Bringing women back to computer science

In Susan Davidson’s opinion, computer science is an ideal field for anyone to shape a career.

Davidson, the Weiss Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science (CIS) in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), describes the field as challenging yet rewarding, and meaningful to everyday life. It can be collaborative or somewhat solitary in nature, depending on preference, and the salaries are lucrative. When she had children, she says, the virtual nature of the field allowed her the convenience of working remotely from home.

“Unlike biology, where you have to be in the lab monitoring experiments, computer science is a career that you can work into your daily life,” Davidson says. “It just fits.”

So upon learning about data released by the National Science Foundation late last year—that women nationally received only 18.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science as opposed to 29.6 percent in 1991—she says she was baffled.

“In the early days of the industry, it was composed mostly women,” Davidson says. “Here at Penn, the ENIAC was operated by female programmers, many of whom were math teachers, because those were the people who weren’t drafted for war and that had the necessary analytical abilities. So really, the interesting question is, why did we lose women in the field?”

Michele Grab, director of Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) at SEAS, says the gender disparity plagues fields across the engineering spectrum—and the reason why isn’t always cut-and-dried.

“The No. 1 indicator, male or female, for someone choosing engineering is because someone tells them to—a parent, a family member, a teacher—and it turns out people tend to tell more boys than girls that this is a field they could pursue,” Grab says.

At Penn, the numbers look a little brighter than the national figure of 18.2 percent, with 25 percent of Penn undergraduate computer science degrees being awarded to women. Davidson says that diminishing the disparity in computer science is a major priority among faculty and staff at SEAS and within the department—and with good reason.

“It’s important to the industry because anything that you develop has to have the diversity of perspectives that are applied to it,” says Davidson, faculty chair of AWE. “Women may bring in different talents and strengths to a project. There are all sorts of tangible product developments that could have been improved with a more diverse population.”

Davidson says Penn has opted for a pipeline approach to integrate more women in the field, creating learning opportunities from middle school years through college. Faculty and staff work with teachers and counselors to host workshops and after-school activities to generate interest in engineering and computer science, as well as to promote Penn programs that explore the field in depth.

One such example is Penn GEMS, a week-long camp for middle school-aged girls to explore science, technology, engineering, and math fields at Penn.

“The first thing I do on the first day of camp is ask the girls what they think engineering is,” Grab says. “Immediately they say cars, bridges, or trains. Yes, all of those things involve engineering, but if you’re not interested in those things, there are still plenty of things you can do with engineering that they don’t even realize up to that point.”

CIS also hosts Women in Computer Science High School Day, featuring discussions about topics like dream jobs in computer science and Penn admissions.

For those still interested in pursuing the field after high school, Grab also hosts a pre-orientation program for women in engineering at Penn.

“A huge part of it is them just getting to know each other so when they walk into their first calculus class, they have someone to sit with, study with, stress out with, and make it feel like they’re not on their own,” Grab says.

To maintain that bond and further engage women, Davidson says faculty members have redesigned some course structures.

“We often hear that women perceive programming to be a solitary activity,” Davidson says. “Learning to program can be overwhelming for anyone, so [putting] students into groups to do homework together is a way to counter that isolated feeling.”

Davidson says CIS has also considered infrastructural changes to foster more engagement with women. In addition to offering majors unique to Penn like Digital Media Design—a major that since its introduction has attracted women—administrators have also opened computer science as a second major in the College of Arts & Sciences.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Where are the women?’ They’re in arts and sciences, and so we opened up the major because we believe computer science transcends [SEAS],” Davidson says. “Computer science should be a part of any future leader’s experience. It is relevant in everyone’s daily life, and the more that argument is made, the more women might see computer  science as an important thing to do.”

Women Computer Science