Through the Screen of a Female Coder: A First Person Perspective on Diversity in STEM
The following was written by CRA’s Eben Tisdale Fellow, Satoe Sakuma. Satoe is a computer science and international relations undergraduate student at Boston University. She shares her perspective on diversity in the computing major below.
Again and again we hear that earning computing degrees leads to one of the highest starting salaries for college graduates and almost a guaranteed job after graduation. This information is supported by data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers who report computer science graduates have the second highest starting salary ($61,321 this year) and the highest full-time employment rate (76% within six months of graduation). A blog post from the Computing Community Consortium in March highlights 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics job projection results, which found that computing occupations are projected to account for 73% of all newly-created STEM jobs during the decade (488,500 jobs), and 55% of all available STEM jobs, whether newly-created or available due to retirements (1,083,800 jobs over the decade). All of this isn’t new information. Many people are aware that the booming tech industry can be a ticket to job security and comfortable living. Data from the National Science Foundation in 2014, shows that there are approximately 17.8% of women studying computer science at the undergraduate level. So why is it every CS classroom I am in is filled with bright-eyed, eager young men, but a dismal number of women?
Analyzing Diversity in Computing
There is an obvious lack of diversity in computing fields, and I have witnessed it first-hand. Beyond just increasing diversity, for diversity’s sake, there is evidence that shows increased diversity improves outcomes. The National Center for Women and Information Technology released as fact sheet that notes a study of work teams found that having more women on a team was associated with higher levels of collective intelligence, which refers to the knowledge that emerges from collaborative efforts.
When I approach female friends with the question “Why don’t you try computer science or computer engineering?” I often hear responses such as “I’m not good at math,” or “Do I look like a gamer boy to you?” The low participation of women in technical fields like computing can be seen as a vicious cycle: women feel as though they do not “belong” in technical fields to the degree that men do, leading women to avoid or shy away from those fields (Cheryan et al., 2009; Good et al., 2012; Lewis et al., 2016), potentially perpetuating women’s underrepresentation in technical fields. According to a report by Jane Stout, director of CRA’s Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline and Tracy Camp, a CRA-W board member, “at all levels of the academic computing pipeline, men outnumber women by at least 3:1,” (Stout & Camp, 2014) indicating issues with mentorship and role models. In order to better examine this issue, I categorize the issue into two parts: barriers put up by the women themselves and external pressures. External pressures explain the male oriented culture and stereotyping. Women are disadvantaged by gender biases in the workplace as seen through the application process and promotion consideration. They also feel like they don’t belong in a world of ‘gamer nerds.’
The report by Jane Stout also shows that some of the disparity between genders in computing research is attributed to difference in career values and stereotypes. (Stout & Camp, 2014), Women tend to choose careers that have clear social applications, whereas STEM is believed to have low relevance to the real world (Stout et al., in press). Who made us believe that computer science does not have much relevance to the real world? We did. We limit our scope of computer science to analyzing particle physics theories or correcting advanced algorithms, which has applications to real world, but not in the immediate sense that some people would like.
I have learned that the beauty of computer science is that it allows for incredible creativity and is flexible enough to plug into not only other hard sciences but also any other profession. If we continue with stereotypes, women tend to have great interest in fashion, cosmetics, and design. By watching the way tech has changed the cosmetics industry demonstrated by Sephora, we see untapped markets touched by technology exist. Female engineers might enjoy coding for the complex art of putting together an #ootd (outfit of the day) that is Instagram worthy.
Ways to Support Gender Diversity
A New York Times opinion piece, “What Really Keeps Women Out of Tech,” cites a study which found female students are more interested in enrolling in a computer class if they are shown a classroom (whether virtual or real) decorated not with “Star Wars” posters, science-fiction books, computer parts and tech magazines, but with a more neutral décor — art and nature posters, coffee makers, plants and general-interest magazines (Cheryan et al., 2011). Although changing the environment is important, there must be more we can do in addition to making the environment more gender neutral. One great way to support women in computing-related fields is by organizing workshops and mentorship programs. According to a study by Sarah K. Buday from the University of Missouri-Saint Louis, the relationship between peer persistence and student persistence is stronger for women in physical sciences than for women in life sciences or men in either field (Buday, 2012). Creating support groups addresses both obstacles in the sense of self and combatting societal stereotypes. The Grace Hopper Conference held once a year celebrates women in computing and sparks inspiration in younger women to continue their pursuit in computing. CRA-Women can be a great tool for finding scholarships and other awards for women in computing and also offers several programs such as Grad Cohort, which brings together hundreds of female graduate students in computing, to build self-efficacy by providing a network of role models. Please visit https://cra.org/cra-w/ for more opportunities to connect with inspiration for women in the field of computing research.
Buday, Sarah K. (2012). Gender and the Choice of a Science Career: The Impact of Social Support and Possible Selves. Sex Roles, 66, 197.
Cheryan, S., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kim, S. (2011). Classrooms matter: The design of virtual classrooms influences gender disparities in computer science classes. Computers & Education, 57, 1825-1835.
Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. G., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 1045-1060. doi:10.1037/a0016239
Good, C., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 700-717.
Lewis, K. L., Stout, J. G., Finkelstein, N. F., Pollock, S. J., Miyake, A., Cohen, G. L & Ito, T. A. (2016). Fitting in to Move Forward: Using a Belonging Framework to Understand Gender Disparities in Persistence in the Physical Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (pSTEM). Manuscript submitted for publication.
Stout, J. G. & Camp, T. (2014). Now what? Action items from social science research to bridge the gender gap in computing research. SIGCAS Computers in Society: Special Issue on Women in Computing, 44, 5-8.
Stout, J. G., Grunberg, V. A., & Ito, T. A. (in press). Gender Roles and Stereotypes about Science Careers Help Explain Women’s and Men’s Science Pursuits. Sex Roles.
Note. Betsy Bizot, Jane Stout and Shar Steed at Computing Research Association also contributed to this post.