“I can’t code because my long eyelashes make it hard for me to see the screen,” said a girl featured in a satirical video titled “Why Can’t Girls Code?,” produced by Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology.
So if it’s not long eyelashes, why aren’t more girls coding? That’s the question Carla Brodley, Dean of Northeastern’s University’s College of Computer Science, asks.
Brodley recognizes the lack of women in the technology industry. And she’s taking it head on by trying to get a 50/50 women to men gender ratio in computer science (CS). Brodley and her team are working to even the ratio by expanding the combined major program; constructing a new, and more inclusive, fundamentals course; and recruiting within the university.
According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, only 18.2% of people majoring in CS nationwide are women. TechRepublic reports a different national statistic — 16%. At Northeastern, the CS major is 26% women, up from 19% in 2014.
“If women are turned away from [CS], especially from the gender issue, it’s kind of like a waste of intellectual power,” said Tracey Lum, a fourth-year computer science and interactive media combined major.
Lum likes that the programming she’s learning can be used in multiple ways, and she’s especially drawn to data visualization and media art.
“That was really cool,” said Lum, “because I had a lot of freedom to do whatever I wanted and there was no standard or expectation at the time.”
But the programming workforce largely carries the same uneven ratio as the classroom. Because there are fewer female CS majors, there are also fewer working female software developers — and teachers.
“I think that throughout my entire education I’ve only had one female professor,” said Lydia Auch, a fourth- year biology and computer science major.
The problem is prevalent in all of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Even though “women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs,” according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s website. And representations in popular culture aren’t helping bridge this gap.
As a young child, second-year computer science student Vivian Lee was influenced by tropes she saw in the media.
“People think guys mostly when they think of computer science,” said Lee. “If girls were exposed to the visual effect of [women in CS positions] earlier, there might be fewer stereotypes.”
Biases about certain genders being inherently better at certain work, or having different kinds of intelligence, are reproduced continuously in the media and trickles into daily microaggressions. Psychology Today defines microaggressions as verbal and nonverbal slights or insults which “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” They may be intentional or unintentional.
Lum noticed that when she worked with other women, tasks were divided more equally, “but when working with guys, I don’t want them to have like their ego bruised … I’ve had partners who didn’t seem to really trust me.”
“Biases are very subtle,” Lum explained, “at least at Northeastern. No one’s like, ‘yeah, girls suck at programming,’ but you don’t know if it’s in the back of their mind.”
According to Auch, the Northeastern student body lacks a welcoming environment for women pursuing CS. She recounted a specific example when she was in one of the upper level courses and found it hard to find a partner for group projects. Males tended to prefer male partners.
“Being a woman in an all-male or mostly-male environment — as most computer science programs are — was, for my colleagues as well as for myself, an extremely frustrating and isolating experience,” said Pooja Sankar, founder of Piazza, a platform that hosts online discussion for CS students.
However, not all women CS majors have noticed or experienced negative consequences to their lack of representations. Some, such as fourth-year CS major Tiffney Kitiratanasumpun, find some advantage in it.
Kitiratanasumpun noted that her male peers were not unwelcoming to her and reached out when she needed help. She also appreciated how they would “passively support you by automatically assuming you are an equal.”
Even on co-op, Kitiratanasumpun noted that despite working at a primarily male company, everyone was welcoming. She was never left feeling like the odd one out.
As long as women are a minority in STEM, concerted efforts need to be made for students to gain equal footing from the start.
Coming in as dean, Brodley recognized this disadvantage that women face. Ergo, she restructured the first computer science introduction class, Fundamentals I, to be taught in DrRacket, a language developed by Northeastern faculty. Using this unique language helps students start on more even ground, since no one comes in already knowing. Since men are often exposed to CS at younger ages, they may come in with more experience.
Lee has witnessed first-hand how this small change helped introduce one of her friends to computer science. Despite never programming before, one of her close friends gave computer science a try after taking the first Fundamentals class and is now a computer science major.
Though Lee previously learned Java in AP Computer Science, she still enjoyed the newly structured Fundamentals I because it taught her how to self-learn other programming languages.
While Northeastern’s enrollment of women in CS is rising, there is still progress to be made — both socially and structurally. So how will the dean manage to increase that to 50%? And are there any universities that have an even gender ratio to be learned from?
The answer is yes. In fact, more than one US university has achieved that goal.
More than half (55%) of the computer science earned at Harvey Mudd College are earned by women. At Carnegie Mellon University, women account for almost half – 48% – of the computer science students. University of Southern California invested millions into their Women in Science and Engineering (or WiSE) program. WiSE is an effort to hire more female faculty and providing role models for girls studying computer science.
Lee and Kitiratanasumpun also offered a few ideas for improving the gender ratio. Lee noticed that most of her professors have been male, and when she had female professors, they were treated with less respect and paid less attention to. If Northeastern made a bigger effort to hire more female faculty, Lee said, students would get normalized to the idea of people who aren’t men in technology.
Kitiratanasumpun stated that offering scholarships to more women pursuing a career in technology would encourage more young women. She suggested Northeastern partner with the National Center for Women and Information Technology, which promotes diversity and inclusion in computing.
Lum suggested Northeastern have a “women in CS day,” and invite high school girls for a student showcase and tech talks. Lum said that when mainstream systems make women in technology largely invisible, there are limits to what a university can do. She stressed the importance of groups like Women In Tech, who make space for conversations and presentations about tech among women.
“I think it’s very important to get more women into computing,” said the celebrated British computer scientist Karen Spärck Jones before her death, “My slogan is: computing is too important to be left to men.”