women in scienceW

Nina Amenta and Michael Neff of the UC Davis Department of Computer Science. Watson Lu/Courtesy photo

Local News

More women joining the computer science ranks

By April 24, 2014

A mid-February article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that UC Berkeley had achieved a “tech world shift” by enrolling more women than men — 106 to 104 — in an introductory computer science course, likely for “the first time ever.” It went on to report a recent uptick in the percentage of women in the computer science major at the university, from about 10 to 21 percent during the past few years.

These heartening changes were attributed, in part, to ambitious curriculum re-boots that changed the way the courses were marketed, with the goal of making them more attractive to female students.

Nina Amenta, who chairs the UC Davis department of computer science, could relate. She’s seen a similar change in the percentage of women in UCD’s computer science major, up to 19 percent in 2013. And she knows the introductory classes have always had a good balance of women and men.

As far back as 1999, ECS 15 — “Introduction to Computers” — drew 65 women and 52 men, and women in that class have outnumbered their male counterparts at least once a year from then on.

Still, the question remains, why do so many more men than women choose to major in computer science? And is it actually true, as the Chronicle article suggests, that we’re seeing the beginnings of a paradigm shift that soon will bring more women into computer science-related fields?

Traditionally, the discipline has suffered from an image problem. Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, the term “computer science” would have conjured up images of young men in dark bedrooms, playing violent, first-person shooter games.

“There’s no question that games brought a lot of boys to computing,” Amenta agrees. “They wanted to grow up and design the next great game. The trouble was, first-person shooter games were aimed only at boys, which likely did some gender damage.”

Additionally, as far as the media are concerned, the field seems dominated by men. Think of the public faces of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram: all guys.

“Yeah,” Amenta sighs, “there’s still a perception that it’s a very male culture; you even hear the term brogrammer applied to teams developing apps. Many startups literally are boys’ clubs.”

“But that’s deceptive,” counters Michael Neff, an associate professor in the computer science department. “True, Mark Zuckerberg gets all the attention, but Facebook’s COO is Sheryl Kara Sandberg. Marissa Mayer is CEO of Yahoo. We are seeing more women take on visible leadership roles in tech, which is a good thing.

“But it’s important to recognize that while gender neutrality may be leveling out in certain courses, that isn’t true in the computer science major itself,” Neff clarifies. “Yes, gender equity is improving in courses designed for non-computer science majors. It remains to be seen, moving forward, whether that will translate into the major as well.”

But why does any of this matter?

“Women represent 50 percent of the population,” Neff responds. “Computers have an extraordinary influence on society, so it’s very important to have broad representation, in terms of the people who advance the technology. It’s always advantageous to have a wide set of people, with different priorities, contributing to that process: more voices pushing in different directions. That’s healthy.”

“On top of which,” Amenta adds, “the world is becoming a place where there’s a huge need for people who know how to use a computer.”

“Computer science has become a fundamental literacy today,” Neff insists, “like needing to know how to read, write and communicate. Regardless of whether you go on to develop software, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the functionality of all these devices that we use, in so much of our lives.”

“We’ve seen huge growth in computer science over the last few years,” says Amenta, referring to the increase in the number of undergraduates in the computer science major, from 456 in 2007 to 813 in 2013. “I think a lot of it has to do with interest in social media, which appeals just as much to women as to men.”

“Computer science offers a huge amount of freedom to create something,” Neff says. “Software-based startups often begin with something relatively small, created by a relatively small group of people, and that ‘something’ winds up having a massive impact. Computer science is very exciting that way.”

Bearing all of this in mind, then — that computer science is becoming increasingly crucial; that IT people have become essential everywhere, from doctor’s offices and legal firms to supermarkets and garages — why has the field traditionally been such a tough sell for women?

“What goes on at middle schools and high schools continues to be a problem,” Neff sighs. “There’s a known stage at which many girls stop taking math and science classes. Computer programming still attracts more middle-teen boys than girls. That sets up a crisis when students arrive at university, thinking about their future careers.

“The boys who’ve been programming since high school already have skills and lots of confidence; many girls lack both, and find it very intimidating to walk into a computer science course filled with a bunch of boys who already seem to know everything.

“It’s therefore very important to create ‘back doors’ that let people into the field: people who didn’t decide, at age 12, 13 or 14, that this was something exciting that they wanted to do, but nonetheless have the aptitude and interest,” Neff continues. “They need a way to catch up comfortably, so they can feel that they belong.”

To a degree, this echoes a problem that today’s universities acknowledge is faced by engineering fields in general: Traditionally, lower-division courses have concentrated so exclusively on basic concepts, that students often abandon the majors before ever reaching the more creative “fun stuff.”

Both Amenta and Neff recognize that problem, and their classroom approach reflects a desire to surmount it.

“Computer science is a deep field, with a lot to learn,” Neff acknowledges. “In some ways, it comes from the math tradition, where you develop concepts incrementally: You start with foundational knowledge, and build up, and build up, and build up. You only reach the ‘excitement’ of computer science after going through a lot of initial drudgery.

“That may develop strong skills, but it doesn’t excite people who are taking their first computer science class.”

Neff is part of what he hopes is a solution, as instructor of one of his department’s newest courses: CTS/ECS 12, “Introduction to Media Computation.”

“We use a programming language that was designed for artists,” he explains, “to make it easier for them to create visual work. So, from the first week, my students are creating interesting imagery. They discover that they can do something really cool, right off the bat, which helps surmount what I call the ‘fear bump.’ Additionally, they’re quickly able to develop something tangible. By the end of this course — the first computer science course, for many of them — students are creating their own apps or games.

“That sense of accomplishment is very important, and it makes people excited about the field. And that’ll encourage people to think of majoring in computer science, because they’ll want to get better at it.”

Amenta, in turn, has just introduced another new class this spring quarter: a prototype course (ECS89H) titled “Beginning Web Programming.” It’s designed as a sequel of sorts to ECS10.

“Students coming out of ECS10 should be able to handle relatively simply workplace tasks,” she explains. “Your boss gives you a data table scraped off the Web; she wants it in the proper format, in order to import it into a statistical analysis program. ECS10 students should be able to handle that.

“Students coming out of ECS89H, the new course, will be able to handle more complicated, Web-based tasks: Your boss gives you a chunk of data, and wants a particular audience to be able to access different views of that data across the Web.”

As both Amenta and Neff already have pointed out, these typical workplace assignments aren’t limited to computer science-based professions; they could crop up just about anywhere. Tech’s reach is quite large these days.

“Very few people in leadership roles today have a technical background,” Neff says. “Our computer science students may not go into engineering jobs, but many will go into leadership roles. Society has become very technological, and it’s important for our leaders to possess that knowledge.

“Computer science is an important facet of society, and it needs to be represented in the power structure … by men and women.”

Derrick Bang

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