Computing Profession News

Broadening the Path for Women in STEM

Organizations work to address 'a notable absence of women in the field.'
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Broadening the Path for Women in STEM, illustration

In 2018, girls and women are getting the message they belong in computer science as much as boys and men, thanks to a greater push for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curricula in schools and a vast number of programs available to them outside of school.

Yet the numbers remain discouraging. Although computer science jobs are projected to grow 15% to 20% through 2020, the majority of these positions will be pursued and filled by men, according to Women in Computer Science (WiCS).

In 2016, 26% of professional computing jobs in the U.S. workforce were held by women; 20% of the Fortune 100 chief information officer (CIO) positions were held by women, and 23% of Advanced Placement (AP) computer science test takers were female, based on data from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT).

“As STEM-related industries on a whole add over 1.7 million jobs in the coming years, there continues to be a notable absence of women in the field,” according to the WiCS website.

All that has not discouraged Tahsina Saosun, 20, a computer science major at Barnard College and events coordinator for the Barnard/Columbia University chapter of WiCS (CUWiCS).

Saosun became interested in studying computer science after participating in the program Girls Who Code the summer before her senior year of high school. After the eight-week session in which she was introduced to various programming languages, and learned how to declare variables and write code in loops, she was hooked.

Saosun’s experience “has been kind of mixed.” She says she found support in introductory computer science courses, but not as much in upper-level classes. Most of her professors have been male.

Figure. Source: National Science Foundation, American Bar Association, American Association of Medical Colleges.

“Overall, I haven’t felt uncomfortable,” she says, “but I would give credit to my involvement in CUWiCS.” It also helps to be studying at Barnard, a women’s college, she adds. “There’s lots of support and resume advice and career advice. That helps a lot.”

That is something Wendy DuBow is working to replicate for others. DuBow, senior research scientist and director of evaluation at NCWIT, says the organization focuses on generating awareness of computer science to girls in grades K–12, as well as in secondary education and industry.

While some research indicates girls should be exposed to computer science in middle school in order to best pique their interest, other research says “the best thing that could happen is that rigorous computer science be offered in high school so all students are exposed to it … the way they’re exposed to English, math, and science,” says DuBow. “Exposure is a huge influencer and predictor of who will go on to major or minor in [computer science] in college. So, we work on all fronts.”

DuBow believes computer science should be a graduation requirement, but points out there are still high schools that do not offer a single course in the discipline. Even when it is offered, she says, “only certain students will take it, so it doesn’t do anything to broaden participation in computing.” Students will get steered away from computer science unless they show a predilection or fit a stereotype, she says.

“So if you haven’t had exposure [to computer science] and people don’t see you as someone who does computing from an early age, you don’t see yourself that way, either.”

NCWIT offers a program to educate high school guidance counselors about computer science, and hopes to it expand to community colleges.

A female student might take a computer science class in college, but “sometimes there’s still a ‘weeding-out mentality’ going on in introduction to computer science classes,” DuBow says. “That’s not a welcoming environment, especially if you perceive people around you have had more exposure, and if it’s not an inclusive classroom, it’s going to be a turnoff.”

DuBow says it is important not to think of a computer science major as the indicator of success, since there are interdisciplinary majors from which students emerge with a deep understanding of computer science, such as bio-informatics, biomedical engineering, computational media, game design, and multimedia computing.

The overarching issue remains young women’s lack of exposure to computer science, DuBow says.

“As a society, we still have these stereotypes about who ought to be in what kind of field, so there’s still really strong biases against women going into computer science, and that gets inculcated in kids at an early age and instigated by parents, and also counselors.” She adds that there are also “lots of advisors that will steer girls and people of color one way and white boys another way.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has weighed in on the issue. During a February speech for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Guterres said, “Although both girls and boys have the potential to pursue their ambitions in science and mathematics, in school and at work, systematic discrimination means that women occupy less than 30% of research and development jobs worldwide.”

Guterres said it is important to the world that girls and women be encouraged to achieve their full potential as scientific researchers and innovators. He called for “concerted, concrete efforts” to overcome stereotypes and biases.

Eve Riskin has been an electrical engineer long enough to remember when biases against women in STEM were more obvious. Now associate dean for Diversity and Access in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington (UW), Riskin earned her bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a school she says her mother picked for her. Her influences were strong; both of Riskin’s parents were programmers, and her siblings also worked in computer science.

Riskin decided she wanted to an electrical engineering professor during graduate school at Stanford University, but when she finished graduate school, “there will still very few women faculty, and I was number four in the electrical engineering department [at UW], which was a huge number in 1990.”

In 2001, the U.S. National Science Foundation launched the ADVANCE program to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic STEM careers. UW received an award to aid those efforts, says Riskin, who is also faculty director of UW ADVANCE.

The program provides professional development for women and junior faculty. This is important, Riskin says, “because if you’re a professor, you live in the department and if your chair is thoughtful and doesn’t have biases, your life will be better—as opposed to one who gives smaller salaries and lousy teaching assignments.”

Riskin says when she was studying, it was not uncommon to hear comments like “Why should I have you in my class when you’re just going to get married and have babies?” There are still stragglers from the old days on faculties, she adds.

Yet progress is being made. In 2016, 27% of the graduates in UW’s College of Engineering were women; today, Riskin says, there are eight or nine female faculty in her department.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for “concerted, concrete efforts” to overcome stereotypes and biases that dissuade women pursuing careers in STEM.

Riskin says there is more to be done to help women advance in computer science, because institutional cultures are ingrained and hard to change, especially when it comes to hiring practices.

“The way people are screened and hired is a problem,” Riskin says. When people’s credentials are questioned, they begin to feel they do not belong, and that perpetuates. “Venture capital firms generally don’t fund women,” Riskin says. “We all have biases and affinity toward people like ourselves.”

People need to be aware of those biases and not have knee-jerk reactions, she says. “We have to be more thoughtful in how we interview candidates.”

Of course there are exceptions, and women who have risen to management roles in STEM fields, like Angie Duong, who became the first female engineer at Irvine, CA-based transmission control protocol solutions provider Badu Networks. Today, Duong is software development manager at Badu, where she leads a team of 12 male engineers.

Despite her achievements, Duong still sees biases in the workplace to be overcome. “When you work with all men, you have to know what you’re doing, you have to establish your reputation, you need to step up and make the decisions,” she says. “Here [at Badu Networks] no one looks down at women, but just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean they don’t think it.”

In the meantime, efforts are on-going to help young women become interested in computer science as a career, and to make computer science welcoming to women rather than exclusionary.

In 2017, the Girl Scouts announced its first-ever cybersecurity badge for girls in grades K-12.

This year, 16 states and one U.S. territory partnered with the SANS Institute, a computer security training and certification organization, on the first “Girls Go Cyberstart,” a national competition to attract young women to cybersecurity.

“There are big barriers to women getting into this field, and we want to give them an on-ramp that is their own,” says Alan Paller, director of research at Bethesda, MD-based SANS Institute.

Paller was pleased that 6,647 girls from 1,000 U.S. schools participated in the competition. Participants performed tasks including cracking codes, plugging security gaps, and creating software tools.

Creating greater gender parity in STEM-oriented professions will take more than improving science education for girls and promoting overall gender equality, according to the 2018 report “The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education.” The study by the journal Psychological Science looked at almost 500,000 adolescents from 67 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the world’s largest educational survey. It found that girls were at least as strong in science and math as boys in 60% of the PISA countries, and that they were capable of college-level STEM studies.

Yet the gender gap in STEM fields persists.

“The generally overlooked issue of intraindividual differences in academic competencies and the accompanying influence on one’s expectancies of the value of pursuing one type of career versus another need to be incorporated into approaches for encouraging more women to enter the STEM pipeline,” the study notes. “In particular, high-achieving girls whose personal academic strength is science or mathematics might be especially responsive to STEM-related interventions.”

Whether a girl has the desire to be involved in computer science, encouragement and exposure to the field remain focal points. In a time when the #MeToo movement has gained momentum, the push to empower young women to feel welcome in computer science continues as well.

These efforts have gone global. In January, for example, a female coputer engineer and some colleagues created Jiggen Tech Hub, West Africa’s first tech hub for women.

“It’s not about individual women changing their perspectives or doing something different,” says Dubow. “It’s about departments and school systems and industry and hiring practices that have to change to make a difference on this issue.”

A study of almost 500,000 adolescents in 67 countries found girls were at least as strong in science and math as boys in 60% of PISA countries, and were capable of college-level STEM studies.

ACM-W, ACM’s Council on Women in Computing, which advocates internationally for the engagement of women in all aspects of the computing field, sponsors ACM Celebrations of Women in Computing, providing monetary and other support in order to connect women working/studying in technical fields and break down feelings of isolation.

The intention of ACM-W in supporting these celebrations, says the organization’s chair, Jodi Tims, is to reach the broadest possible populations of women through an international network of self-sustaining small conferences, dovetailing when possible with ACM-W chapters.

Tims says 87 such Celebrations have been held since 2013, with a total 10,500 attendees through 2017. She says attendance has grown from about 1,500 in 2013-2014 to 5,800 for the first half of this year, and the number of countries in which Celebrations take place has grown from five at the outset to 16 this year.

Tims suggested a variety of things individuals can do to make certain their environments are inclusive, such as:

  • Ensure everyone in a meeting, regardless of gender, have thechance to contribute to a discussion.
  • Encourage young women to push back against negative peer pressure from both women and men to dissuade them from staying in computing.
  • Mentor a female student interested in computing.
  • Make certain hiring, tenure, and promotion committees, as well as teaching faculty and managers, understand how unconscious bias can affect their decisions, and help them to develop mechanisms that will disrupt those biases.

Tims points out that ACM “has the potential to set the standard for what it means to be an organization committed to solving issues of gender diversity in computing.”

*  Further Reading

Stoet, G., and Geary, D.C.
The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education, Psychological Science, 2018.

Stout, J.G., and Blaney, J.M.
“But it doesn’t come naturally”: How effort expenditure shapes the benefit of growth mindset on women’s sense of intellectual belonging in computing. Computer Science Education (pp. 1–14),

Blaney, J.M., and Stout, J.G.
Examining the relationship between introductory computing course experiences, self-efficacy, and belonging among first-generation college women. In Proceedings of the 2017 ACM SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (pp. 69–74). New York, NY: ACM.

Sax, L.J., Zimmerman, H.B., Blaney, J.M., Toven-Lindsey, B., and Lehman, K.J.
Diversifying computer science departments: How department chairs become change agents for women and underrepresented minority students. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 23(2), 101–119.

DuBow, W., Farmer, R. Wu, Z., and Fredrickson, M.
Bringing Young Women into Computing through the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Program, Communications of the ACM, December 2013.

Tims, J.L.
Achieving Gender Equity: ACM-W Can’t Do It Alone, Communications of the ACM, February 2018.

Barr, V.
Gender Diversity in Computing: Are We Making Any Progress? Communications of the ACM, April 2017.

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