By: Benjamin Romano
The University of Washington’s computer science program granted 30 percent of its undergraduate degrees last year to women, a mark that earned it recognition from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT).
The UW received the grand prize in the first NCWIT Extension Services Transformation Awards, “based on the significant gains they have made in increasing the number of women enrolling and graduating from their program,” says the organization’s co-founder and CEO Lucy Sanders in an e-mail. “These accomplishments are the result of strategic, well-planned recruiting and retention efforts. Of particular note is the inclusive, welcoming community their department has grown that spans beyond the walls of the university and has demonstrably advanced women’s meaningful participation in computing.”
In 2005, only 15 percent of UW computer science bachelor’s degree recipients were women. The rate has marched steadily upward in the last decade.
“Although our 30 percent still leaves us with a long way to go, we’ve worked really hard over many years, and I’m truly thrilled to have it recognized,” UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska says in an e-mail.
Lazowska, lecturer Allison Obourn, and director of student services Crystal Eney were on the UW team credited by the NCWIT, which is presenting the awards Thursday at its annual summit.
The UW has cultivated a welcoming community in part through a revamp of its introductory course that students take before they’ve declared computer science as their major. It’s broad in scope, meant to encourage everyone to participate, with some specific programs highlighting research by women and women working in the industry. Many of the undergraduate teaching assistants are women.
Lazowska says that at other schools, these introductory courses often serve to “weed out” students considering majoring in computer science, particularly given that demand for the major is outpacing many universities’ ability to accommodate interested and qualified students. (And that is certainly the case at the UW.) Women enrolling in the introductory course at UW say in surveys they’re less interested in pursuing the major than men. Lazowska fears that this hostile, “weed ‘em out” approach could lead to “precisely the students who are already under-represented” being dissuaded from the major.
The UW’s accomplishment is notable, particularly compared with current national averages. Women received 14.1 percent of computer science bachelor degrees in the 2013-14 academic year, according to the Computing Research Association’s latest Taulbee Survey, which tracks statistics at the roughly 200 North American university computer science programs that grant PhDs.
But the UW’s 30 percent still falls short of the high-water mark for computer science degrees granted to women nationally. Back in the early 1980s, upwards of 35 percent of bachelor degrees in the field went to women. The percentage declined steadily over the ensuing decades to a low in the late 2000s of around 17-18 percent, according to National Science Foundation data.
Lazowska is hopeful that the trend is reversing. “Many in the field—an increasing number of companies, and an increasing number of universities—are taking this seriously, and are showing that it’s possible to make progress,” he says.