The dearth of women in technology has long been a problem, but it appears that a few leading universities in the United States are starting to figure out how to turn things around. According to a New York Times report, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Washington, and Harvey Mudd College, all top science and technology universities, are seeing much greater numbers of women studying computer science. It’s no accident.
The report cites that 40 percent of this year’s incoming freshman to the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon are women—still not the proportional representation that would be ideal, but it’s a number that marks a vast improvement over historical numbers and numbers at other universities across the nation. The University of Washington and Harvey Mudd are seeing similar numbers. At the former, 30 percent of computer science graduates this year were female, while at the latter, 40 percent of the computer science major is currently made up of women.
What’s going on? The report cites a few explanations. For starters, computer science is simply becoming a more popular major with everyone, because that’s where the full-time, well-paying, benefit-having jobs are. The promise of a stable job is, as always, a strong motivator. But, these schools have been active in making women feel comfortable while studying computer science. One of the best ideas is being put into practice at Carnegie Mellon, where current female computer science majors are recruited to mentor girls interested in science and technology. Also, cooperation with high school teachers to create summer camps based around science and technology have been successful in exposing more girls to science and technology studies, which has also helped boost the number of female applicants to the computer science major.
The University of Washington and Harvey Mudd have altered the tone of their computer science courses, something that probably isn’t an ideal long-term solution. The two programs began to put more focus on programming as problem solving and an outlet for creativity, rather than focusing only on the hard details of programming itself. That’s not a bad idea in and of itself, and it could be beneficial for both genders to think of programming in different ways. As a way to convince more women to study computer science, it seems unnecessary, and makes the assumption that women can’t or don’t like programming for the sake of programming.
Even if that assumption is true, which it likely isn’t, the problem is still primarily a cultural one. It’s this that makes the problem of gender inequality in tech so daunting. By and large, the hard, institutionalized barriers to inequality have been removed (with notable and glaring exceptions, like the lack of paid maternity leave). Instead, we’re faced with cultural problems that are impossible to solve with legislation or curriculum changes. The strongest ideas being put in practice by these universities are doubtless the mentorship and high school programs. By getting more girls interested in science and technology at a young age, you inevitably get more women studying computer science, which leads to more women seeking jobs in science and technology.
That means the process is frustratingly slow. The task at hand is to delegitimize stereotypes about both computer science and women, while normalizing the idea of women in tech. And, unless you have one of those memory-wiping devices from Men in Black, the time needed to achieve that will be measured in generations. What these universities are trying to do is make sure that the newest generation doesn’t fall victim to the stereotypes of the past, or at least to a lesser extent than what older generations experienced. It’s an effort all universities, all teachers, and all parents should join in on.