WOMEN IN COMPUTER SCIENCE: SLOW PROGRESS, SAME PROBLEMS
Western’s computer science faculty members have previously addressed lack of gender diversity in the program through new major orientations that address double standards and harassment, but the percentage of women in the computer science profession are still dismally low.
Approximately 18 percent of women in the STEM program earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science nationwide. Instead of progressively of an increase of female programmers, there has been a steady decline since the year 2000. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there has been a 22 percent decrease from 2005 to 2011, starting at 2005 with 9,775 women with a BA in computer science to 7,594 […].
Software programmer Andrea Tjoelker used to code for Action Sprout, which was a non- profit organization affiliated with Facebook that recently went down following the Cambridge Analytica controversy. She is also a Western alumna.
“My general impression is that it’s a numbers problem everywhere,” Tjoelker said.
The chief barrier among many factors can be attributed to why there is a growing deficit of female coders is a lack of belonging with their male peers.
Tjoelker struggled to find her crowd within Western’s computer science program and felt like an ‘other’ for most of her education.
“I definitely feel like some people treated me like I was inferior because I was a woman, but you have to choose whether or not you’re going to believe that thing that somebody says or whether or not you believe in yourself,” Tjoelker said.
Some extreme cases include experiences with harassment, whether it be indirect sexism or sexual harassment.
Western Computer Science Professor Dr. Erin Colvin is a new faculty member, yet five students have already reached out to her.
“Last term there was an issue with a group of men in the lab, making comments, like playground comments, about her breast size and it made her so uncomfortable that she left the lab,” Colvin said.
The student did not report this situation to anyone outside Colvin. Colvin believes that this type of immature behavior stems from the men’s lack of social awareness, that is specifically within the computer science field. Colvin notes a time when she was in school, a male classmate used to delete her work. She stated that he was a genius with computers but was incredibly arrogant and soon couldn’t find a job.
“There was a lot of bro-ness, a lot of guys playing video games and people with big egos. The kind of people I haven’t been around much in my adult life so far,” Tjoelker said.
In consequence to this kind of behavior, women who started taking computer science classes would drop out or switch to a different major. Either that, or they felt they didn’t belong to begin with, having almost no female representation within the tech industry.
“To drop [the major] because you’re getting harassed is shame on us as a department,” Colvin said.
Western faculty members are aware of this inclusion issue and in response the head of the computer science program Dr. Perry Fizzano has already reached out to female students on how to further diversify the curriculum.
Computer science senior Franchine Ninh is the President of the Association of Women Coders (AWC) who believes that some of the faculty are making an effort to listen to female students, when Fizzano emailed students for their feedback.
“Earlier this year, there was a hiring process and Perry realized that ‘it’s me and two other faculty members who are both male, I should get a student perspective, and not just a student but a female student perspective,’” Ninh said. She respects how seriously Fizzano is considering diversity.
Ninh explains how during the new major orientations, Fizzano explains what the department expectations and how to avoid some of the toxic behaviors from before.
“I’ve been very lucky and haven’t had people come up to me and talk bad to me because I was a woman,” Ninh said. “I’ve known others who have had that experience who’ve just had students come after them, or just say really passive aggressive things.”
Ninh has hope that the program is becoming a much more diverse and welcoming environment based on Dr. Fizzano’s measures with approaching harassment and other double standards. “I feel like I have to give tribute to my lower-level professors,” Ninh said. “I think without them, I would not have stuck around.”
Colvin still believes that more can be done.
“Until we have a female department chair who really knows what these females go through, I honestly don’t think that any change will be made,” Colvin said. “Although the current department chair is really proactive in female groups and the AWC, but I still haven’t seen him go in the labs where things happen.”
Ninh thinks that Fizzano is doing what is right for computer science students but can agree that female representation is important for student morale.
“Representation is definitely a factor,” Ninh said. “To say specifically within the department—I don’t know—but definitely seeing that she’s a woman and she’s a computer scientist, that has a lot of impact.”
“I think the general perception is that there is this identity issue where if you ask people what does a computer programmer look like, then they’ll say Bill Gates, they don’t say Karen Sparck Jones,” Tjoelker said. “They typically don’t say the name of a woman. If you ask who is a famous woman programmer, it’s really rare if someone can actually offer a name.”
Both Ninh and Colvin have volunteered to teach kids more about working with robotics and building an interest in technology early, while Tjoelker is a strong advocate for teaching girls how to code and wants female coders to stay in their major, despite the adversities […].
“If you give up on school, you haven’t really had a taste yet for what the industry has to offer, so that’s usually what I use as encouragement for people who are struggling in school to keep pushing because it’s totally worth it once you get to the other end.”