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CS seeks greater female involvement

Perhaps even more remarkable than the record-breaking enrollment in CS 106A last quarter was the percentage of those 594 students who were female.

“We’re getting pretty close to gender parity,” said Mehran Sahami, BS ’92, M.S. ’93, Ph.D. ’99, an associate professor of computer science who teaches the course in the fall.

Gender parity, if only in the introductory class, is encouraging news for a department that is overwhelmingly male.

Unfortunately, the percentage of female students in computer science drops off considerably from 106A, even though, according to Roberts and Sahami, women do just as well and report liking it just as much as men.

Each subsequent course in the track becomes more and more male-dominated. The percentage of female CS majors remains only 20 percent, according to computer science professor Eric Roberts.

The number of women matters, said Roberts, because universities are producing a tenth of the computer scientists that the industry is demanding, because existing technology reflects its producers and because the major can be empowering, especially in terms of salary.

That number is an improvement on recent years — in 2009, only 8.1 percent of students graduating in computer science were women — but represents no change in the longer run. Roberts, who has taught at Stanford since 1990, remembers the percentage of women in the major ranging from 14 to 26 percent.

“It’s one of the lowest of the engineering disciplines,” Roberts said.

Last quarter, computer science major Sophia Westwood ‘13 was among the latest to try and figure out why that was the case, talking to professors and doing her own research as well.

The issue “is always present, but pushed under the rug,” Westwood said.  “The actual numbers…were pretty stark.”

“Fundamentally, it’s a simple idea,” Westwood said.  “We’re getting all these people in 106A and we’re having trouble keeping them.”

Each person’s case for not continuing is unique, she said, but some of the deterrents she found were rooted in stereotypes and misconceptions of the major.

To combat that perception, the department overhauled the major in 2008, adding tracks, like Artificial Intelligence and Graphics, which catered to students’ interests, and emphasizing the multidisciplinary nature of computer science.

Another obstacle is the sense that computer science can be solitary and for some, socially isolating.

“The stereotype of the socially awkward nerd has some basis in reality,” Roberts said.  “I’ve always thought the milieu in CS can be off-putting to people who put more value in the social side of things.”

But Westwood said she believes this is not usually the case, especially with the department’s recent multidisciplinary focus.

“Other interests make you a better computer scientist,” she said. “You’re not going to be in a cubicle; you’re not going to be antisocial and you’re not going to have a monitor tan. Unless you want to be.”

The field’s gender gap can be self-reinforcing.  With fewer female role models in computer science, women can shy away

“For a lot of guys, their default is to continue and for a lot of girls, the default isn’t,” Westwood said.

Changing that default setting for women, Westwood realized, can be as easy as sitting down to speak with and advise them.

“For a lot of them [female computer science majors] there was a part where someone reached out and said, ‘You’re really good at this,’” Westwood said.

Beginning last quarter, Westwood began a program in which section leaders in the 106 series would reach out to talented freshman and sophomore women to talk to them about a future in the subject.

Although the program could not reach everyone it sought to, Westwood ended up speaking one-on-one with just over 30 women of the 60 she contacted.

Bonnie McLindon ’14 was one of the students Westwood engaged.  After taking 106B in the fall, she was considering majoring in the subject. And the ensuing discussion with Westwood “definitely solidified my declaring CS,” McLindon said.

“I felt very included in the community,” McLindon said.  “It made me want to reach out to the other girls in 106B [who were] with me.”

Westwood also encouraged the students she spoke with tap into another effort by the department: recruiting more female section leaders for the 106 series.

That way, “the students see a greater number of female role models,” Sahami said.

The program seems to be working, as McLindon said she is applying to become a section leader in the spring.

Westwood plans to continue and expand her outreach program into this quarter and beyond.

“The building blocks are in place,” she said, referring to the revamped major and the pull of the troubled economy. “A push here would help.”

Contact Neel at nthakkar@stanford.edu.