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More women drawn to computer science

UW awarded for effort to enroll more female undergrads in program

The Columbian
Published: June 5, 2015, 12:00am

SEATTLE — Siena Dumas Ang never thought she would come to love computer science.

What she loved was dance — ballet and, later, modern — as well as math, and she was planning to major in both at the University of Washington. But then she took a few computer-science classes as electives, and found a new subject to embrace.

Computer science “takes all of the aspects of math that I really love, and puts them all in a nice, pretty package,” Dumas Ang said, adding: “The things we can compute is insane.”

Upon graduating this spring, the Seattle resident will have three majors: math, dance and computer science.

She is one of dozens of undergraduate women at the UW this spring who will graduate with degrees in the last area: All told, 32 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science awarded by the university this year will be awarded to women.

There’s still a lot of room to improve, but it’s much better than the national average of 14 percent among the 200 U.S. universities that award doctorates in the subject, said Ed Lazowska, the UW’s Bill & Melinda Gates chair in computer science and engineering.

That achievement is one reason that the National Center for Women & Information Technology is giving the UW’s Computer Science & Engineering Department an award for enrolling more women undergraduates in computer-science classes. The award, announced earlier in May, comes with a $100,000 prize funded by Google.org, the tech company’s charitable arm.

The UW has encouraged more women to go into computer science with “strategic, well-planned recruiting and retention efforts,” wrote Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of the national center, in the award letter announcing the prize.

“Of particular note is the inclusive, welcoming community” at the UW “that spans beyond the walls of the university and has demonstrably advanced women’s meaningful participation in computing,” Sanders wrote.

Welcoming community

For Dumas Ang, that welcoming community included the opportunity to work with a significant number of women computer-science professors, and gaining a free trip to the national Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing — a national conference that honors the life of Hopper, a U.S. Navy rear admiral and early computer programmer whose work was influential in the development of computer languages such as COBOL.

Student Jasmine Singh always planned to major in computer science, and when she entered the UW, the computer-science department paired her with a female upperclassman majoring in the field. Her mentor helped Singh adjust to college and gave her advice on classes to take. Singh is a senior double-majoring in computer science and electrical engineering.

“There are female professors, tech talks performed by successful and intelligent women, coding competitions with plenty of female participants and hosts, and sports teams (such as CSE Frisbee) that encourage women to join,” Singh said.

Dumas Ang said she thinks too few women go into computer science because of the perception that the field is a “combative, aggressive, male-dominated environment.” But at least at the UW, that’s not what she found.

“Here, there’s much more open discussion about the way women are treated,” she said. “There’s always going to be people who have a gender bias, but overall the experience in this department is really pleasant.”

Challenging but supportive

Lazowska and Sanders say young women often don’t get a chance to take computer-science classes in high school. When they get to college, and hear male students talk about computer technologies they’ve never heard of, they may already believe they’ve fallen behind.

That was Singh’s experience. Although she took computer science in high school, “there were still times I felt inadequate compared to male students that seemed to speak in CS (computer science) jargon that went over my head,” she wrote.

The UW’s introductory courses are designed to be challenging but supportive, and to show all students that they can be successful if they put in the hard work. A knowledge of popular technologies, or an innate gift for coding, is not required.

Lazowska said he’s pleased by one statistic in particular: Of the UW women who enroll in an introductory computer-science course, and later decide to major in the field, 58 percent said they were not initially interested in majoring in computer science.

In other words, the introductory course changed their minds. The women who took the class “discovered they loved computer science and were great at it,” he said by email.

Computer science is an expensive major to teach, and many schools — including the UW — limit the number of students admitted. (With some extra funding from the legislature, the program is growing, and will graduate 233 students this year — up from 160 three years ago.)

Lazowska said many schools try to winnow down candidates with introductory classes so difficult that many students wash out. He fears that strategy will limit the diversity of students majoring in computer science, which he thinks will hurt the field overall.

“Our data, and common sense, suggests that the people you’re going to weed out are precisely the people who are already underrepresented,” he said.

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