Schools Push for Women Computer Scientists

By Ji Hyun Lee

It used to be that some professions were thought to be just for men — picture rugged firefighters, those thoughtful doctors in pharmaceutical ads and, of course, the hyperactive geek types associated with programmers of the Mark Zuckerberg kind. Another profession in which women have been missing out on is computer science. Despite the gender stereotype that women can’t do math, many tech leaders are adamant that women computer scientists have the capacity to elevate an industry that is hungry for fresh, new talent, and schools have taken notice.

graduateMichigan Technological University was recently chosen to participate in the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s Pacesetters program, a highly competitive initiative that allows selected schools give a hand to women CS students. Some 20 are participating in the program, including Virginia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech.

“Women represent a largely untapped potential [talent] pool,” said Linda Ott, an MTU professor and head of the program, in a news release.  “The more diverse the talent pool working in a field, the more diverse the solutions will be and the more diverse types of problems that will be tackled.  As an example, she noted, “we have seen in the computer game industry that when a field is dominated by one gender, the default is to produce products of greater interest to that gender.”

During the program’s two years, tech industry leaders have worked with schools to actively recruit more women into the workforce.  More than 1,600 women computer scientists have been recruited in tech as a result. MTU’s efforts to bridge the gender gap have been aiding its own needs, as well: Since 2005 the school has seen a 36 percent increase in female student enrollment in its College of Engineering.

At the Rochester Institute of Technology, the push to recruit women extends beyond the university. RIT implemented the Women in Computing outreach program, which pairs undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students with local elementary and high school girls to encourage them to explore computing as a career. The benefits of the program go both ways. RIT’s students “are excited to work with young girls and explain opportunities in computing to them while also boosting their own confidence in their major area of study,” says Sandra Murphy, the effort’s program coordinator. The program gives “school-age girls an opportunity to write code and connect hardware and feel successful when their projects are completed.”

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Just how valuable are programs like these? RIT-bound high school senior Jennie Lamere recently made news for winning the TVnext Hack competition for her development of Twivo, a browser plugin that blocks tweets containing TV show spoilers. She was the only female to enter the competition.

Other schools leading these kinds of efforts include Western Washington University, whose Association for Women in Computing forms a community of its CS women students. Both Carnegie Mellon and Stanford have similarly focused and woman-led aspects in their CS programs. Stanford seniors Ellora Israni and Ayna Agarwal see the need for women to enter the male-dominated industry as being so great, they founded She++, a woman–in-tech conference geared to CS students looking for female role models from Silicon Valley leaders. “We wanted to build a community of budding female technologists who can learn together, grow together and be a support network for each other,” says Agarwal.

Since its founding, the pair has been named among the Top 50 Women in Technology by Silicon Valley Global. She++ has also been the subject of a documentary and much media coverage.

5 Responses to “Schools Push for Women Computer Scientists”

  1. Old Vet

    Why must everything be based on protected” groups? Given the state of our nation, it should be get everyone that we can into the schools regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what their religon is. We need to put Americans to work so let’s train all Americans that want the chance in this field.

    • I’m a female. I received my Math/CIS degree a little over two years ago. I have never worked in the tech field, and realistically, I never will. However, my gender is not the reason why I could not get a job; gender had nothing to do with it. There are simply no entry-level positions available in the IT industry, and I could not afford to spend several years working for free in the hopes that someone would eventually throw me a bone and offer me $12.00/hour.

      Believe me, women with STEM degrees have it no easier than the guys. In some respects, they may have a more difficult time, only because many women do not attend college until later in life, like I did. In my case, it was because my childhood was plagued with domestic violence and I couldn’t go to college right out of high school. For most women, it’s because they took time off from the paid workforce to raise children. So by the time they do get their degrees, they’re over 30, perhaps over 40: “too old” for tech.

    • Forget about scholarships. Where are the entry-level jobs? Even if your college education is free, it won’t do you a bit of good if you cannot obtain a job after you graduate.

      • Old Vet

        I notice all of the tech compamies only complain about not being able to bring techs from other countries into this one instead of creating an environment for hiring their fellow citizens. They want all of the protections this country offers but do not want to insure that this country remainsstrong to continue to provide those liberties to them. Talk about being one way.