Computer science is not just for the boys
By BRIDGET DANVER
There is an obvious discrepancy in the number of male to female students enrolled in computer science courses at UMW. As of Fall 2018, 74 percent of students that declared majors in computer science were male, and a mere 26 percent were female. In order to combat the gender gap, and prevent the field from continuing to be male-dominated, the assumed solution is to extensively promote increasing the female population.
However, having a poor soul parade around Ball Circle chanting, “join computer science if you’re a girl” costumed as an iPhone will not solve the root of the issue. There are several theories regarding why the average computer science classroom is loaded with testosterone.
Dr. Jessica Zeitz Self, assistant professor in the computer science department said, “A lot of people point to social media, and how social media portrays what computer science looks like and that is normally not portrayed as anything female-like. In the 80s and 90s, there were video games coming out that were geared towards males and threw things for a little bit. That’s not the exact reason, but there are many things that play [a part to the discrepancy].”
She also noted another factor could be women tend to be interested in the human side of concepts. Researchers are bound to debate over the exact cause of the imbalance, but one thing is for certain: UMW is not the cause of the imbalance, it is an effect.
The faculty recognizes students need to feel comfortable in the learning environment, especially if the student is part of the minority. “I would add, a lot of women I think maybe discount computer science out of hand because of the geek stereotype,” said Dr. Ian Finlayson, chairperson of the Computer Science Department. He continued, “So I think programs that would show a broader range of people, like what computer science is, so they can decide for themselves if they like it or not would be helpful too.”
Zeitz emphasized the importance of having a support system for students and the steps UMW has taken to encourage more participation. She mentioned the DiverCS group, the latest club on campus devoted towards diversity in computer science.
“The whole reason they are trying to get started is to try to have a support group of, ‘Hey, there are other people like me in this department. And it’s okay I feel different because there are others that are there like me,’” said Zeitz.
Introductory courses demonstrate the gap to be slimmer compared to upper-level courses. Out of the students enrolled in CPSC 110: Introduction to Computer Science for the fall semester, 60 percent were male and 40 percent were female. Further statistics from Dr. Finlayson evaluated the consecutive course, CPSC 220: Computer Programming and Problem Solving, to start widening the gap, with 79 percent enrolled in the course to be male, and 21 percent to be female.
Sophomore Pratima Kandel, a passionate computer science major, offered insight from a student perspective.
“If you take an introductory class, that means you like it and had some interest in learning about it, why would you take it in the first place? Obviously, things will get more challenging the more you advance and learn about harder things. Just don’t give up.” Kandel continued to explain the importance of women in the field and mentioned the lack of female role models in the programming industry.
“Give [computer science] a chance, and don’t ever compare yourself,” Kandel said. “Because I have seen girls come to computer science classes who know so much but they would say, ‘I don’t know much. I just know a little.’ But guys who don’t know anything [about the topic] would say, ‘I got this. This is my thing.’ If you’re stuck, go to professors, get friends to help, just do something to help yourself.”
UMW’s core principles are diversity and inclusion. Students that are uncertain about pursuing a career in the computer science field, even people with a slight interest in the area that are starting their journey here at UMW, should be aware there are support systems ready to help guide them. Whether in the computer science department, or any other field, students must be aware the only obstacles stopping them from achieving their goals are their own doubts.