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What Can Be Done About Gender Diversity in Computing?: A Lot!

  1. Article
Moshe Vardi, Communications of the ACM's Editor-in-Chief
Moshe Y. Vardi, Editor-in-Chief, Communications of the ACM

The 2015 Grace Hopper celebration of women in computing (GHC, for short) will take place October 14–16 in Houston, TX. GHC is an annual conference designed to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront. It is the world’s largest gathering of women in computing. GHC is organized by the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology in partnership with ACM. This year’s event is expected to bring together more than 12,000—mostly female—computer scientists!

But this impressive number should not be taken to mean all is well on the gender-diversity front. Far from it! According to the most recent Taulbee Survey (covering academic year 2013–2014), conducted by the Computing Research Association in North America, only 14.7% of CS bachelor’s degrees went to women. The U.S. Department of Education’s data shows the female participation level in computing peaked at about 35% in 1984, more than twice as high as it is today.

The low participation of women in computer science has been, indeed, a matter of concern for many years. The Anita Borg Institute was founded in 1997 "to recruit, retain, and advance women in technology." (GHC is the Institute’s most prominent program.) The National Center for Women & Information Technology, founded in 2004, is another organization that works to increase the meaningful participation of girls and women in computing. And yet, we seem to be regressing rather than progressing on this issue.

The gender-diversity issue received a fair amount of attention over the past year, when several major technology companies released workforce-diversity data, showing, no surprise, a significant underrepresentation of women in technical jobs. Tech companies point, of course, to the narrow pipeline of women with computing degrees to explain this underrepresentation, but the culture inside some of these companies also seems to be a major factor. In fact, the male-dominated tech culture gave rise to the phrase "brogramming," a slang term used to refer to computer code produced by "bros" (slang for male friends). A magazine article on the subject, titled: "Brogramming—The Disturbing Rise of Frat Culture in Silicon Valley," was circulated widely a few years ago.

But amid the deluge of bad news, one can find some points of light. Carnegie Mellon University decided in the late 1990s to take decisive action on gender diversity and was able to increase the percentage of women entering its computer science program to 40%. A similar outcome was recently reported by Harvey Mudd College. The Anita Borg Institute, together with Harvey Mudd College, launched the BRAID Initiative (http://anitaborg.org/braid-building-recruiting-and-inclusion-for-diversity/) in 2014 to increase the percentage of women and students of color majoring in computer science in the U.S.

At my own institution, Rice University, we were able to raise the percentage of declared female majors (Rice students declare their major toward the end of the second year of study) from 14% in 2007 to 30% in 2014. What distinguishes Rice from Carnegie Mellon and Harvey Mudd is that computer science at Rice has no control whatsoever of the undergraduate-admission pipeline. To raise the level of participation of women in computer science at Rice required a departmental decision that we cannot simply blame the situation on the narrow pipeline of female high school graduates with interest in CS. Several measures were adopted:

  • Changing CS1 from a course about programming techniques to a course about computational thinking. The latter course is more popular with both male and female students, and also puts students with widely varied high school computing experiences on a more level playing field.
  • Creating a club for female computer science students. There are a fair number of female students who desire the camaraderie of an all-women computing group on campus, given that the CS student body is still very much male dominated.
  • Having faculty members, male and female, develop mentoring relationships with female students to motivate and encourage them, including offering opportunities for interaction beyond the classroom, for example, undergraduate research opportunities.
  • Continually dispel myths about the preparedness and ability of women for technical jobs.
  • Last, but not least, sending female students to GHC. Especially given Rice’s small size, this allows students to see there are many successful women in the field.

The bottom line is that while the gender-diversity problem is a very challenging one, it is not hopeless. Indeed, the pipeline is narrow, but it can be expanded, one student at a time, one program at a time, one company at a time. Institutional and personal commitments can make a significant difference!

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