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 code.org 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
  • CNDLS
  • 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>