Computer studies attract few women

Success in luring more female students into computer science programs has proved elusive, with Colorado’s largest research universities enrolling far fewer women than men.

At the University of Colorado Boulder, the number of female students in those programs has remained flat, at around 14 percent for more than a decade. At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the rate has stalled out at about 8 percent.

If left unchecked, experts say the lack of diversity among programming professionals will continue to hinder industry’s ability to maximize new technology because the talent pool’s range of perspectives is narrower than it could be.

“It doesn’t help to have a narrow population of people developing software,” said Jim Martin, who chairs the computer science department at CU. “You need people with different perspectives. If you self-select from a small slice of the population, you’re not seeing everything.”

Darrell Whitley, who chairs the computer science department at CSU, said the low ratio of women in the program is something the school would like to change, although it doesn’t have a formal enrollment target.

“It would be nice to double the number of women in CS,” Whitley said. CU’s Martin said he would like to see female student enrollment rise to at least 30 percent.

Closing the gender gap isn’t as easy as diagnosing the problem.

Schools such as Carnegie Mellon University have made great strides, with women comprising 40 percent of its incoming freshman class of computer science majors, according to a recent report in the New York Times. But most of the rest have a ways to go.

Nationwide, women accounted for 18 percent of computer science graduates in 2012, according to the Boulder-based National Center for Women and Information Technology. That’s down from 37 percent in 1985.

Of the 325 colleges with which the organization works to improve female enrollment in computing, said NCWIT co-founder and chief executive Lucy Sanders, about 62 percent are seeing increased percentages. However, the low overall graduation rate has helped lead to a computing work force that was just 26 percent female in 2013.

Being such a small minority in the classroom and workplace leads to less peer support for women, Sanders said, and an unconscious bias that favors men when it comes to promotions and hiring. She said that bias has led to society not viewing women as technologists.

“The societal bias around this is pretty strong,” Sanders said.

CU and CSU have several efforts aimed at retaining and attracting more computer science majors in general, which they in turn believe also will increase the number of women getting involved.

For the first time this fall, freshmen majoring in computer science at CU Boulder will be divided into different sections of introductory courses based upon their levels of prior programming experience. The coursework will still be the same, but the idea is that by splitting up novice programmers from more experienced ones, they’ll be less apt to feel they’re in an uncompetitive position from the start, hopefully raising retention rates long enough that those students have a chance to catch up.

Last fall, CU also added a bachelor of arts degree in computer science run out of the College of Arts and Sciences to accompany the bachelor of science degree offered in the engineering school. The core CS coursework for both degrees is the same and run by the engineering school. But the bachelor of arts’ degree requirements are less rigid and allow for more of a liberal arts education for those who might not identify as engineers coming out of high school. Participation in that program has taken off, equaling that of the bachelor of science for incoming freshmen this fall.

Thanks to a $25,000 donation from Boulder-based broadband infrastructure provider Zayo Group, CU this fall also will pay the way for about 10 women to go to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a national conference geared toward highlighting the interests and opportunities for women in the field.

Both CU and CSU, meanwhile, have clubs for women in computing and have made adjustments to things such as grading and assignment-submission practices to add a more personal touch for all students. At CSU, for example, students can submit programs early to get feedback on whether they’re working so that they can make tweaks before they’re graded. That school also has doubled availability of tutoring and lab time.

“It benefits everyone,” Whitley said of the various strategies. “It makes the overall environment a little less stressful.”

Many of those efforts are aimed at retention. Much of the problem, however, is in attracting women to the programs. Girls seem to be losing interest in computing around middle school, well before they’ve decided on a college major.

The reasons for that are tough to pinpoint, although Sanders said the societal bias is partly to blame. If NCWIT had its way, computer science would become a required course for high school graduation.

“It’s really important because we want all students to have access to this 21st-century skill,” Sanders said. “If more boys and girls are exposed, then hopefully more girls will choose it.”

To that end, CU has a pair of programs funded by the National Science Foundation to try to make an early impact. In the Engaging Computer Science in Traditional Education Project (eCSite), CU computer-science doctoral students get stipends to pair with a local high school or middle school teacher in say, social studies, to show students how computer science can apply to all kinds of real-world situations.

“A lot of these efforts are a broad kind of thing to make sure these kids stick with science,” Martin said. “If they come to CU, great. If they go to Carnegie Mellon, that’s great, too.”

One bright spot is that the number of U.S. patents being filed that list at least one female inventor has increased in recent years, from 9 percent from 1980 to 2005 to 16 percent from 2006 to 2010. That still leaves a major gender gap in creating new technology in an economy where programming is increasingly important.

 “The upside,” Sanders said, “is that if women were in (greater) numbers alongside those men when they’re thinking, creating, dreaming about what’s possible, I think technology would be much better. The bottom line to innovation would be astounding.”

Joshua Lindenstein can be reached at 303-630-1943, 970-416-7343 or Follow him on Twitter at @joshlindenstein.

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