Gender Balance in Computer Science – Yes, we can!!

I thought my goals were ambitious. I wanted to help change the face of computer science at Georgetown University. Specifically, over a ten year period, my goal was to work towards increasing the percentage of women majoring (graduating) in computer science from under 20% to close to 40%. Given all the stereotypes, all the industry scandals and manifestos, the lack of role models and mentors, the lack of work-life balance in the industry, etc., getting to 40% seemed like a steep, but possible climb.

I am now in year four of this ten year plan and to my surprise, this year’s graduating class in computer science was 50% female. Yes, let me repeat that – the 2018 undergraduate senior class in computer science at GU graduated 50% women and 50% men – stunning, amazing, awesome, wow!! A gender balanced graduating class in four years.

I have spent the last few weeks reflecting about how this happened – how did we reach this milestone so quickly? What were the significant events and activities? How do we make sure this is not a one year mirage? This blog post is my reflection on how we beat expectations (at least my expectations) and my advice to other departments wanting to strive toward gender balance in their undergraduate computer science student body.

What follows is a list of conditions that promote gender balance – a to do list of sorts. While I would not consider these requirements, the more of these conditions that exist, the faster the march toward gender balance and increased diversity.

Lisa’s To Do List:

  1. Your department needs one or more faculty champions for women’s issues who are willing to build and foster a community for women that is nurturing, active, and useful.
  2. Your department must create and promote a faculty culture that supports and encourages faculty to spend time teaching different groups of students concepts in different ways. Women cannot be made to feel “dumb” in class, particularly by male faculty. When women raise their hands in class, call on them and help them think through questions/answers if they get the answer wrong.
  3. The coursework in your department should be fairly gender neutral.
  4. Your department must be active. But the activities you choose should map to the culture of your department. For example, students in the CS department at Georgetown like casual events that include some food. So many events we planned were of that flavor.
  5. You need clubs, classes, and/or programs that connect computer science to different student interests, social causes and societal issues. A large complaint girls and women have about computer science is the feeling that the discipline does not help others. This is a falsehood that needs to be actively fought.
  6. Your department needs to help foster a culture in which male students consider female students equal peers who are just as capable as they are. This is hard to do because it involves tackling stereotypes. Selecting both men male and female students for research support, as teaching assistants, or for programming teams can increase opportunities for different groups of students to interact and showcase their strengths.
  7. Departments and universities need to provide funding for events focused on supporting women – networking sessions, coding parties, panels, etc.
  8. Funding also needs to be available for female students and faculty to attend diversity conferences, participate in undergraduate research, and develop new clubs they are interested in fostering.

Everything I am suggesting is also useful for improving other types of diversity, but my focus in this blog is about women in computing. I would like to say that the eight steps for success are easy to do, but they are not. They take time and commitment. They need to be embraced by all the faculty, not just one or two champions. It truly takes a village.

While I believe GU did all eight steps, I am going to highlight specific things that I believe mattered through this process. Each one individually may not have been the most impactive – collectively, these things seem to matter. Once again, this is just my opinion, not necessarily that of the faculty as a whole. There may be other events or decision that I was either not aware of or just forgot about. I also think that groups like and Girls Who Code are also helping this trend and are important for improving gender balance.

Money Matters
We had enormous institutional financial support for events, groups, and outreach that support women.

University Support Shout Out:

  • Department of Computer Science
  • University Information Systems (UIS)
  • Provost’s Office
  • Dean’s Office
  • Luce Foundation
  • Anonymous Donor

Talk about your curriculum informally
Different faculty discussed curriculum changes for the undergraduate CS program – nothing formal was implemented, but many faculty took discussions to heart and thought about whether or not their course materials were gender biased or not. Casual discussions can go a long way. Forcing change leaves a bitter taste.

Lead a women’s group
In 2014, we began a new women’s coding group – GU Women Coders. Initially, this group was focused on coding literacy, but it has morphed into a group focused on building a strong CS community for newbies, majors, and everyone in between who are interested in programming and technology. This group hosts 5 to 7 events per semester and sponsors a Women’s Coding Week (fall) and a Women’s Coding Party (spring). We engage both men and women computer science majors to help with mentoring activities at different events. This engagement increases awareness and mutual respect amongst the students. The group also has an Executive Board composed of women from around campus (students and employees), not just computer science majors.

Prior to 2014, we did have a CS Women’s group that socialized once a semester to talk about women’s issues as they related to computer science classes, internships, etc. While this did not increase the number of women in the major or bring more women into CS, it helped retain women in CS. Both types of groups are important if your department has the bandwidth.

Connect your community to other communities
Georgetown hosted the 2017 ACM CAPWIC (Capital Area Women in Computing) conference. All the women who were seniors that year participated in the program and/or volunteered time to help with the conference.

GU has hosted Girls Who Code every summer since it came to DC (3 years in a row). Some of our female undergraduates participated in teaching for that program.

GU hosts an annual Hackathon that has always included a Diversity Hack as one of the tracks. Two female undergraduates spearheaded the GU Hackathon (HoyaHacks) because they wanted GU to be on the map for CS. They also wanted to actively meet other female CS majors. HoyaHacks is now in its fourth year. CodeForGood also came to GU this year to host their RubyForGood Hackathon – developing software for social good causes.

Help students who want to connect computer science to others
Our GU Computer Science and Engineering Club worked with middle school and high school kids to teach them Scratch, HTML, and Javascript. Now that outreach has transformed into its own group – DCodes. DCodes teaches coding at different middle and high schools in the city. We also had a student who worked with a DC Charter High School to teach CS concepts in an Earth Science class since there is limited CS at that school. Finally, we have students who have won small grants to teach CS to different underprivileged groups around DC. Faculty were involved in helping them submit grants and participated in these events.

Share successes
When our women succeed, we tell people about it.

  • In 2017 the top three academic students were all women.
  • In 2017 all the CS honors students were women.
  • In 2017 and 2018 the CS award given to one senior each year was won by women. [In the last 15 years, only 1 other woman has won that award.]

Purposely be diverse
Our faculty think a lot about diversity when selecting students for different events. For example, when we build our ACM Programming Competition teams each year, we think about engaging both men and women. Last year at the John’s Hopkins regional site, our teams were two of a very small number of teams that had women on them.

Women in technology related fields still have a long way to go – diversity needs to improve in the workplace, in CS graduate programs, and among CS faculty. But this is an important first step. Good job GU computer science faculty, staff, and students – leading on this important issue shows that with a little effort, gender balance in CS can be achieved.

Lisa Singh is a professor at Georgetown University and co-founder of <guWeCode>

One College Student’s Path to Computer Science

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I started college. I came in as a chemistry major, but I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to go down that path. My roommate has a note on her computer of all my various plans at different times– “government major, econ minor,” “art history major, psychology minor,” “double major chemistry and English.” During winter break my freshman year, I started an HTML and CSS tutorial on Code Academy because I was bored and a friend recommended it. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think much of it– it was just something I was doing to fill my time during break. Early the next semester, an e-mail blast went out about a new group on campus for women interested in learning how to code. It was such a funny coincidence given my recent interest, so I decided to go to the first GU Women Coders meeting.

Through the Python lecture series that they put on, I learned my first bit of programming. I soon realized that I loved solving the puzzles and working through solutions, especially when I was able to work them out with other people. I signed up for my first computer science course the fall of my sophomore year, and I declared my major that spring. Now, after graduating in May, I work for an organization called TEALS that helps high schools build and grow their computer science programs, with the hope that many more people (especially young women) will be exposed to the varied paths that computer science has to offer sooner than I was. If it hadn’t been for the supportive environments of both GU Women Coders and the CS department at Georgetown, who knows how much longer that note on my roommate’s phone would be.

Maya McCoy is a 2017 graduate of Georgetown University.

Girls & Women – It’s Time to Code

A large fraction of the world consumes technology in one form or another. Unfortunately, the number of people that develop and work to advance technology pales in comparison. The estimated number of professional developers around the world is only 11 million people. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020, employment in all computer related occupations is expected to increase by over 20%. But the workforce will not keep pace.

This is a critical time. We need children and adults to transition from being technology consumers to becoming technology producers and innovators. Just as we worried about reading literacy in the 80s, we need to worry about computer literacy now. Otherwise, we will create a large divide between those who understand how technology works and those who can merely use it. Coding is the key to obtaining computer literacy. Coding teaches you how to solve problems. Coding teaches you how to organize your thoughts in new ways. Coding stretches your mind.

Even though there are so many benefits to coding, a small number of girls and women are involved in coding. Only 18% of undergraduate degrees in computer science are awarded to women (see Computer science is the only field in science, engineering and math in which the number of women receiving a college degree has deceased since 2002. While there has been a recent increase in college degrees in computer science the last few years, the number of men getting a college degree in computer science is rising faster. If you look at the top employers in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple, over 70% of the workforce is male. In some cases, the female technical workforce is only 10% (Fortune Magazine, 2015).

This was not always the case. There was a time when the number of women in technology was 20 to 30 percent higher than today. But over the last few decades, our culture has encouraged young women to play with dolls instead of robots. Personal computer applications were designed for boys not girls.  And the stereo-typical computer scientists was an awkward geek who smelled funny, wore large rim glasses, had acne, and cared about playing and programming video games that blew things up.

Well, I am a bit of a geek, I don’t think I smell funny, and I am a pacifist that works on data privacy and data mining for the social good. I am in computer science to find ways to create technology to help solve some of our largest societal problems, including forced migration. Computer science is bigger and broader than its stereotype. Ladies, this is a call to all of you.

It is time to change the image of a computer scientist.

It is time for girls and women to be a significant part of this technology revolution. 

Lisa Singh is a professor at Georgetown University and co-founder of <guWeCode>

Source: Girls & Women – It’s Time to Code

An Interview with Betsy Sigman

Dr. Elizabeth Sigman is an OPIM (Operations and Information Management) professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She serves as the departmental coordinator and advisor for the OPIM major. Sigman specializes in technology, social media, electronic commerce and information systems.

What is the OPIM field?
The OPIM field includes operations and information management and decision sciences. These are all really hot areas for hiring right now. We have students doing all kinds of jobs coming out of the OPIM major. Some go to work for high-tech companies, some become entrepreneurs, some go to investment banks and do operations there, or do finance with a background in data. We have people that go into data jobs as well as people that go into social media jobs. Right now we have students at Facebook, Google, and other very exciting companies!

What got you interested in the OPIM field?
I’ve always been a data person. My dad used to draw normal curves on napkins when I was a little kid; it was only natural that I would always been interested in data! I’ve always been fascinated by it and I’ve always been fascinated by the way it can be used for better decision-making. I just think the power of data is so important today for making decisions to have the impact that you want. I think it is hugely important that people understand data and understand how to use it to help the business world, as well as the world at large.

What do you think about women in OPIM?
My classes are pretty much evenly split actually! There are a lot of women that come to Georgetown and have an interest in data. I haven’t seen a huge difference in the number of men and women in my classes.

What do you think about women in STEM?
I think the opportunities are so vast out there. I think it is a wonderful field for women to be in right now. There are a lot of jobs out there in this area—huge, well-paying jobs, important jobs, jobs that will help change the world. I think it is a really great time to be a woman in STEM.

What do you attribute to the lack of women in the STEM field?
I think sometimes women aren’t encouraged as much as men to go into the STEM fields, but I think now, more and more women that are global leaders have become interested in STEM. So that is definitely changing! There are a lot more role models for young women out there and I think you will see more and more women seeking out this field.

Compared to when you were growing up, what is different today regarding women in STEM?
I think there is more interest now with women in STEM than when I was growing up. I’ll always be thankful that I took two computer science classes when I was in college. I think that was life-changing in some ways—to know how to code. I did an assembly language, which not many people learn nowadays. But it was really tough and we had to learn about all the registers—but it was formative and it was really helpful to do that. I was a political science major undergrad, but I always wanted to do statistical and quantitative political science. I think that’s what ties my whole career together, which is working with data.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? What connotation does it have in today’s society?
I want women to have the opportunities that they want. I’m a huge family person. I have four kids. I think there are a lot of options open to women: I have worked full-time, part-time, stayed at home. I think women should balance their lives as they see fit. Every woman is going to make different choices and I think it is nice to have those options. Women can help each other with their choices.

Sonya Patel is a junior in the McDonough School of Business.

For Wearable Tech, One Size Does Not Fit All

From the arrival of smart watches and fitness trackers, to 3D-printed rings that double as bus passes, consumers have been an integral part in the development process. However, most companies aren’t quite resonating with one key consumer group: women.Silicon Valley is the hub of innovative technology, and in recent years, companies have been competing to construct the latest in wearable tech. Unfortunately, the development teams behind these amazing products are primarily male. These skewed dynamics result in devices with solely male consumption in mind – like smart watches with bands that do not fit around small wrists.

Isabelle Olsson, the head designer behind Google Glass, states that the male dominated tech development environment is why she encourages women to enter the tech industry, “not just as designers, but in all capacities.”

Wearable technology is unique in that by being displayed on the body, it offers a more intimate experience than products – such as computers and phones – that are considered unisex. Wearables should be optimized to physically fit every individual of each gender, race and body type. A major part in making this new technology as adaptable as possible is having input from a broad range of people, specifically women.

As women make up nearly 50% of our consumer base, increasing the amount of women working in technology will be beneficial to both consumers and producers.

I encourage everyone to walk into the door of tech, and this is not to say that you need to be a computer science major or engineer to design the next big thing. Who knows? You may even be the next Isabelle Olsson – jewelry designer to lead designer of Google Glass.

Lulu Spalding is a junior in the McDonough School of Business.

Source: For Wearable Tech, One Size Does Not Fit All



Coding Isn’t Just for Computer Science Majors

When I first started my career in journalism four years ago, I knew that I’d need to be a talented writer, communicator, researched and reporter. What I hadn’t anticipated was the value of coding skills.According to Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, there are plenty of job opportunities in news organizations across the country. This might seem contrary to the common narrative of the dying media industry, but in fact it’s the type of jobs available that are changing.

The majority of open media positions are reserved for those who can code for digital media and news applications. This shift isn’t unique to the journalism industry either.

In an op-ed penned in The Washington Post, two leading education researchers argue that coding abilities spark innovation across all industries, from medical assistants to auto mechanics, and students with this knowledge will be more successful in securing career opportunities in their chosen field. In fact, 55 percent of hiring managers reported prioritizing hard skills, according to Entrepreneur magazine.

Understanding the demands of modern employers, GU Women Who Code was formed as an organization for female students of all academic interests to develop coding skills in a welcoming environment. The need is especially great for women to take part in the movement, as USA Today reports that the tech workforce is overwhelmingly composed of men of white and Asian descent.

The DC area boasts several other organizations committed to advancing professional development, training and networking opportunities for women interested in technology including Hear Me Code, Women Who Code DC, PyLadies and Girl Develop It.

So if you’re looking for that professional edge, remember that coding skills will make you stand out regardless of industry and there any many great and affordable ways to get started right in your backyard.

Nayana Davis is a graduate student in journalism at Georgetown University.