Tech companies that employ few women — most large firms are approximately 70 percent men — often blame the “pipeline problem” for the disparity, saying there aren’t enough women in the applicant pool for the companies to correct the imbalance. That view places the onus of gender diversity on the education system, and the University of Washington has established itself as a leader in getting women into the field.
UW’s Computer Science and Engineering program announced on Thursday that its 2015 bachelor’s degree class will be 32 percent women, more than double the national average of 14 percent. Furthermore, the National Center for Women & Information Technology recognized UW with its Excellence in Promoting Women in Undergraduate Computing Award, which comes with a $100,000 check from Google’s philanthropic arm.
According to Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the school, the lack of women in the field stems in part from the industry’s marketing strategy that began in the 1980s. “Personal computing and video games became a guy thing, and that created a superficial familiarity that was off-putting to others that wanted to go into the field,” he said.
Understanding how the UW’s computer science program has been successful at breaking that mold is easier after a visit to the psychology department. That’s where Sapna Cheryan studies how stereotypes deter women from computer science, and her research has shaped how Lazowska and his colleagues approach gender equity.
Cheryan’s research has found that stereotypes about the people, the nature of the work, and the values of computer science are what steer women away from the field. In boosting the number of women computer science graduates, up 12 percentage points in five years, the UW has tackled the stereotypes Cheryan has identified.
Let’s start with the stereotypes around the people in tech, which Cheryan said formed in the ’80s. “That’s the time when movies like Weird Science, Real Genius, and some others came out,” she said. “So the image of technology became very closely tied not only to males, but to a very specific type of male that is socially awkward, not hygienic, and obsessive about technology. … That’s basically the image that you see today.”
So the techies young women see on TV and in the movies are male geeks who swill soda or energy drinks and bumble around female characters, of which there are few. Thus, UW had to convince women that tech is a career choice for people outside that typecast. The university has largely accomplished that by visiting K-12 schools. Lazowska said UW interacts with local high school teachers and participates in programs, including CS4HS and Code.org, that introduce K-12 students to computer science. Once kids see that the field isn’t only for those who look and act like Erlich Bachman, UW invites them to take an introductory course once they enter college.
This is where UW has arguably been most effective at changing the image of computer science. Its intro curriculum has been revamped to focus on three areas: building confidence, showcasing the breadth of the field, and building a sense of community.
Contrast those with the stereotypes Cheryan has identified. A major deterrent for women, she said, is the idea that tech values geniuses above all else. “You had people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs building these things in their garages,” she said. “That’s a very focused, very masculine culture.” Because of stories like these, many women think tech isn’t collaborative, and that one must be something of a savant to be successful in the field.
Lazowska said the intro class used to further that idea to a degree. The curriculum favored students who already had some computer science experience, which, considering decades of men-in-tech marketing and imagery, meant male students had an advantage in the course. So UW scrapped that model, and now treats the course as a broad canvas of the computer science world.
“When people take our intro course, we have them fill out a questionnaire that … asks, on a scale of one to five, what’s your interest in becoming a computer science major?” Lazowska said. “And then when people become a major a year later, we look at what box they checked a year before. Fifty-eight percent of women who become our majors did not have a positive interest when they took the intro course. So they had a great experience.”
The curriculum isn’t the only way that experience changed. One of Cheryan’s studies found that women at Stanford were more likely to be interested in computer science if they entered a classroom with nature posters as opposed to one with Star Trek posters. Based on that knowledge, Cheryan helped the computer science department adjust the aesthetics of the computer labs and classrooms. Furthermore, Lazowska said intro courses emphasize community building and show women the variety of careers a C.S. degree can yield.
“A huge amount of what computer science is being used for these days directly affects peoples’ lives in positive ways. It’s hard to create that tie to operating systems and compilers and machine learning.” Lazowska said. “But if you think about the role of computer science in personalized education and health-care efficiency, things like that, that’s a story people can relate to.”
These approaches have bolstered the number of women studying C.S. at UW, but there’s still room to grow. The share of women getting computer science degrees at UW, though comparatively high, still mirrors the total share of women in the tech workforce. But given the current rate of growth in women students, it might not be long before the UW program sees gender parity.