This year, a mere 16 percent of undergraduate computer science majors at the University of Maryland are female. Over the course of the next three years, the computer science department hopes to change that.
The rationale behind the movement is that including underrepresented populations in computer science creates a more diverse, complete workforce, said Dr. Jandelyn Plane, the director of the Maryland Center for Women in Computing at the University of Maryland.
“For the individual, the highest paying jobs…are mostly in the tech industry. For corporate benefit, diversity produces a better product. For the country, with the number of people…getting bachelors’ degrees [in computer science], we can’t produce enough people to fill the jobs that are going to be open,” Plane said.
The University of Maryland will receive $30,000 per year for the next three years to fund efforts to diversify the computer science department by recruiting women and students of color.
Historically, women have been underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (STEM). A 2008 study by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology found that men in technology are 2.7 times more likely to hold high-level positions than women. In 2009, 24 percent of scientists and engineers were women, according to a White House press release. In 2010, women earned a mere 18.2 percent of all computer science degrees, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project.
“Ever since I was a student, we’ve had programs to increase the diversity in com-sci, but it hasn’t worked,” Plane said. “It’s one of the few majors where the number of women and minorities continues to go down.”
In an effort stifle the downward trend, Maryland is one of 15 universities participating in the Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) initiative led by the Anita Borg Institute and Harvey Mudd College.
Harvey Mudd College, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Washington have already seen success at increasing female participation in their computer science departments. At Harvey Mudd College, 40 percent of computer science majors are women. At Carnegie Mellon University, 40 percent of incoming freshmen majoring in computer science are women. At the University of Washington, women earned 30 percent of computer science degrees last year.
UMD officials plan to use BRAID funding to implement some of those schools’ successful strategies at Maryland, while also experimenting with some new methods of their own.
“One neat thing with the program is that we’re all doing different things, but then we’re all putting our research together to see which things work and which things don’t work,” said Plane.
Both the University of Washington (UW) and Harvey Mudd College (HMC) have made significant changes to their introductory computer science courses in order to engage more directly with incoming women.
HMC divided the introductory course “CS 5” into three different sections based on prior knowledge so the class would be less intimidating for students coming in with less experience than their peers, said Maria Klawe, the college’s president.
The college also tried to frame the course as “creative problem-solving using computational approaches,” instead of “introduction to programming,” in order to appeal to students whose interests might be different from the traditional computer science track.
Additionally, professors have opted to teach a more forgiving, but equally practical programming language, while also providing students with a wider choice in assignments and making all assignments fun, interactive, and team-oriented.
Despite all of these changes, the fundamental takeaways of the course have remained the same. “There was no reduction in rigor, degree of challenge or amount of programming,” Klawe said.
Though HMC and Maryland have distinctly different student bodies, Klawe said Maryland could implement some similar curriculum changes. Since not all students at Maryland are required to take a computer science course as they are at HMC, the university will need to work on recruiting students interested in other majors with lots of women, like biology, chemistry, psychology and linguistics.
“Then, by encouraging these students to do double or joint majors, the number of women should increase significantly,” Klawe said.
At UW, Ed Lazowska is now the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering and once served as the computer science department chair. Lazowska agrees that connecting with women through introductory courses is essential to raising their computer science enrollment.
“We find that many women discover computer science late,” he said. “If they don’t take our introductory course sequence until they’re juniors, it’s too late for them to switch into CS as a major – they’re almost done.”
Now, schools like UW and UMD are implementing outreach programs in local elementary, middle and high schools to reach women interested in computer science early on.
“A great deal of our effort goes into encouraging middle school and high school teachers and students, especially women, to pursue com-sci,” Lazowska said. “If we can change the perception of computer science in our region, we can shift the composition of our student body.”
Plane agreed that although universities won’t see the effects of this outreach for six to eight years, it’s critical to start efforts early. “Through elementary school, girls tend to show more interests [in computer science] than boys, but by high school, show less interest,” she said.
Programs in middle schools will address stereotypes about computer science and help girls get the practical computing skills they need to increase their confidence and pursue degrees in STEM.
UW has also been trying to increase outreach efforts to freshman women once they have enrolled at the university. The most successful way so far has been by targeting the UW honors program.
“I know that Maryland has an honors college that’s held in very high regard,” Lazowska said. “These are students who will thrive in CS if you can capture their interest.”
Plane currently has some curriculum changes for UMD in the works. Though she can’t divulge the specifics until they go through approvals, the idea is to allow students interested in other fields the option to try computing.
“Biologists and chemists need a computing background. We’re trying to diversify introductory classes so that they appeal more to people of other disciplines,” Plane said.
Maryland’s primary goal is not entirely to recruit women as computer science majors, but to at least show them the value of computing skills. “It’s the idea of having computer science that supports your other interests,” Plane explained.
Beyond just the courses, Maryland is looking to hire more female professors in the department to serve as role models.
“We’ve been trying to recruit female faculty for years,” Plane said. “I see the problem as there’s too many leaks in the pipeline. By the time they get to the PHD level, especially the ones who want to do the level of research we do here, the pool is so small.”
UMD’s department hired one new female professor this year, but also lost several others to retirement and other universities.
Though UW had a banner year in 2014, hiring three new female faculty members for the computer science department, Lazowska said they have experienced similar difficulties recruiting female faculty.
“It’s hard. There’s a lot of competition for top women, and there are always a few faculty members who can invent reasons not to hire them. A key thing to remember is that ‘excellence’ has many dimensions,” he said.
Lazowska’s most insistent advice to Maryland, independent of any particular initiative, is to make it abundantly clear that the university actually cares.
“I do think…the single most important factor is the departmental culture and environment. If you send the message – by word and deed – that you’re a great place for women, the word will get out,” he said.
Maryland began spreading this message even before the BRAID initiative by starting the Maryland Center for Women in Computing, which aims to bring more women into computer science at the university.
“It [the center] shows a real world application of computing,” Plane said. “Having that real world application tends to appeal both to women and other underrepresented populations.”
Plane is also the faculty advisor for the Association of Women in Computing, a graduate and undergraduate student group at UMD. The club acts as a support system for female computer science majors.
“We want the undergrad women to receive the mentoring that they get from doing things with the grad women and the undergrad women to get into the mindset of giving back to the community by supporting other women,” Plane said.
Though the visions of dedicated faculty and the support and funding from many institutions have allowed for some important steps toward diversifying computer science programs, significantly increasing the number of women in the field will take time.
“These things pay off slowly, and they pay off at different time scales. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul,” Lazowska said. “There’s no ‘silver bullet,’ no magic thing that will, in and of itself, throw things into balance.”