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Women Now Outnumber Men in Medical Schools. Computer Science Should Be Next.

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In March we celebrated Women's History month, but there were few female computer scientists to celebrate. Women receive only 16% of U.S. bachelor's degrees in pure computer science. In an age when women outnumber men in medical schools, we scratch our heads when we see such a small number. What's going on? The National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT) reports: "By 2026, 3.5 million computing-related job openings are expected. At the current rate, only 17% of these jobs could be filled by U.S. computing Bachelor's degree recipients." More women graduating in CS will reduce the magnitude of the looming crisis.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) launched a pioneering effort to address plummeting graduation rates in the early 1990s with the creation of a Council on Women in Computing (ACM-W). ACM-W seeks to recruit, retain, and celebrate women in computing. I joined ACM-W in 2000, bringing with me a community-building idea for women in computing. In 1996, I used the fledgling Internet to count the numbers of female computer science majors in Indiana. Small pockets of women dotted the state. I dreamed of uniting these small groups of Indiana women by inviting them to attend a regional conference where each woman would find role models and a peer community. Attendees could build confidence by giving short "lightning talks" and poster presentations. The conference would dispel the myth of the lonely programmer hidden away in a cubicle by offering keynotes and panel presentations that share accurate career information. Women could find job and internship opportunities offered by industry and graduate school sponsors, who also serve as role models.

My colleagues and I organized the first conference, called an ACM Celebration, in Indiana in 2004. We imagined organizing Celebrations all over the world, so that no woman would feel isolated. Fast-forward 15 years, and ACM Celebrations now span the globe: Serbia, Chile, Ukraine, Canada, Philippines, Pakistan, Ireland, Turkey, Spain, Azerbaijan, and India, to name a few.

ACM-W Student Chapters sustain energy after one Celebration ends and before another begins. The ACM-sponsored organizations provide local activities on a smaller scale but with the same Celebration mission to recruit, retain and build community for women.

Beyond Celebrations and Chapters, what can institutions do? DePauw University awarded 47% of its computer science degrees to women in 2017—almost three times the national average. How? A lineup of traditional methods such as mentoring and role-modeling added new computer science majors, as did more specialized techniques like our CS Tryout. We invite every first-year woman (immediately before registration) to a preview of the introductory class, where third- and fourth-year female majors (and role models) sit alongside attendees to teach all that is needed to complete the first laboratory. The student teachers also talk briefly about their computing opportunities and career plans. Many women have zero computing experience, so the event removes the mystery surrounding computing classrooms and careers, as the older students describe their internship and research opportunities and their classroom projects—especially their impressive Senior Projects. 

Finally, what can individuals do? We underestimate the power of encouragement, in my opinion. Once I heard a young woman tell an audience, "I am a computer scientist today, because of three words that a professor wrote on my exam." In response to a recent post on my Facebook page a woman wrote, "And here, just this past week, I once again happened upon my first CS1 exam upon which Gloria had written, 'CS Major????'" (Ashley had saved the exam for 15 years). I encourage all of my talented students—both men and women. Woman after woman later tells me (as these two did) how my words influenced her. The number of men who have expressed the same sentiment? Zero!

This story is bittersweet. It's sad that women hunger for words of encouragement and value notes that take seconds to write. At the same time, this story about encouragement tells us how we—as sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, partners, teachers, and other mentors—can change girls' and women's lives. An important time to encourage girls is in elementary school. These very young girls have as much interest in computing and technology as young boys do. There's no unimportant time to encourage, because girls begin to lose interest as they progress through middle school and high school. Support the many worthwhile programs that target girls and college women. Above all, use only supportive language when talking with girls and young women about computing.

Guest blogger Gloria Townsend is a professor, and department chair of computer science, at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN, USA.  


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