Bridging the gender-gap in computer science
justFeatures sat down with two students who address the lack of gender diversity in the computer science department and field.
According to the National Center for Women and Information, 37 percent of Computer Science undergraduate degree recipients in 1985 were women. By 2012, that number dropped significantly to 18 percent—with the most prominent names in the field being men.
This growing gender gap in computer science has inspired Gal Barak ’16 to create a program at Brandeis that supports gender diversity. The program, Women in Computer Science, or WiCS, is not yet recognized as an official club at Brandeis, but it is in the process of becoming one.
“Before I came to Brandeis and not just before I came to Brandeis, I wasn’t really aware of many things—one of which is the gender gap. ... I wanted to feel more like I belonged, to form that group that would make me feel comfortable and [like] there would be a place not only for me to feel like I fit in the department or in the industry,” Barak said.
Barak began the program last year after she realized that a significant number of female students do not continue on with the major after completing the Introduction to Computer Science course. Although she knew instantly that she wanted to pursue the major, “the first class with [Prof.] Antonella [DiLillo (COSI)] is kind of a yes-or-no thing,” Barak said.
One of the factors that Barak believes causes women to leave the computer science track after the introductory course is a fear of not being good enough. “I came to the conclusion that it’s okay and that I’m doing other things,” she said, “and part of what I learned is to accept that what I bring is something else.”
Barak hopes to prevent female students from dropping the major by creating a support system for them through WiCS. “We want to have the feeling of a community. We do not compete with each other. Maybe in other fields it is like this, but in computer science, especially with the gender gap, the industry is just going to grow and grow from year to year while the gender gap is growing as well, and the number of women is only decreasing,” Barak said.
This year, a major focus of the WiCS program has been working closely with the Waltham High School to encourage female students to take computer science classes. Barak, Eden Shoshan ’16 and Elena Stoeri-D’Arrigo ’16 coordinate and teach an after-school program about computer science to several female students twice a week. The program was piloted this semester with DiLillo as the faculty adviser.
Barak hopes that, someday, programs like WiCS and the after-school program at Waltham High School will not be needed. “I hope that the gender gap will not be the same in 20 years or even 10 years. I hope that it’s only going up from here as we get more and more girls from the age of 16 exposed and having the courage to try and be a part of it. I would definitely want to support more girls to not be afraid of studying things that are not the norm, but hopefully in a few years it will be the norm,” Barak said.
Barak is not alone in feeling a disproportionate gender composition in a computer science education. Similarly, Kiki Dimitriadou, a fourth-year Ph.D. student from Greece studying computer science at Brandeis, first noticed a gender gap in the field when she started classes in the U.S. “When I was in Greece, I didn’t even know there was a gap—it was about 50/50 in all the courses: 50 percent women, 50 percent men,” Dimitriadou said. “Then I came here, and it’s actually funny: The first class I took here—it was a difficult systems class—the professor was a woman and everybody else in the class, besides me, was a man.”
She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Macedonia in Greece in Applied Informatics, a combination of economics and computer science.
Upon starting her Ph.D. program, Dimitriadou noticed that not only were women the minority in computer science classes, but female students participated in class less than their male counterparts. She recalled attending a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where about 10 percent of the computer scientists were female.
“All day I was counting, and there was not even one question from a woman—all day! Then I realized, ‘Oh, this also happens in classes. Girls don’t participate as much as boys,’” Dimitriadou said.
The disparity between men and women in computer science classes grows as the courses become more advanced. Dimitriadou observed that the number of women in computer science classes dwindles in the upper levels. She attributes this phenomenon to low self-confidence in young women.
“Girls don’t believe in themselves as much as boys believe in themselves,” Dimitriadou thinks. “Even if they know the answer, they doublethink it and say ‘Maybe this is wrong,’ or they think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t ask this question because they will laugh at me or they will think it’s a stupid question.’”
She hopes that Brandeis can bridge this gap by encouraging more women to take upper-level courses and dispelling myths about tough courses that might scare off prospective students.
Dimitriadou urges young women pursuing computer science to have confidence in their intelligence and abilities. She encourages female students to be unafraid to ask “stupid” questions and contribute to class discussion. “If I don’t understand something and nobody asks a question, it means not many people understood.” Dimitriadou said.
Dimitriadou and Barak share a similar passion for increasing female participation in the computer science field and not being afraid to stand out. “I think many times I try to be one of the guys, but now I don’t want to be one of the guys, I want to be one of the gals, maybe, and not be afraid to be ashamed of that,” Barak laughed. “This is me, so maybe I don’t fit in a room of 40 guys, but that’s good for me; that’s great; it’s something that I want to do. I think the message is, pursue it and have faith.”