Female CS majors find place in dept.
By Jessica Avitabile, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, February 21, 2013
Of all American students who received a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2011, only 11.7 percent were female. Women make up 24 percent of computer science majors at Dartmouth. Although the gender disparity at the College is less significant than the national average, women still face challenges entering a traditionally male-dominated field.
Female students have proven themselves to be just as capable, if not more so, than many men in computer science classes, department chair Thomas Cormen said.
“I have classes where when I look at the top students, more than half of them are women, even if the class is mostly male-dominated,” Cormen said. “They are always well-represented at the top.”
There has been a steady increase in the number of computer science majors at Dartmouth over the years, Shloka Kini ’13, founder and president of the Women in Computer Science Club, said. Fifteen men and 6 women in the Class of 2013 chose computer science as their only major, while the Class of 2014 has 37 men and 10 women, Kini said.
The increase may be related to the perception of increased employment prospects for computer science majors.
“There has been a general increase as CS is seen as a more marketable major,” Kini said. “Technology is booming, so computer science education is picking up, and people are learning to see computers as more than a user experience.”
There has been a drive to increase the number of women in the field, both at the College and in the computer science industry in general.
Many tech-related companies are looking to hire women, and graduate schools are also interested in giving women’s applications extra consideration, Cormen said.
Many female computer science graduates of the College have found success.
In 1999, April Lehman ’99 received the Outstanding Undergraduate Award by the Computing Research Association, which presents the award to one female and one male undergraduate computer science major from the United States and Canada.
After serving as Google’s first female engineer in New York City and developing the earliest version of Google Maps, Elizabeth Reid ’03 became the company’s director of engineering.
Strong women have continued to enter Dartmouth’s computer science department.
“Lauren Litscher ’12 was the only woman in the culminating experience course last year with eight other guys, but she was really the alpha dog of the group,” Cormen said.
Computer science professor Devin Balkcom said that while the department at Dartmouth strives to be very inclusive and welcoming to women, he would like to see more women in his classes.
Female enrollment in the major has increased, but some women have found the dynamics uncomfortable.
“It’s problematic if teams are all male and have only one woman on them,” Balkcom said. “The imbalance may discourage other women from considering computer science.”
Kini strongly considered switching majors her sophomore and junior years. After receiving support from other women, she realized that she would have been quitting out of fear of failure, a struggle that many women share, she said.
The gender disparity is reflected in the department’s faculty composition. Of the 15 tenure-track professors listed on the department’s website, only one is female.
Two more female professors are listed as adjunct and research faculty, along with 10 male professors.
Some men in the field are not welcoming toward women, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Cormen said.
“I don’t witness any of this personally, but I do hear rumblings of it,” Cormen said. “I believe that this is on the decline, though, as people realize that this is an archaic attitude that has no basis in fact.”
More men typically enroll in high school computer science classes and enter college with greater experience, posing an additional barrier for women who have never been previously exposed to programming, Kini said.
Kini founded the Women in Computer Science club last term to counter the gender imbalance in the department and create a stronger sense of community. The club is the first of its kind to be approved by the Council on Student Organizations.
The club holds multiple events each term for development, research and network building, and all of its events are open to campus to foster a greater sense of community, Kini said. She has received positive feedback, especially regarding increased connections between upperclasswomen and underclasswomen in the department.
While the biggest issue the club will face is maintaining momentum, Kini said, she hopes that a club specifically designed to provide support for women will not be as necessary in the future.
“When you create a club like this, you are highlighting the minority and the fact that there is a small percentage of women,” Kini said.
Similar clubs exist at many peer institutions. Carnegie Mellon University has a strong support group for women that is very well-known, Balkcom said.
Brown University also has a support club for women in computer science, but Jessica Liu, who coordinates the club, said the majority of female majors do not need additional support.
“All of the women do a good job of getting internships, and many are TAs in classes,” Liu said. “Our goal is to help freshmen and sophomores, so we have a mentorship program with upperclassmen to offer support and answer questions.”
Balkcom tries to overcome the challenge of bringing women into the field by recruiting more female students for introductory computer science courses.
“Women are coming in, doing well and enjoying the class, so it’s a good introduction to the department,” Balkcom said. “Often it’s the case that more than half of the top 10 or 20 students are women.”
The introductory class was recently altered, and the new course is in its second year, Cormen said.
The class emphasizes the connection that computing and programming have to a variety of other fields, including physics, geography, economics and English.
“We’re trying to make it clear that computing is in everything, so this course serves a dual purpose by teaching students a new way to think and work,” Cormen said.
The structure of the major has also been changed in recent years to allow for more flexibility. Students are now required to take only two prerequisite courses, allowing more flexibility to craft the major to fit their own interests.
Cormen looks forward to traveling to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, which will be held in Minneapolis later this year.
He attended the 2012 conference with computer science professor Lorie Loeb and 30 female students.