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Minding the Gaps

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A diverse group of STEM students.

"There are longstanding issues in how educational systems are constructed, how those systems mirror long-held societal expectations and norms," says Valerie Barr, Jean E. Sammet Professor of Computer Science and Chair of Computer Science at Mount Holyoke


It is hardly news that women and people of color are underrepresented in the computer science field. Remarkably, 37% of computer scientists were women in 1995, whereas today the figure is only 24%, according to the organization Girls Who Code. What's more, only 21.5% of computer science bachelor's degrees went to women in the school year ending in 2019, according to the Computer Research Association Taulbee Survey.

The result is a shortage of professionals in coding and computing that is estimated to be around 3 million in the U.S. and 756,000 in the E.U. However, the lack of diversity has other, less obvious, repercussions. This includes fewer ideas about how "technology can actually make lives better," says Valerie Barr, Jean E. Sammet Professor of Computer Science and Chair of Computer Science at Mount Holyoke College.

"There are longstanding issues in how educational systems are constructed, how those systems mirror long held societal expectations and norms. There are differences in how boys and girls are treated, not just within education, but in all aspects of upbringing," Barr adds.

Cracking the Code

There are reasons why progress has lagged, even with a focus on diversity. One problem is entrenched attitudes and biases surrounding women, people of color, and those who intersect with both groups. Teachers, professors and others often interact with them differently.

"If you face microaggressions on a regular basis, it can totally throw off your confidence and create doubt about whether you should enter the field," says Nicki Washington, Professor of The Practice of Computer Science at Duke University and author of Unapologetically Dope: Lessons for Black Women and Girls on Surviving and Thriving in the Tech Field.

Similarly, movies, TV shows and other forms of media frequently display "stereotype images of computer scientists. They're almost always males with poor social skills," says Carla Brodley, dean of Khoury College of Computer Science at Northeastern University, and executive director of the university's Center for Inclusive Computing. "The reality is actually the opposite."

Finally, a decline in women in the computer science field—even while participation in other STEM fields has grown—may have roots in gaming, which typically appeals more to boys, says Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a former member of the board of directors of Microsoft. There's a perception that "computing is a male thing," she notes.

Although many K-12 schools have already changed curriculum and made STEM and computer science classes more accessible to girls and people of color, activists are now taking aim at universities. This is crucial, Washington says, because "a lot of the breakdown occurs for women and systematically marginalized groups between high school and college—and once they reach college."

A New Direction

Changes must be both philosophical and structural, Klawe says. "Many computer science programs limit the number of majors by requiring that students apply to the program while in high school. But we've found that half the women that end up majoring in computer science had no idea they would be interested until they learned more about the field."

At Harvey Mudd, the computer science department has expanded the percentage of female computer science majors from 15% to 50% over the last 14 years. Changes included new pedagogy and curriculum, especially in introductory courses; increasing access to role models through conference attendance, and early participation in research and internships.

The success of the approach led to BRAID (Building, Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity), a program that has led to similar changes among 15 other computer science departments across the country.

Northeastern University has introduced a program called Align Master's in Computer Science, which recruits across broad demographics mirroring the U.S. population and draws in undergraduates with bachelor degrees outside computer science, in fields as diverse as history, art and biology. "Students do bridge work, similar to pre-med, and then enter our regular direct-entry master's program," Brodley explains. Students also participate in co-ops where they gain paid four- to eight-month work experiences/internships at one of 450 partner companies.

Align currently boasts an enrollment of over 1,000 students. It is comprised of 48% women, and 21% of the domestic students come from traditionally underrepresented groups. A year ago, Northeastern University created the MS Pathways to Computing Consortium, an open-source and collaborative effort to establish accessible onramps to master's degrees in computing. It now has seven active members and others are in the process of joining the group.

Making the Grade

There are also broader attempts to change the field of computer science and STEM. For example, the Center for Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University, with financial support from Melinda Gates, promotes evidence-based best practices in computer sciences through diversity training; redesigning computer sciences classes to accommodate broader backgrounds and learning, and introducing dual majors along with greater interdisciplinary opportunities. The center has funded six schools, with more in the works.

Concludes Washington, who also serves on the ACM-W committee: "Greater cultural competence leads to more inclusion and equity, which by default leads to more diversity. You can't get to that without first ensuring that environments are equitable and inclusive."

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR, USA.


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