Brown Daily Herald:
A quota by any other name?
A quota by any other name?
The proportion of females in computer science peaked during the early 1980s. But by the end of the decade, women were dropping out of the field.
Computers were gradually becoming "a boy thing," said Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe. When computers were emerging in the early 1970s, most typists were women, and so computer science seemed like a job for women. But the computer games that arrived in the 1980s changed that perception, since most of them involved sports or simulated violence.
The games were "very easy to program — a piece of light going across the screen and being able to figure out whether it hit the target or not," Klawe said, adding that it was natural for game development to subsequently be "very focused on boy interests."
The number of students interested in computer science increased significantly at the end of the 1990s, according to the New York Times. Since then, rates have steadily declined.
As computer use spread to other disciplines, "people discovered you don't have to do computer science to do computers," Doeppner said.
Most universities try to attract more women to the discipline, said Shriram Krishnamurthi, associate professor of computer science at Brown. But "I don't know what the right baseline is. Is it parity? Is 50-50 the right number? Should it be 70-30 in one direction, maybe 70-30 in the other?" he said. "What's more useful is to find the root causes. … Percentages just mean nothing to me."
Raising the numbers
At Harvey Mudd, the number of female computer science students has gone up significantly in recent years, the proportion of females increasing from 10 percent to 42 percent, according to Klawe.
The department offers a number of summer research opportunities to female rising sophomores. It also restructured its introductory computer science class, which all students take in their first three semesters. The focus of the class switched from Java programming to computer-based problem solving, resulting in a remarkable increase in popularity, Klawe said.
Harvey Mudd also started inviting its female freshmen to a computer science conference where approximately 95 percent of the attendees are women, Klawe said. Even students who do not end up majoring in the field leave with a changed perception of it. "It's like, ‘Oh yeah, there are tons of women in CS! I met a thousand of them,'" Klawe said.
She said she believes Harvey Mudd's success can be replicated at other schools, since the changes were not expensive. As an undergraduate, she was told many times that there were "no good women mathematicians," even though she was one of the best at every school she attended.
Zeng, however, said that the open curriculum might make Harvey Mudd's approach difficult to implement at Brown. The student body of an engineering school is "very self-selecting," she added.