Why Women In Computer Science Matter


Last week, Harvard celebrated a record number of female students declaring a computer science major. But the school — and the field — may still have a ways to go.

The Crimson reported last Wednesday that of 51 sophomores who declared computer science this year, 21 were women, up from just three women two years ago. The paper credits Harvard’s introductory computer science course with attracting women and getting them excited about the field. But in an editorial today, the Crimson‘s Irene Chen points out that sophomore declarations aren’t the whole story. She writes,

The rise of women concentrators in computer science is thrilling because it indicates an expansion of fields where women dare trod now. However, female computer science participation at Harvard still has a long way to go. For example, while the gender ratio in the concentration hovers tantalizingly close to 50 percent among sophomores, the gender disparity in more advanced computer science courses like Computer Science 124: Data Systems and Algorithms remains enormous. Though the increase female computer science concentrators indicates an increase of role models for future classes, what does the dismal lack of such role modes in higher level computer science courses tell contemplative freshmen?

Adds Chen, “While I fully support methods that earn the field a second glance — encouraging students but women in particular to consider computer science when societal notions and the lack of role models seem to suggest otherwise — we should make sure not to lose sight of this more intangible, more important goal of feeling respected as promising academics by their peers.” As a former computer science student myself, I can attest to the importance of intangibles — but also of numbers.

When I started college, I was hoping to double-major in English and computer science. I chose Stanford in part for its strong CS program, and my first semester, I was excited to enroll in the university’s large and popular introductory CS class. My professor in that class was a woman; so was my TA. But I was still one of very few women in the room. In 2010, about 8% of undergraduate computer science degrees went to women — I graduated in 2005, and that number sounds about right. I learned later that some women in predominantly male areas of study feel that they need to tamp down their femininity –- I did the opposite. I wore a lot of lipstick and miniskirts and, somewhat incongruously, I insisted on eating Pop Tarts in class. At the time I thought I was being rebellious, like if I was going to stick out I might as well stick out all the way. Now my rebellion looks pretty silly, but it’s sad that I felt I had to rebel at all.

I actually loved programming itself, but I ended up quitting computer science at the end of my freshman year. This was partly a decision about time. I wanted to be able to write fiction, and to work for my school’s newspaper and other publications, and to have fun, and I knew I couldn’t do all that and get a computer science degree — not when my introductory courses were already requiring all-nighters and older students were dropping pounds because their advanced classes left no room for eating. The computer science major was notoriously all-consuming, and I wanted to be able to do other things.

But I might have made a different decision had I not felt so strange in my CS classes. To be clear, I never suffered discrimination in these classes, either from faculty or from fellow students. No one ever implied that I couldn’t do the work, or that I was less capable because of my gender, and aside from perhaps a few conversations about the gender skew of our class, I don’t remember the issue of my femaleness ever explicitly coming up. But I felt it keenly, and I remember that it was a relief to find myself in English classes where I no longer stood out as different.

One thing I learned from all this is that numbers are an intangible. I can’t really tell you why it bothered me that my CS classes were only about 10% women, or why it made me feel like I should put on a skirt too short to bike in. But bother me it did, and while I’m glad that I got to write and take English classes and work for papers and ultimately do a Classics minor (possibly the opposite of computer science), I sometimes wonder how much gender really factored into my decision. Especially since I later learned that after “there are no girls in computer science,” the most common comment about gender in the major was, “all the girls leave after their first year.”

I agree with Chen that retaining women at all levels of engineering is important, and that women need to be respected as well as simply represented. At the same time, I think that sometimes representation can breed respect. And it can give rise to something else — the comfort that comes from feeling like you belong. We can’t really be sure how much this comfort matters until we provide it — and while Harvard may be getting closer, computer science as a whole isn’t there yet.

Not So Fast, CS [Harvard Crimson]
Record Number Of Women Declare CS [Harvard Crimson]

Image via Ilja Mašík/Shutterstock.com

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