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Using Targeted Conferences to Recruit Women Into Computer Science

To inspire women to major in CS, take them to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
  1. Introduction
  2. Key Insights
  3. Grace Hopper Celebration
  4. School Context and Trip Goals
  5. Student Attitudes
  6. Results by introductory CS course.
  7. Enrollment Patterns
  8. Beyond HMC
  9. Conclusion
  10. Acknowledgments
  11. References
  12. Authors
  13. Figures
  14. Tables
Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing poster
GHC of Women in Computing aims to increase women's participation in CS worldwide.

The shortage of women in computer science (CS) is well documented. Since 2001, the Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey reports the percentage of women obtaining a bachelor’s degree in CS dropped from 18.8% in 2001 to 13.8% in 2010.7 A 2011 study by Baumann et al.4 found that although some schools saw increases in the percentage of women receiving Ph.D.’s and earning faculty positions, the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees continued to drop. Increasing the number of qualified women (along with other underrepresented populations) choosing to study CS is critical in combating the shortage of CS graduates in the U.S.16,22,23

Harvey Mudd College (HMC) is recognized for dramatically increasing the percentage (and number) of women majoring in CS, from 12% historically to approximately 40%, where it has held steady since 2008.13,18 This percentage is well above the U.S. average, even among elite private schools, which, at approximately 16%, tend to have a slightly higher average than elite public schools.4

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Key Insights

  • Attending GHC is a positive experience for female college students with little or no CS background.
  • Attending GHC can inspire first-year female college students to take computer science classes and choose CS as their major.
  • GHC’s influence is strongest on first-year students considering CS as a possible major, though many not considering a CS major report attending GHC increased their desire to major in CS.

HMC made three changes that contributed to this gender rebalance: a revised introductory CS course, CS research opportunities for women students after their first year, and trips for first-year students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC;; all three are covered to some degree in Alvarado and Dodds.3 Here, we present new data and analysis that help illustrate the specific effect of attending GHC on first-year undergraduate female students’ interest in CS and interest in staying in the field.

These changes are among a growing number of efforts to increase women’s participation in CS. Existing practices with proven success include new introductory college CS courses (such as explored in Dodds et al.,8 Rich et al.,20 and Summet et al.21), improved high school and middle school CS education and standards,9,12 and many summer camps and after-school programs at all education levels (such as those described by Ericson and McKlin10 and the Intel Computer Clubhouse14). The National Center for Women & Information Technology ( provides information on dozens of practices, large and small, that have been shown to support recruitment and/or retention of women in CS. However, many of them are either expensive, particularly in terms of time investment, or have not resulted in the kind of dramatic change in students’ major choices seen at HMC.

The novel contribution of the work we present here is to show how short-term intervention—attending GHC—at a critical juncture in a student’s decision process (three to 18 months before declaring a major) can dramatically effect a student’s major, and hence likely career choice. This approach leverages existing resources and is extremely low cost from a time-investment perspective. Moreover, it can be adopted, albeit perhaps on a smaller scale, in many contexts beyond HMC, with similar benefits. Finally, the success we report should inspire companies and universities alike to devote more resources to sending first-year students to GHC and similar programs, making the approach financially feasible for a much larger population.

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Grace Hopper Celebration

GHC is an annual conference celebrating the accomplishments of women in CS, combining technical talks, targeted workshops, panels focused on issues facing women in the field, and networking events. Since its inception in 1994, it has had a tremendous positive effect on thousands of women, including hundreds of students. Results from the GHC Evaluation and Impact Survey11 indicate students feel less isolated, more committed to CS, and more inspired as a result of attending. Analysis of data from the survey also highlights the particular importance of GHC in helping retain students through critical junctions in their educational and working careers. In 2010, 73% of the students who responded to the survey “agreed or strongly agreed that attending GHC 2010 has increased their commitment to complete their current degree program,” while 64% “agreed or strongly agreed that attending GHC 2010 has increased their intention to pursue a graduate degree in a technology field.”11 The conference is so successful there is now also an Indian version (, as well as several small “regional” celebrations of women in CS throughout the U.S.

Most reported GHC success has involved retaining women who have already entered the field of CS. While this goal is important, what is less well understood is the effect GHC has on students who have not yet selected a major, including many first-year college students. In 2010, 46% of the students who responded to the GHC survey were undergraduates. While the survey did not report how many of them had already chosen a major, 81% of all students surveyed listed CS or a closely related field like human-computer interaction and information science as their chosen field of study. The aggregation of survey responses does not permit deciphering how the conference affects the undecideds or how it might affect the thousands of undecideds who do not attend GHC because they are not encouraged or lack the means.

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School Context and Trip Goals

HMC is a relatively small (740 students) science-and-engineering-fo-cused liberal arts college in Claremont, CA, where students declare their major in their sophomore year. Since 2006, the CS department has taken groups of first-year women students to GHC (see Table 1). Almost all were undecided about their field of study, and almost half were not even considering majoring in CS before the trip. The department recruits students by email during the summer before their freshman year. As of summer 2013 it has been able to take all students who apply, though in some years it has had to create a temporary wait list until additional funding was secured. Detailed logistics of how the department funds and organizes these trips is beyond our scope here; see Alvarado et al.1 for more logistical detail and Alvarado2 for practical resources developed to help others run similar trips.

Since the early 1990s all students at HMC have been required to take a version of CS1 (Introduction to CS) in their first semester. Yet, until 2006, the CS department struggled to recruit women to the CS major. Despite HMC’s technical focus, 59% of women and 31% of men who entered HMC in 2010 had not taken a single computing or CS class.

A primary objective of the annual GHC trip is to recruit (and retain) first-year women into CS by combating some of the documented factors that keep women from pursuing CS. Previous work has shown a lack of confidence, (mis)perception of a geeky or hostile culture, misunderstanding of the field, and lack of mentors and support networks as barriers to women’s entry into CS.5,6,15,17,19 Students gain confidence at GHC by hearing female role models talk about their own paths to success. They see a CS culture that is very different from the stereotypical nerd culture they might expect. They are exposed to real-world CS applications, interact with CS practitioners, and learn firsthand about dynamic CS-related companies. Finally, the very experience of attending GHC gives them a chance to increase their professional network of friends and colleagues.

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Student Attitudes

Since 2007, we have conducted an annual survey of HMC’s GHC attendees to try to understand the effect the trip has on the students who attend. In our own previous work3 we reported aggregate results from these surveys, showing, overall, students report positive feedback about GHC. Here, we look more closely at the effect it has on students from diverse backgrounds. We find that while the trips have a positive effect on almost all students who attend, those with some interest in a CS major before the trip or experience with CS before college are generally affected more positively by their experience. Nonetheless, we also see the trip has a strong positive influence on a subset of students with no CS experience and no interest in a CS major before the conference.

In 2007 and 2008 we informally surveyed HMC’s GHC attendees regarding their thoughts about GHC following their return from the conference. From 2009 onward, we more formally assessed HMC GHC attendees’ attitudes about CS and the GHC effect with our own pre- and post-surveys. We administered the pre-survey just prior to students’ attendance to gather specific student profile and attitudinal information. The pre-survey prompted students to report their CS experience (measured by which required first-year CS class they had attended) and which major(s) they were currently interested in. The pre-survey also required them to rate on a Likert scale of 1–7 (1=not at all interested, 7=extremely interested) how interested they were in taking another CS course and in majoring in CS. Following attendance at GHC in 2009 and later, we administered the post-survey to gather information about attendees’ sentiments regarding the degree to which GHC participation had affected their views of CS; see Table 2 for Likert-item post-survey questions. The post-survey also asked them to elaborate on their answers to the Likert-scale items and list the most meaningful part(s) of the conference for them. Our GHC trip website includes the complete survey instruments.2

Here, we report results from the 2009 and 2010 surveys, each involving a 100% response rate. Aggregate results from 2007 and 2008 are in Alvarado and Dodds,3 reflecting the aggregate results covered here.

Survey results (see Table 2) indicate GHC is indeed effective in addressing the barriers that keep women from choosing to study CS. The conference gave a majority of participants a better understanding of CS and changed their perception of the CS culture. The majority of participants agreed (responding 5, 6, or 7) that GHC increased their desire to take another CS class and major in CS. The one area where the conference was (slightly) weaker was in network building. While a particular annual trip allowed students to build their network within their home institutions, many responded that they did not plan to keep in touch with anyone else they met at the conference.

The trip has a strong positive influence on a subset of students with no CS experience and no interest in a CS major before the conference.

Results by interest in a CS major. While the aggregate data indicates overall success, we were also interested in how different groups were individually affected by the conference. To answer, we grouped participants according to their responses in the pre-survey. We first categorized participants according to whether or not they listed CS as a possible major in the pre-survey. If a student listed CS (either alone or as one of several possible majors), we say the student was considering a CS major. If a student did not list CS, we say the student was not considering a CS major. We then ran a series of non-parametric Mann-Whitney U tests to identify differences between the groups. The women who were considering a CS major had significantly higher mean rank scores than those not considering a CS major in three categories:

Take another CS class. Increased desire to take another CS class (CS mean rank=35.28, non-CS mean rank = 26.04, z = 2.344, p < 0.05);

Major in CS. Increased desire to major in CS (CS mean rank=35.50, non-CS mean rank = 24.79, z = 2.344, p < 0.05); and

Attend again. If given the opportunity would attend GHC again (CS mean rank = 35.50, non-CS mean rank = 24.79, z = 2.219, p < 0.05).

Figure 1 indicates both groups felt GHC increased their desire to take another CS class. The students considering pursuing a CS major included a greater proportion of those whose course plans were strongly affected by the conference. However, a substantial portion of those not considering a CS major before the conference (18%) were equally inspired by the conference, and a large portion of them (36%) agreed the conference increased their desire to take another CS course.

Figure 2 includes two distributions of responses to the statement “GHC increased my desire to major in CS.” They are similar, but students considering a CS major prior to the conference responded slightly more positively to the statement. Again, the conference positively affected a large number of the women not already considering a CS major. While the largest portion of respondents (36%) from the group not considering a CS major were neutral, more than twice as many respondents from this group agreed (43%) with the statement than disagreed (21%). In addition, 18% of respondents from the non-CS-major group strongly agreed with the statement.

Although the groups’ responses differed significantly regarding whether or not they would attend again, Figure 3 shows differences mainly concerned the level of peak enthusiasm of the responses. The difference in enthusiasm over attending GHC again is likely related to a difference in desire between the groups to continue with CS. Those listing CS as a possible major before the conference became more interested in pursuing it as a result of the conference. They would therefore be expected to be more enthusiastic about future opportunities in CS.

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Results by introductory CS course.

We next categorized participants based on which introductory CS class they were enrolled in at the time of the conference they attended. At HMC in 2009 and 2010 all students were required to take introductory CS in their first semester. The CS department placed them into one of four courses based on their interests and experience: CS5 “Gold” (general introductory CS, for students with no experience); CS5 “Green” (biology-themed introductory CS, all experience levels); CS5 “Black” (general introductory CS, some experience); and CS42 (general advanced introductory CS, lots of experience). CS5 and CS42 were HMC course numbers corresponding roughly to CS1- and CS2-level courses, respectively.1

We performed an ANOVA test that indicated a statistically significant difference among the four groups regarding the degree to which attendance at GHC increased their desire to pursue a CS major (F (2, 31) = 9.910, p < 0.01). A post-hoc least-square difference test indicated a statistically significant difference between the CS5 “Black” (some experience) group and the CS 5 “Gold” (no experience) group (p < 0.05) and between the CS5 “Black” group and the CS5 “Green” (bio-themed) group (p < 0.01). In each case, the CS5 “Black” group’s agreement with the statement “Attending GHC increased my desire to major in CS” was significantly stronger than either of the two other groups. There was also a statistically significant difference between the CS42 (lots of experience) group and the CS5 “Green” group, with the CS42 group rating this item significantly higher (see Figure 4). These results indicate more experience in CS may lead to greater propensity to be influenced by the GHC experience and consequently a desire to major in CS.

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Enrollment Patterns

Survey results from 2009 and 2010 indicate GHC had a positive effect on attendees, especially those with some CS experience or interest. By examining enrollment patterns, we also found attendees were much more likely to take another course and major in CS than female non-attendees.

Consistent with these results, we also found those attending GHC take a second CS course at a significantly higher rate than those who do not attend GHC. From 2006 to 2010, 52% (53 of 102) of first-year female GHC attendees went on to take another CS course at some point in their college careers, compared to only 31% (80 of 261) of female students who did not attend. This difference is statistically significant (Fisher’s test, p < 0.001), at least part of which can be accounted for by self-selection; those more interested in CS more often opted to go on the trip. However, in the context of our survey results, at least some of this difference was likely due to the trip itself.

Next, we found GHC attendees also majored in CS at a much higher rate than female students who did not attend. For this comparison we restricted our focus to only the incoming classes 2006–2009 or juniors and above in fall 2011, as HMC students were not required (or even encouraged) to declare their major until the end of their sophomore year. In this time frame, 37% (24 of 65) of first-year attendees went on to major in CS, while only 10% (20 of 196) of the women who did not attend majored in CS, a difference that is statistically significant (p < 0.0001).

Again, these results were influenced by the fact that students interested in majoring in CS chose to go on the trip at a higher rate than those not interested in majoring in CS. However, by considering students’ expressed major interests when enrolling at HMC it appears GHC indeed influenced the choice of major for those who came to HMC intending to major in CS, as well as for those who did not.

Over the same time frame (incoming classes 2006–2009), incoming students who at enrollment time listed CS as their desired major ended up majoring in CS at a higher rate than those who listed CS as their desired major and did not attend GHC. Of the 31 female students who declared a desire to major in CS when they enrolled, 11 went to GHC in their first year, and 20 did not. Of the 11, 91% (10) went on to declare a CS major vs. only 60% (12 of 20) of those who did not attend, though this difference is not statistically significant, possibly due to small sample sizes (p=0.11).

Incoming students who did list CS as their desired major when they enrolled at HMC and who attended GHC in their first year majored in CS at a significantly higher rate than students who did not list CS as their desired major and did not attend GHC. Of the 55 students who did not declare an interest in majoring in CS and attended GHC as first-year students 2006–2009, 25% (14) went on to be CS majors. Of the 175 first-year female students 2006–2009 who did not declare an interest in a CS major and did not attend GHC, only 10% (17) went on to be CS majors, a difference that is statistically significant (Fisher’s test, p < 0.01). This difference is likely still biased by the fact that those who were more receptive to CS were the ones who attended the conference. But the fact remains that 25% of those not considering a CS major and attended GHC ended up majoring in CS after attending the conference.

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Beyond HMC

As effective as we found GHC to be as a recruiting tool, we usually meet skepticism as to whether these results might be replicated elsewhere. It is not possible for every school to take every interested first-year female student to GHC. In fall 2013, we began experimenting with arranging the trips at the University of California, San Diego, but it will be several years before we have concrete results, and disseminating the results will be integral to making the trips available to many more deserving students. Here, we address some of the biggest concerns about the scalability of this approach.

Finances. The first question many people ask about a GHC trip is: “Who pays for all this?” Since 2006, the HMC trip organizers, including one of the authors, have received a combination of internal and external funding to cover the total trip cost for 20 to 50 students per year. They have worked with HMC’s advancement office to identify potential donors; when approaching them they cite the positive effect GHC has on students and pitch the trip concept as an opportunity to expand the overall CS talent pool. They have also had success with local companies that desire to increase the number of qualified potential employees in the greater Los Angeles area and alumni and philanthropists who support the issue in the interest of social justice. Individual gifts have ranged from $1,000 (approximate cost of one student) to $25,000.

They have been pleased to find fundraising for women in computing and specifically this conference is not as difficult as they thought it would be. Furthermore, as investors value concrete results, the results presented here should make it even easier to motivate university departments and companies alike to fund such efforts.

Still, fundraising can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are opportunities to reduce the cost while maintaining the benefits. First, conference organizers have historically charged students nothing to attend, but many would be willing and able to pay a small fee. When they have had to create a temporary wait list for a trip, as in 2009 and 2010, many wait-listed students offered to pay their own way if funding was inadequate. Even a small amount of money from each one could make the available funding go further.

Those attending GHC take a second CS course at a significantly higher rate than those who do not attend GHC.

Second, beyond the main GHC conference, several regional Celebrations of Women in Computing have emerged ( Although no studies have yet shown these celebrations provide a similar effect on students’ major decisions, the important aspects of community, confidence building, and real-world CS context are still available. They may, in fact, be a more comfortable and less-overwhelming venue for students who know nothing about CS.

Early vs. late major declarations. Some people say, “This would not work at a school where students have to declare their major before they enroll.” At such schools, early GHC attendance might still serve as a retention mechanism for women who might otherwise drop out before establishing themselves in the major. Furthermore, preliminary evidence suggests GHC trips might increase the number of women who enroll at the school even before they attend GHC. Of the 35 incoming HMC women students who signed up for the GHC trip in 2010, eight had heard about HMC’s trips to GHC before deciding to come to HMC, and six of those eight reported the trips increased their desire to attend HMC.

But “Why,” others say, “would students not interested in CS want to attend this conference anyway?” The answer comes from our pre-survey. Many students simply said they want an experience at an academic conference or are just interested in learning about a field they had never heard of before. These students were just beginning college, and many were eager to take advantage of as many new opportunities as they could.

Finally, targeting the trip to students in their last year of high school may have an even stronger effect on their major choices; we encourage others to explore this idea.

Scaling to very large schools. Those from large schools sometimes say, “This would never work at my school; there are way too many students.” HMC was able to take approximately 33% of the first-year female students to GHC. Even approaching this level of participation would be impossible at a large school with, say, 5,000 first-year women, instead of 100, no matter how much funding is available. However, even if the percentage of affected students is smaller, recruiting 10 female students to CS increases the overall population of women in CS the same, whether they are in a department of 100 or 1,000. Moreover, these students can have a big effect on the culture of a department, likewise no matter how big.

Based on our results, we recommend that as the number (or percentage) of students scales down, a department should aim for a mix of CS experience, interest, and major plans. It is important to take some students who are interested in CS, because for them the conference will likely have an important effect. However, it is also important to take some students who are not considering a CS major, as the conference could affect dispositions.

GHC size limitations. Finally, perhaps the most limiting factor to the widespread implementation of such trips is the limitations on GHC itself, which sells out every year. While we agree, we also strongly believe GHC will continue to expand and evolve to meet the related demands. As evidence consider the GHC India conference, which emerged precisely to serve more of the population that could not attend GHC North America. We also point again to the regional celebrations now in more than a dozen regions, with the intention of serving a bigger and more geographically dispersed audience GHC alone could not serve.

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This study supports the idea that having first-year female college students participate in GHC is an effective tool for recruiting and retaining first-year women students to CS. In particular, our data suggests students attending GHC are more likely to both major in CS and take more CS courses. This result holds for students who intended to major in CS when they started college and for those who did not.

As much as we believe GHC can be an effective tool for recruiting and retaining women students in CS, alone it is not enough. Established best practices (such as those outlined by the National Center of Women & Information Technology), including mentoring, research opportunities, pair programming, and engaging introductory curricula, are essential for not only recruiting more women students but retaining them once they choose CS as a major and a career. At HMC, GHC trips complement two other major initiatives: an engaging introductory CS course and research experiences for women after their first year.

Diversifying and expanding CS education to meet the needs of the 21st century work force requires a deliberate plan that includes many initiatives. Taking first-year women students to GHC or similar celebrations should be a key part of it.

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We would like to thank Alan and Kathy Eustace, the IBM Almaden Research Center, Qualcomm, and Boeing Corp., as well as Maria Klawe and the HMC President’s Office and Department of Computer Science, for providing generous funding for first-year HMC students to attend GHC.

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F1 Figure 1. Distribution of responses to the statement “Attending GHC increased my desire to take another CS course” broken down by whether or not the student was considering a CS major before the conference.

F2 Figure 2. Distribution of responses to the statement “Attending GHC increased my desire to major in CS” broken down by whether or not the student was considering a CS major before the conference.

F3 Figure 3. Distribution of responses to the statement “Given the opportunity, I would attend GHC again” broken down by whether or not the student was considering a CS major before the conference.

F4 Figure 4. Distribution of responses to the statement “Attending GHC increased my desire to major in CS” broken down by which introductory CS course the student was enrolled in.

UF1 Figure. GHC of Women in Computing aims to increase women’s participation in CS worldwide.

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T1 Table 1. Number of first-year women students and upper-class student mentors attending GHC each year 2006–2011.

T2 Table 2. Post-survey results from first-year students attending GHC 2009–2010; 1=strongly disagree, 4=neutral, 7=strongly agree.

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