Friday, October 26, 2007

As Usual, We Need More Women in Computer Science

I see headlines for articles about how computer science needs more women so often that the notion has become clichéd to me. But the cold, hard truth recently made the problem seem so much more real, and got me thinking about some potential solutions.

According to an article written at the end of December 2005, the highest number of female computer science graduates was 37 percent (this occurred in 1985). During a few of years leading up to the article, this number was around 27 percent. These statistics are confirmed by the graph at the end of this article written in 2006.

It turns out that our undergraduate program has only about a 10% female population (based on observations). The story can't be much different from other universities. Kind of a big drop, isn't it?

Why? How can we stop it??

Time and time again people try to come up with the answers. I've even tried to do the same, albeit for open source rather than education. So why do the numbers seem to only go down, if anything?

I really don't have any more answers than the countless others who have written on the topic. All I can do is attempt to improve the outlook that young females have toward computer science, and try to improve the atmosphere for those already here.

To accomplish the latter, I have used my contact for the Google Ambassador Program to secure some sweet Google swag for an all-women's social gathering. From the same program I also have some money left to provide free food. The idea is to provide a informal, fun forum for girls in the School of Computer Science to get together and do whatever happens to work - gripe about things we don't like about being female in computer science, discuss ideas for finding work or going to grad school after convocation, and so on. Kind of a solidarity thing, I suppose. I've even invited a successful alumni of our program to talk about her experiences with life after Carleton.

There are many programs in our area I have recently discovered that help encourage young women to consider science and technology in their career options. As just one example, Pathmakers has post-secondary female student volunteers make presentations to elementary and high school students to help them explore these opportunities. Our undergraduate advisor is already looking into participating in one of their bigger upcoming events in December.

In addition to what's already out there, I was recently inspired to submit a proposal to create and teach a mini-course that our local universities offer to grade eight and high school students. I have actually taken some of these courses when I was in high school, but didn't realize I could teach one as a grad student. I wanted to provide a course just for girls so they wouldn't be intimidated by the probability of being in a class with all (potentially geeky) boys. The course would somehow give a flavour of some of the main topics in computer science, showing the girls that the area can be interesting and fun. I decided that computer games is a perfect medium for doing this, and plan to submit my proposal next week. I will post the course description here once I'm done.

Whether these programs and ideas will make much difference in the numbers of incoming female computer science students one day, I cannot say. Perhaps I will never know. But given the dismal percentages we face today, I will feel better knowing that I have tried.

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