has been teaching first-year computer science courses (among many others) at the University of Waterloo since 1989, and has taught the advanced introductory Computer Science class — CS145, which is notoriously difficult — since 2008.

A few years ago he began to incorporate discussions on women in computing into his lectures to expose first-year students to the related issues, and generate early awareness. He typically spends a few minutes at the beginning of lectures every week talking about an aspect of one of the issues, and what students can do about it.

“If we want the atmosphere in UW CS to be welcoming to women, we have to convince men to adopt the attitudes and behaviours that will foster that. If first-year students aren’t exposed to these issues, they will pick up their cultural cues from senior students; this is how cultural values persist. First year is a point of considerable change for students. It’s a natural point to try to suggest changes that lead to a more positive culture,” Ragde told me.

Because Ragde has so much experience teaching the advanced classes, where competition is more intense, he has seen the first-year problem first-hand. He said that because students typically have varying levels of experience in computer science when they start first year (as opposed to math, where it is comparatively uniform) the indicators of their ability are more obscured. This, in addition to the tendency of students to self-aggrandize, bluff, and assert dominance, leads to an inflated feeling of inferiority among those who seem to struggle out of the gate.

The computer science faculty is aware of this issue, and has designed first-year courses to level the playing field as much as possible — they teach programming languages that are not commonly taught in high schools, require a lower-level knowledge of computer science, and focus on theory over application. “The focus is on getting students to stick with it for the few years until they catch up — don’t quit because you think you’re not qualified, because you are,” Atlee told me.


A quick return to the numbers: things are getting better


At least at Waterloo they are. You may remember from Part 1 that female enrolment has increased by 70 per cent from 2006 to 2013 compared to a 30 per cent increase in male enrolment. It also appears as though initiatives like Ragde’s, and the work that WiCS has done with the help of the faculty, has paid off.

One would expect, given the adversity that women face once they enter university computer science, that the statistics would show declining numbers of female students as each cohort moves on to their succeeding year of study.

Surprisingly, however, there is no clear indication of this trend in the UW enrolment numbers. In fact, between first and second year, the number of female students in CS has actually increased in every cohort since the 2009 class. This growth, however, does not extend to third and fourth year. Nonetheless, the number of female CS students who completed their degree has been greater than the number that started four or five years earlier (depending on co-op) for the past two graduating years. This does not mean women aren’t changing programs, switching schools, or dropping out; it simply means that for every woman who did, more entered the program.

While there is no quantitative data on why women are entering the program after first year, stories like Holly Xu’s (which you can read on the WiCS blog), who switched into computer science from math and chartered professional accountancy, shed some light on possible motivations.

Beyond acting as an indicator of improvement, rising interest in computing from women has a positive feedback effect that amplifies progress. “If you have enough women in the environment, it changes the culture … men behave differently when women are around too … so there is such a thing as a critical mass, and if you rise above that critical mass then the underrepresented group has more influence on decision-making and the culture,” Atlee explained.

The final part

In the final part of the series, Part 3b, if you will, I’m going to talk about what you can do based on a compilation of answers from all of the women I’ve talked to. The second part will be available online in the coming weeks.