Stanford CS Department strives for gender parity

The percentages of women vs. men majoring in computer science over the years (LORENA RINCON-CRUZ/The Stanford Daily)

Computer science (CS) is Stanford’s most popular major, but not all students flock to the department equally; women make up only 20.9 percent of undergraduate computer science majors, a disparity shared by colleges across the nation.

While women’s enrollment in CS at Stanford has increased over the past two years, department faculty believe the problem has its roots long before most women set foot on a college campus.

“The one thing I would say people seem relatively conclusive about is that it starts earlier than college,” said Jennifer Widom, professor and chair of the Computer Science Department.

The gender disparity found in college departments is also noticeable at the high school level and below. This means that fewer women enter college with an interest in computer science, and those who do often lack the experience of their male counterparts.

“Women come in maybe with less background in CS, because the problem is actually earlier and so they get intimidated by these men who come in having programmed since they were in the third grade,” Widom said.

The challenge for the computer science department is how to make CS accessible to women once they get to college. In addition to drawing women to the major, there is often a struggle to keep them involved. Entry-level courses such as CS106A exhibit near parity, but the drop-off is steep. Women receive just 20.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees conferred in computer science, 13.7 percent of master’s degrees and 15.6 percent of doctoral degrees.

Gender breakdown across the CS department (LORENA RINCON-CRUZ/The Stanford Daily)

This drop-off persists despite rising demand for computer science degrees in the job market.

“The number of computer science majors that are being produced these days is just far below the demand from industry in terms of the number of positions that are open,” associate professor of computer science Mehran Sahami, BS ’92, M.S. ’93, Ph.D. ’99, said.

Students and faculty believe a negative stereotype of the CS student works against women considering the field.

“The image of CS…is something that’s not very attractive to women in particular,” CS major Sophia Westwood ’13 said. “So, for example, if you look at ‘The Social Network’ and you see a guy who’s not very socially adept, kind of a loser, alone in his room…It’s not really an image that appeals to a lot of guys certainly, but particularly not to women.”

However, Westwood doesn’t buy into this image, and feels that a CS degree has a lot to offer women.

“One of the most important things is that that image isn’t true, that there’s all sorts of things you could do with a CS major,” she said.

In an effort to keep up with developments in the field, Stanford revised its curriculum in the 2008-09 school year to diversify what many perceived as a monolithic course offering by the department. Students now have their choice of several different tracks, with concentrations ranging from graphics to human-computer interaction.

Since 2009, the number of women majoring in CS has increased by 9.5 percent, which Sahami said is a direct result of the curriculum change.

One outreach effort organized by students to promote women in the field is a set of bi-quarterly dinners for women interested or involved in computer science held by the campus group She++. The dinners give freshmen and sophomores a chance to meet female upperclassmen in the department as well as industry professionals.

“Women who find more women to be with in computer science, that makes a big difference,” Widom said. “Just the fact that our major is expanding means that there are more women involved in our major…So just making sure these women meet each other is a useful thing.”

One point, emphasized by Westwood, is that most women take introductory CS classes after having declared their major.

“If you ask people later, ‘Do you wish that you had taken this class earlier?’ most of them say ‘Yes,’” Westwood said.

For now, the rapidly expanding department is keeping its hopes high. According to Sahami, the goal is equal representation of genders in the major.

  • james

    One thing for sure. If you are a woman who is fairly good at writing code, you will get more job offers than you know what to do with.

  • pol_incorrect

    First, I think that having Computer Science as the most popular major for undergrads is WELCOME development. Maybe we are leaving behind the times where we have more future lawyers (ie those political science majors) than future engineers in the ranks; that’s a good thing!
    I think that the main reason for the low percentage of women is because women are less attracted to engineering in general. In Computer Science in particular, according to several studies, it was the mid eighties when the production of women with Bachelors Degrees in CS peaked http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2005/12/18/in_computer_science_a_growing_gender_gap/?page=full . At the same time, in recent years more women than men have been admitted to the MD program at the School of Medicine. So at the end of the day, people just get matched to their preferences and the intrinsic differences between men and women sort themselves out.

  • nic

    This is a great topic, but I think it would have been great to actually have heard from women in computer science or a representative from She++ … without a woman’s or women’s voice in the article it essentially becomes another article where a man is talking about what they think women’s issues are — it just makes more sense for the women to tell their own story. Again, I think it’s a great topic and hard to cover in so few words!

  • Hey nic

    Um, Sophia Westwood is quoted in the article. She’s a woman. Jennifer Widom is quoted in the article. She’s a woman.

  • CS sw architect from CA

    I am a woman who has worked a a fortune 500 company for almost 30 years in a CS position. The primary issue with women in CS specifically (and women in engineering in general) is that there is strong gender disparity in the workplace. For a woman to be successful in a technical, male-dominated field, not only she has to be very good at whatever she does, but also she has to work a lot harder to prove herself than a man. The stereotype is loud and clear in the CS and engineering / technical field.

  • CS sw architect from CA

    This is usually not true for high-tech CS jobs. The best candidate typically gets the job regardless of gender. There are plenty of low-tech positions for corporations to manage EEO.

  • duphont

    There are disciplines in the humanities where 70% or more of the students, and 80% or more of the majors, are women. Why no discussion of the crisis of missing men? Why CS and not French or Art History?

  • re: duphont

    The Daily prints an article about the CS department at least once a week. You might ask yourself why French and Art History don’t get articles in the paper once a week. It’s not a matter of reverse-discrimination thing. It’s just a matter of what’s interesting news, and what isn’t.

  • nic

    I stand corrected! I think I just overlooked who was being quoted when it jumped back and forth (and was a little caffeine deprived :) .. But like I said, good topic, awareness is the first step in smashing that glass ceiling!

  • bittergradstudent

    “Since 2009, the number of women majoring in CS has increased by 9.5 percent”

    Doesn’t sound like a lot.

  • bittergradstudent

    So basically you’re saying is that sex biases should occur.

  • pol_incorrect

    No, what I am saying is that despite what the politically correct/thought police claim, there are innate differences in men and women that go beyond biology that make men more tuned for certain professions while women are tuned for other professions and that despite all the bs, at the end of the day those differences make women chose certain professions more than other professions and viceversa. My theory of the peak in 1980 of CS women graduates is that many fell in the trap of the politically correct just to abandon the profession later. That said, I do think that to some extend there is bias, although not as high as the politically correct zealots claim, and that bias goes both ways. For instance, you cannot be a male nurse without having your sexuality questioned :D.

  • Marwa Farag

    Thanks for your comment. We looked at CS because the department has made it a goal to increase the percentage of women in the major, while we have not heard of similar efforts toward a gender balance in other departments. If you have any information or tips, please email me at news@stanforddaily.com.