A UBC expert discusses why there has been a rapid decline in women entering computer science
The year 1984 is historical in computer science for two reasons: It marked the dawn of the personal computer, and the beginning of a rapid decline in the numbers of women entering the field. From that year onward, the numbers of women entering the field plummeted, from 37 per cent to below 15 per cent across North America today. Anne Condon, professor and head of the Dept. of Computer Science at UBC, explains why this happened, and what’s being done to reverse it.
Over the past 30 years, there has been a marked decline in the numbers of women entering computer science. Why?
I got my own degree in the early 1980s, and it was a level playing field because nobody starting out had really seen a computer. When the personal computer came along, boys dominated, and they still do today, mainly due to gaming. At home and at school they often get more time on computers than girls, and so are more likely to choose computer science.
Another reason for the decline could be that in the early days there was more flexibility for entering the field. I know high school math teachers who went straight into computer science research – including Fran Allen, who won the most prestigious prize in the field, the Turing Award.
It’s still the case today that anybody with a good high-school background in science can get into computer science without any programming experience. But people probably think that without a computer background, they will get behind. That really isn’t true.
What is keeping women from entering the field today?
There are a lot of challenges. High school students get very little exposure to computer science. I think they have preconceived ideas that are not accurate—that it’s not as interesting as science or engineering. But it’s really a very exciting field with huge opportunities. I’m also not sure girls are getting encouragement from teachers, counsellors and parents.
At universities like UBC, all science students are required to take biology, physics, chemistry, and math. But there’s no current requirement to take computer science. So even though the percentage of women in science at UBC is now over 50 per cent, women aren’t automatically getting exposure to computer science when they take science at UBC. We’re trying to change that with the new computational thinking course that’s in development.
What’s being done to entice more women into computer science?
We have many different entry paths into our program at UBC. In addition to our core majors program, we have combined majors programs with cognitive science, music, business, biological sciences, and more. I think that’s attractive to women who might not be thinking of computer science from the get-go. They often take one of our intro classes, discover that they really enjoy it, and continue.
We also have a second degree program for students that already have a degree in a different area. And we have a great culture among students in the department: A good mentoring program, a strong community, and excellent teachers at all levels.
All of those things are helping us. We have more than double the North American average in terms of our percentage of women in the field. In our department it’s about 27 per cent, and across North America, in PhD granting institutions, it’s more like 12 per cent. But we’d like to see more women in our programs.
Do you have tips for getting girls and young women interested in computer science?
Locally, we have a program called GIRLsmarts4tech, for girls in grades 6 and 7, that we run in partnership with a company called SAP. We also have a TechTrek program for kids in Grades 6 to 12. A good website to check out is code.org, for parents and kids to try out coding. Good Canadian sites are Ladies Learning Code and Girls Learning Code.