When little kids draw a scientist, even a computer scientist, “they always draw a man in a lab coat, for some reason,” computer science professor Gloria Townsend says. “A pocket protector, glasses with tape around them.
“There are no women; it’s only a man.”
And that, she says, has bugged her for years.
Also irritating, says her colleague, associate professor Khadija Stewart, is the portrayal of computer scientists in the popular media. Geeky. Uncool. And, of course, male.
The two of them are on the front line of the battle to overturn such stereotypes by enticing more DePauw women into computer science. And their recruitment efforts are paying off.
When it comes to female computer science majors, DePauw’s numbers rank right up there with the big boys. Well, the big girls. Few schools perform better: Only about 17 percent to 19 percent of computer science and informatics majors across the country are women; 47 percent of the computer science majors in DePauw’s Class of 2017 – 30 of 64 – were female.
The numbers weren’t quite as good for the Class of 2018, in which 24 percent of computer science graduates were women, nor are they for the Class of 2019 (31 percent) or 2020 (37 percent). But you get the picture: even in down years, DePauw stacks up among the best schools in the nation, largely because Townsend and Stewart work to make it so.
How? “It’s a thousand things,” says Townsend, who has taught at DePauw almost 39 years.
Research suggests that women don’t consider computer science careers because they lack role models, mentors, accurate information about careers and community. “Those are the big four,” Townsend says, “and we certainly address those. But there are tiny things too; it’s death by thousands of cuts. … Making people really welcome is extremely important.”
Stewart says that Townsend had already implemented many measures to support women when she came to DePauw 12 years ago “and I just adopted it.”
I saw in 1992 that we had one woman graduating. And I couldn’t stand it. So we’ve been working since 1992.– Gloria Townsend
These measures include:
- Inviting first-year women to a content-preview session where they learn what will occur if they take Computer Science I. Female upperclass students, who also serve as role models, help the first-year students work through a lab and talk about their experiences and opportunities in computer science. About a dozen typically attend the session, which is scheduled shortly before students register for their second-semester classes; about 80 percent end up taking CS I.
- Making it clear to women who, Stewart says, generally “do not want to end up in a cubicle, programming all day” that not all computer science careers require such rigidity.
- Staffing every class and lab with teaching assistants, who hold office hours. An effort is made to have women and students of color among the teaching assistants.
- Ensuring bulletin boards in the department show women’s faces, demonstrating for female students, Townsend says, that “you belong.”
- Using groupware in class so shy students who don’t want to speak up may anonymously submit answers to problems.
- Writing messages such as “great exam; you should be a computer science major” on top-notch exams taken by men and women, though women clearly are more affected by the gesture. “So many women return and say, ‘I didn’t have any idea I was good at computing until you told me,’” Townsend says. “And then I’m always asked the question, how many men have returned to tell me the same thing? Zero.”
- Supporting the Women in Computer Science Club. “The mentorship and role models that I found in the club provided me with an insight of the potential careers and benefits that being a computer science major provides,” says Sarah Biely ’19, who is club president this year.
- Encouraging students to apply for scholarships to attend the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Five DePauw women students – the maximum allowed for any one school – won scholarships to attend the conference in late September. Biely is among them.
Women, who had programmed computers during World War II, began veering away from computer science in the mid-1980s. “It coincided with the advent of the personal computer.” Townsend says. “People speculate that boys at home took the computers away from sisters. It came into everybody’s lives, the personal computer, so the sociological features we were talking about permeated.
“I saw in 1992 that we had one woman graduating. And I couldn’t stand it. So we’ve been working since 1992.”
Neither prof has witnessed any resentment among male students over the outreach to women.
“Everything else we do,” Stewart says, “we do it equally for men and women – advising them, showing them paths forward and examples.”
For past coverage of this topic, see:
“Breaking the Silicon ceiling,” Dec. 11, 2015