Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Bridging the Gap: Women in STEM

     With only 15% of the Computer Science bachelor’s degrees conferred in the United States going to women, both the information technology industry and the realm higher education are under serious pressure to recruit more women to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors and tech related career paths.
     Some schools have had some impressive success; most notably the University of Washington, whose Computer Science program is 30% women. While far from equal and an accomplishment described as “not great” by Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering Chair Ed Lazowska, this statistic is still twice the national average. This seems to raise two important questions; first, what is it that UW is doing right, and second, what more can be done to bridge the gap nationwide?
     The University of Washington initially cites exposure as a primary catalyst in motivating women to pursue STEM disciplines in college. By introducing young girls to information technology and programming  in elementary and middle school through “workshops and field trips,” public universities (whose students tend to hail from local public high schools) can anticipate a cohort of women with an already piqued interest in the field. However, while this effective, it is far from the only answer as many women are denied early exposure but nevertheless have the potential to excel in Computer Science.
     The University decided to take matters into their own hands and revamp their own program by “universalizing,” so to speak, the program’s introductory prerequisite courses as a means of indicating that Computer Science is fundamentally meritocratic and requires hard work and discipline, rather than innate talent. By fostering close relationships with faculty members in small classroom settings, CompSci loses its reputation as an isolated and lonely field and encourages teamwork and community -- something which is particularly important for women who often feel ostracized by their minority status. While these initiatives have been effective, they aren’t without their faults. Many women have found themselves put off by programs meant specifically to recruit women as they fear they will be labelled “female computer scientists” rather than merely computer scientists.
     Schools like the University of Washington and Indiana University are making impressive gains in reducing the disparity women in STEM face; and while these schools forge ahead towards parity, it is quite clear that there is still a long way to go.