Bridging the gender divide in computer science

When it comes to studying and working in computer science, women are still a rarity. The gender divide in computer science has grown more pronounced, even as society in general has edged toward equality. And that’s bad news: for the women missing out on interesting and well-paying work, but also for the rest of us, because a lack of gender diversity means solutions and innovations may not reflect the needs and lives of half the population. It’s a challenge Dal’s Faculty of Computer Science is addressing head on, as it attempts to attract a more balanced pool of students.

The stereotypical computer scientist is a loner, whiling away hours in a darkened basement tapping out code, surfacing rarely and reluctantly for awkward interaction. And, invariably, he’s male. This may be an outdated archetype, but the misconception that computer science is a field for men is fed by inarguable gender disparity in its ranks. At Dalhousie, for example, only 17 per cent of current undergraduate students in the Faculty of Computer Science identify as female.

Being one of only a handful of women in a classroom can make the notion of computer science as an isolated discipline feel all too real. “It’s a strange and not necessarily pleasant feeling at first,” says Gabriella Mosquera, a PhD candidate and lecturer in the Faculty of Computer Science who says she simply had to “get used to” this feeling.

Mimi Cahill, a fourth-year Computer Science student, says that although female students are no more likely to struggle with the course material, they are more likely to feel as if they don’t belong, or that any such difficulties are inherently due to gender. She cites “impostor syndrome” as a common affliction for women in the field.

“When we see such a large gap in gender, we know there’s an underlying culture and there are reasons why we get this disparity,” says Christian Blouin, associate dean, academic in the Faculty of Computer Science.

The lack of gender diversity not only creates a self-perpetuating loop, making it more difficult for those women who do choose the field to succeed and less appealing for other women to enter it, it’s also bad for the profession and those who rely on it (which these days, is most of us). Why? Because the solutions developed in a field tend to reflect the experiences of those creating them. Dr. Blouin says promoting equality and inclusion, in addition to being a moral imperative, will improve the Faculty’s ability to serve its educational mission. “When there is a lack of diversity, things don’t work as well and decisions can be made that are exclusionary.”

The Faculty of Computer Science is attempting to break this exclusionary cycle with an ambitious program to close the gender gap in its undergraduate population. By the fall of 2018—the year of Dal’s 200th anniversary—the Faculty aims to double the number of female undergraduates. By 2020, it is seeking to have women represent at least 40 per cent of its undergraduate ranks. If successful, women will no longer have to “get used to” feeling isolated or feel like impostors in computer science. They’ll reverse a decades-long trend and shatter stereotypes, simply by being computer scientists.

The roots of the problem

How did women come to be excluded from computer science? Answering that question means examining decades of cultural residue everywhere from toy store aisles to the halls of academia. And interestingly, the gender divide has grown more pronounced, even as society in general has edged toward equality.

Carolyn Watters, provost and vice-president academic at Dalhousie (and a professor in the Faculty of Computer Science), began a master’s degree in computer science in the early 1970s and says about a quarter of her classmates were women. “But every year that I’ve been in computer science, the numbers of women have gone down.”

Dr. Blouin says one trigger for this decline occurred in the 1980s, when video games began to drive the culture of computer science. He believes a simple marketing decision—placing most video games in the boys’ aisles of toy stores—indirectly led to the marginalizing of women. The male skew of gaming culture led to a male-dominated computer science culture, a pattern that has only reinforced itself over the years.

Even the many examples of high-achieving women in computer science offer stories that illustrate, rather than refute, the problem of gender imbalance.

“I’m a pretty bold, outspoken person,” says Cahill, who serves as vice-president external for the Women in Technology Society (WiTS). “I’m comfortable with making enemies.” Despite this, Cahill says she has still experienced moments of feeling out of place, moments that would be magnified for students whose support networks are not as strong as hers.

Like Cahill, WiTS president (and student representative on the gender gap project) Emily Edwards believes her personality and experiences shield her against some of the systemic factors working against women in computer science. “I grew up hanging out with mostly males, so (the gender gap) didn’t bother me as much as it would bother some people.”

“A lot of the successful women in our programs are trailblazers. But I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to be trailblazers, just because the gender they identify with is underrepresented.” – Dr. Christian Blouin, associate dean, Faculty of Computer Science.

Like Dr. Watters, Bonnie MacKay, an instructor who primarily teaches first-year students, migrated to computer science after obtaining academic and professional experience in other disciplines. “I was fortunate because I’d done a couple of degrees and came in with more confidence,” says Dr. MacKay.

In other words, gender is an obstacle more easily overcome by women who bring experience and strength of personality to their computer science education. “A lot of the successful women in our programs are exceptional. They’re trailblazers,” says Dr. Blouin. “But I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to be trailblazers, just because the gender that they identify with is underrepresented.”

What the Faculty wants instead is a program that more students–and more women–can see themselves in. It’s important to note that admission standards remain the same for all applicants and qualified men will, as ever, be welcomed and supported in their studies. “It’s about marketing the program properly to attract the women who are qualified and want these opportunities,” says Cahill.

The plan for change

To promote a more inclusive culture, the Faculty of Computer Science has launched a number of initiatives, from forming its own Culture of Respect committee, to aiding the creation of the Women in Technology Society and adopting more rigorous standards of avoiding bias in faculty hiring. But to reach its ambitious targets for gender balance, the Faculty is also reaching out to partners in industry and government, asking for help in creating a more robust offering to potential female students.

Dr. Blouin and his colleagues believe these partners can bring real-world perspective and resources to the table and pitch in with mentorship and co-op opportunities, scholarships and the nurturing of entrepreneurial ideas. The organizations would also benefit from this engagement as a result of an increased number and quality of job applicants and more diverse perspectives that will make their products and services better. “Half the population is women,” says Dr. MacKay. “It only makes sense that we have a good representation of females when design is happening, because we may have different wants or needs.”

“There’s still this idea that computer science is a very solitary career, but it’s not like that anymore. You have to work with people. It’s fluid and creative and you have to think outside the box all the time.”–Dr. Bonnie MacKay, instructor, Faculty of Computer Science

As far as reaching potential students, the solution involves turning one of the original causes of the gender gap problem—marketing—on its head. “There’s still this idea that it’s a very solitary career choice, but it’s not like that at all anymore,” says Dr. MacKay. “It’s probably the exact opposite. You have to work with people. It’s fluid and creative and you have to think outside the box all the time.”

Dr. Watters echoes the idea that computer science needs an image makeover. “We don’t think of computer science as a helping science,” she says. “But think about how you go through your day. Think about how much easier or better or more interesting it is because somebody designed a screen right.”

Students like Cahill also agree that computer science as they’ve experienced it hasn’t been properly communicated. “You have the technical side, but you also have business and marketing and communications, especially in the Applied Computer Science degree,” says Cahill. “I’ve really found my voice in this program.”

Change that benefits all students

Helping more female students find their voice through computer science is, in part, a function of broadening the message about the discipline. But it also involves examining the actual content of computer science programs. “It takes a long time to lobby for a different sense of what is considered essential to computer science,” says Dr. Watters. “On one end of the spectrum I would say a computer scientist is really an engineer, and on the other end you’re really a social scientist.”

Dr. Blouin notes that part of the gender gap project is evaluating how the computer science curriculum is taught and graded. “We’re looking at what we do in the curriculum that has systemic bias,” he says. In fact, anything that could reinforce or ameliorate gender imbalance is up for discussion as the Faculty encourages more women to apply for and complete an undergraduate degree.

As that shift happens, they’re hoping to shelve the stereotype of the computer scientist as a solitary white male in a dark room for good. Someone once told Mimi Cahill that she “didn’t look like a coder.” But she does, because she is. And Dalhousie’s Faculty of Computer Science is looking for many more like her.

How peers and mentors make a difference

Matt Semansky

Students, faculty and administrators all point to a sense of community as a key factor for success in computer science. In fact, the project to close the gender gap in the Faculty of Computer Science isn’t merely about raising the numbers of women in its programs—it’s also about creating more camaraderie among the women who choose the field.

Mimi Cahill (at left, with classmates Jacquelyn Salloum and Aleysha Mullen) serves as vice-president external for the Women in Technology Society (WiTS). Cahill says she has experienced moments of feeling out of place, moments that would be magnified for students without strong support networks. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

The good news is that while women may not be represented in strong numbers in the Faculty yet, they are among the most engaged in student organizations. The Women in Technology Society (WiTS), for example, nurtures a network of female students and also puts on events showcasing women who have been successful in technology fields.

“The WiTS is a support system to let women know they can push through adversity and that other people are going through the same thing,” says Emily Edwards, president of WiTS. The society is open to male students, a few of whom are even part of its executive group. “Equal opportunity for everyone is our goal and having male council members voicing their acceptance of the society helps us get heard.”

Brandon Poole, president of the Computer Science Society, is one of the male members of the WiTS council. He says the two societies have formed a stronger partnership since WiTS was ratified as a constituent society of the CSS, meaning CSS can funnel funds to WiTS to support events and operations. “We just did a game jam, where a whole weekend was dedicated to students developing games. The theme this year was that the developers had to have a female protagonist in their games, which was a way to touch on gender issues in computer science.”

Equally important is the emergence of more female role models at the head of the class. In addition to instructors like Carolyn Watters, Gabriella Mosquera and Bonnie MacKay, 11 of the teaching assistants in the faculty are women. “They’re great mentors,” says Dr. MacKay, noting that the reduced age gap between students teaching assistants makes the TAs’ experiences more relatable.

Mosquera considers mentorship an essential part of her job. “If you want to increase the number of female students, you need to have role models for them to look up to.”