How do we increase diversity in Computer Science? Inspiring insights from our webinar with two experts
The Department of Computer Science was honored to have Dr. Carol Frieze and Dr. Jeria Quesenberry from Carnegie Mellon University share the story about how they managed to transform the gender diversity among the students on their Computer Science programs. We received a bunch of interesting questions from the many participants at the webinar which Carol and Jeria answer here.
On Friday 29 May 2020, the Department of Computer Science held a webinar about (Gender) Diversity in Computer Science – a topic that is very important to us at DIKU. We invited Dr. Carol Frieze and Dr. Jeria Quesenberry, authors of the books “Kicking Butt in Computer Science: Women in Computing at Carnegie Mellon and Around the World” and “Cracking the Digital Ceiling: Women in Computing Around the World,” to share their insights.
We would like to thank everyone who joined the webinar, and thanks again to Carol and Jeria for an inspiring presentation. We, for sure, will continue the discussion and contribute to change. Below, you will find answers to all the follow-up questions.
The Women@SCS admin is a point person for some of our outreach programs and is heavily involved in everything we do. Our admin staff are on board with promoting our events and activities especially administrators who manage programs and have close contact with students. They are often involved in activities that are developed by students but open to all members of CMU’s School of Computer Science community. They help ensure that our student groups have room reservations for weekly meetings and events. Admin staff often get to know students really well, so when we are looking for a student speaker, or a recommendation for who we should support to pay for their conference attendance, we can call on admin staff for recommendations.
Initially yes, although not closed to men they were promoted to the women. Since 2014 the undergraduate welcome events are for both men and women. We also hold a welcome event for faculty, post-docs, and graduate students which is women-only.
Carol oversees the program of extra-curricular events and activities but it’s very much a collaboration with members of the SCS community. Students are the driving force! We have 2 committees (Women@SCS and SCS4ALL) made up of the most active students who meet every week to discuss and design the events, and decide who will take the lead. Many popular events are firmly on the agenda and we sustain leadership by pairing younger students with upper-class students. Faculty are heavily involved. For example, the student committee will invite faculty to be on a (Question & Answer) panel, or to judge a fun competition they are running. The Women@SCS web team interviews women faculty and puts the interviews on the web site. The women hold a monthly faculty lunch. Graduate women run research talks for undergraduates. Lots of outreach involve teams of undergraduate and graduates.
We published papers promoting a cultural approach based on our findings. We presented at conferences and questioned the gender difference approach. For admissions to the school we did not target women as we’ve always had very high numbers of applications. However, admissions staff are very happy to share our success story. The Women@SCS website is a great place for potential students to learn about CS life at CMU. Our current women have often been available to answer questions from potential students. Word has spread by word of mouth that CMU has an environment that works well for everyone. Our public relations group published articles when we reached 50/50 and helped us promote our books.
Yes! If boys and girls are provided the same CS opportunities and grow up with the same expectations to learn and do well with technical skills they will be more open to a future in CS. This works best when it’s embedded in the culture and parents and teachers also see this as normal.
Recommendations would depend on the type of school and the current gender balance. If the number of women is low (approx. less than 30%) women may be very aware of their gender. So, initially it’s all about showing value, raising awareness of imposter feelings, and making connections among the women.
We would first ensure there is institutional support and find a small group of faculty allies (men and women) to help the process along. We would bring together the current women students and listen to their ideas to increase their sense of belonging; develop distribution lists to help keep women connected; create a mentorship program; enable senior women to encourage the confidence in younger women; raise the issue of being seen as a computer scientist; provide women opportunities to demonstrate their technical talents (e.g. let them organize a Hackathon for all the students).
This is a very broad question and you’ll find a ton of recommendations. As mentioned in another question, there is a really good set of recommendations that we looked at during a faculty meeting (put together by Cynthia Lee from Stanford): “What can I do today to create a more inclusive community in CS?”. Two national organizations that also have good recommendations are CS4ALL and NCWIT.
Around 20% of our undergraduate population are international students (17% women, 23% men).
The undergraduate major in computer science comes under the School of Computer Science (SCS). We reached even gender balance (50/50) in the CS undergraduate major. SCS has 7 departments mostly for PhD and Masters graduate students. More recently we have added new majors, now in Robotics, Computational Biology, and AI. We also just added a major in HCI (Human Computer Interaction). Sorry but we do not have the current gender break down for these very new majors.
Undergraduate admissions are done centrally at CMU and not by department or college. We have many thousands of qualified applications for around 200 places so we can look at diversity as a factor.
Women@SCS/SCS4ALL have outside sponsors who help cover costs for our extra-curricular events. They will often come to campus to give talks or panels. However, I don’t think we’ve collaborated with NGOs to date; this would be a good thing to work on. Thank you for the suggestion.
YES! About one third students are admitted with no background in CS (mostly women but a good proportion of men). This has helped develop our student body more diverse in gender, attitudes to CS, backgrounds, ideas, etc.
You could start with a small group of faculty (men and women) who understand the situation, and could come up with a rationale for why this is important to the school/university e.g. increasing applications, improving retention, improving the classroom experience for all students. We recommend meeting with the dean or senior department heads first and once that support is confirmed it may be possible to reach out to the provost or college president.
It is important to have students involved from the beginning. This initial group could meet all together with some students who have a good sense of what is needed to improve a sense of belonging. Students could develop a simple plan for a couple of events (extracurricular social or academic).
I currently supervise a MSc student from Romania and was surprised to hear that they have already had 4 years of programming in high school and that leads to BSc programs that are 50% men and women. Do you think we need to set in much earlier than at the university aka primary and secondary school level?
Yes, many Eastern Europeans have computer science on the curriculum from an early age. Romania is one of those countries where boys and girls don’t grow up thinking CS/STEM fields are for boys. We think CS education should be on the primary/secondary curriculum. If we can get CS on the curriculum for all we believe it would help take it out of the realm of stereotypes and gender norms, especially if we can show the rewards of good jobs, good pay, role models, etc.
We don’t have data for after they leave but we do know they have great job opportunities and pay (medium salary of $100,000). We’ve not seen a gender gap in these areas. In fact, many companies seek out and recruit our women in particular. Our organizations, Women@SCS/SCS4ALL, help with peer-to-peer practice for interviewing skills and negotiation.
We are not sure what is being asked here but if it refers to undergraduate studies we now have (quite recently) 4 majors in the School of Computer Science (Computer Science, Robotics, Computational Biology, Human-Computer Interaction) but all students are enrolled in computer science and start in the computer science major and in 2nd year identify their major.
I sometimes receive emails (mostly from female students) asking whether I think they have sufficient programming background to take a Master’s level class. Ideally, I would like students to feel confident in their decision to sign up for the class. Do you have any advice on what I can do to this end?
Does the student have all the information about pre-requisites for the classes, e.g. what programming languages are needed, what level of proficiency, etc.? You might remind students that programming is just one tool among many and problem solving is the most valuable tool you bring to your studies. They may need a catch-up class, there’s no shame in taking this. Confidence is always a tricky factor. Can you actually check their skills? We have found (as have others) that women tend to rate themselves less.
We need to include parents and teachers in this process. Ideally, we should expose all students to CS at an early age so that gender norms are challenged early on and they are not boxed into stereotypes. We need to allow their potential to thrive. Show you know they can learn technical tasks, encourage them, and provide the opportunities. We recommend parents and teachers adopt Carol Dweck’s approach: Growth mindset vs fixed mindset.
Diversity issues are a part of continuing discussions for SCS and CMU. Faculty have been able to attend talks on creating a welcoming classroom. In particular, we recommend a really good set of recommendations that we looked at during a faculty meeting (put together by Cynthia Lee from Stanford): “What can I do today to create a more inclusive community in CS?”. Many faculty have attended our unconscious bias training workshops. These are optional but participation is encouraged. CMU has an on-campus center for improving teaching practices in light of a more diverse student community campus-wide. Many of our faculty are involved in the CMU Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion.
Forgive us if we say things you are already aware of—this is such an interesting question.
We are thinking about intellectual potential. We are born into cultures that already have prescribed values and expected behaviors which tend to emerge as gender norms (gender is a social construct as opposed to one’s sex). But as history shows us culture is vibrant, interactive, and constantly changing (although some aspects change very slowly). We also know that we can intervene to bring about cultural change whereas we tend to believe innate factors are fixed.
Yes, we do believe that learned gender expectations can have impact and that is why we need to be aware of them and intervene when we think they are leading to inequities. We know that cultures differ, and we see different gender expectations accordingly, so we question if innate factors are relevant. Innate factors do not explain the discrepancies in women’s participation in computing. Women are still women biologically whether they are in computer science or not. Neuroscience is revealing some very interesting findings that indicate how we construct gender differences in the USA.
The concept of bias confirmation might be useful in thinking about expectations; we tend to recall what we expect and use that as confirmation for our expectations. We forget the unexpected or put it down to being an outlier.
It is particularly interesting to see that countries with high levels of women in computing often have very restrictive social expectations for girls and women. These are countries/cultures where boys and girls do not grow up thinking their intellectual potential is gender different.
Three key points from the webinar
- Don’t change the CS curriculum to improve diversity, but the culture. In other words, don’t look at the difference between men and women, but look at what it is in the culture that is creating the difference.
- Build a community across all years and levels. At Carnegie Mellon, they created the women’s organization Women@SCS, which arranges network meetings, sister mentoring programs, and other social activities. Today, it is also open for men, but women keep leading it.
- Stop perpetuating stereotypes. Bestselling books like “Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus” and other gender-biased products are not leading us in the right direction. Also, sharing success stories about women in computing is important.