Since the halcyon days of the early 80s’ PC revolution, the number of females studying computer science has declined steeply. This summer, a band of dedicated UBC student volunteers is partnering with software giant SAP to reverse the trend
The 80s were an era of Rubik’s Cubes, 8-bit pixel graphics and geeky calculator watches. It was also a time when women in North America flocked to computer science. Glance at UBC computer science graduation photos from the decade and you’ll notice something. No, not the generous use of hairspray. A third of the students were women.
But since then the number of women entering the field has dwindled. In Canada, women now account for only 17 per cent of undergraduates in engineering and computer science. It’s a similar picture in the United States.
“About 25 per cent of our undergrads are women,” says Michele Ng, who oversees the UBC GIRLsmarts outreach program. “That’s a far cry from the early 1980s, but better than the average across the country, which is roughly 17 per cent.”
The good news? Women are almost three times more likely to consider careers in science, math and engineering if they participate early on in science fairs and summer camps, according to recent research conducted at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.
In other words, we need to get girls’ attention while they are young. And that’s where GIRLsmarts and a dedicated cast of UBC volunteers comes in.
Don’t you (forget about girls)
A Commodore 64 was Viann Chan’s introduction to the world of computers. It made a lasting impression. When she became a UBC grad student specializing in bioinformatics, she often thought back to those early days tinkering with the Commodore.
Chan had read the literature that indicated early exposure to STEM could greatly benefit girls. She also discovered there were no dedicated outreach activities in B.C.’s elementary schools targeting girls and IT. In 2004, with the support of UBC faculty and staff, Chan was able to prepare a proposal, obtain seed money from IBM, and recruit volunteers to help her run a one-day computer workshop for girls in Grade 6. It was the beginning of the university’s GIRLsmarts outreach program.
Since its creation, GIRLsmarts has been volunteer run. UBC computer science students work one-on-one with grade school girls to explore a variety of aspects of technology, from programming to user interfaces. Three student coordinators oversee the logistics of the workshops. Volunteers organize two Grade 6 workshops throughout the year, with an additional Grade 7 workshop premiered this year. Registration for Vancouver’s Eastside begins two weeks before opening to rest of the Lower Mainland, allowing underprivileged students to get first choice for the spots.
“Given the fantastic opportunities in computing, as well as the impact that computer technologies have in our world, it’s important that girls as well as boys explore and pursue their interests in the field,” says Anne Condon, head of UBC’s department of Computer Science. “GIRLsmarts volunteers are great role models who help dispel negative myths about computing that might deter girls, and provide a great hands-on experience for participants.”
Some of those myths may include the idea that IT workers are not supposed to be social or engage in teamwork. Or that a CS graduate is a “geek” – a socially awkward male wearing glasses and deeply embedded in gamer culture.
Could the geek stereotype be driving girls away from the computational sciences? Maybe. But experts say it’s not the only culprit.
Weird (Computer) Science
Psychology plays a key role in the research of Hasti Seifi, a UBC graduate student studying computer interaction and design. She spends her time thinking about interfaces and how to create technology solutions that are intuitive and easy to use. It’s probably not what most girls have in mind when they consider computer science.
Traditionally people perceive information technology as monolithic: coding with a side of coding. It’s an unfortunate image. Jane Margolis, co-author of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, has said that women students at Carnegie Mellon didn’t want to hack for “hacking’s sake” but were looking for a context that would give their work meaning. They want to connect their work to other disciplines.
Enrollment trends at UBC seem to bolster the theory. Combined computer science degrees attract a higher percentage of women. The CS-biology program is composed of 35 per cent women students–much closer to the ratio of female students the university attracted in the 80s.
Combined computer science degrees attract a higher percentage of women. The CS-biology program is composed of 35 per cent women students
GIRLsmarts is an opportunity to show young women that computer science is relevant and compelling, and an opportunity to explore crucial connections. Most importantly, it does it in an inviting environment.
At UBC, the GIRLsmarts volunteers organize practice runs with both boys and girls before finalizing their preparations for the girl-only workshops. The dynamics of a co-ed room are very different from the final workshop.
“In the practice runs boys dominate a lot,” says Seifi, the lead GIRLsmarts coordinator. “Girls become really shy. But we see an increase in participation in the girls-only workshops.”
Seifi believes a similar dynamic takes place in CS university classrooms: “A lot of female students feel like an impostor. They feel they don’t belong. They are less confident.”
Studies support Seifi’s observations. A 2008 survey by the Public Health Agency of Canada found that 36 per cent of Grade 6 girls say they are self-confident. By Grade 10 that number has plummeted to 14 per cent. Later, when girls are considering career choices, waning self-confidence may mingle with unwelcoming stereotypes to deter any interest in IT.
Meanwhile the IT sector can’t attract enough talent. Recent IBM studies indicate only one in 10 organizations are able to meet their IT human resource needs. There is a huge pool of unengaged, untapped talent waiting in the wings.
Take on (CS)
What started as a small initiative spearheaded by an energetic UBC student has grown and evolved. This February, GIRLsmarts organized its first Grade 7 workshop in partnership with software developer SAP. More than 60 girls stormed the company’s Vancouver office in Yaletown to learn about programming, music and technology, social gaming and user interfaces. Two more Grade 7 workshops will be held this summer.
“At the start of one of the workshops the volunteers asked the kids ‘Who wants to be a software developer?’ One or two girls raised their hands,” says Seifi. “At the the end of the workshop they asked the same question and almost all the girls raised their hands.”
Summer workshops take place May 31 and June 14. Sign up here