Computer science addresses gender disparity

This is the second of a two-part Closer Look into gender disparities at the College, examining what departments and student organizations are doing to address this issue.

Several groups at the College are actively working to understand and address the gender disparities in academic programs.

“Student access and inclusion is an issue that individual academic units at the College regularly assess,” Ngonidzashe Munemo, associate dean for institutional diversity and associate professor of political science, said. “The Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity (OIDE), through the work of several committees, also examines student access and inclusion in academic units across the college. With data on the gender, racial and ethnic composition of majors, we partner with individual units to better understand disparities when they exist.”

Specific academic departments are also working to encourage more gender parity. In the computer science department, home to one of the largest gender gaps at the College (20 percent of majors between 2011 and 2015 were female), faculty members hope to address the disparity between female enrollment in introductory and higher-level courses.

“The percentage of women in lower-level courses is almost at 50 percent, but that percentage drops significantly in upper-level courses,” Associate Professor of Computer Science Jeannie Albrecht said. “We aren’t sure why this happens, but we are experimenting with various strategies for trying to address it.”

Faculty members, including Albrecht, believe a higher number of female computer science faculty could help. “We know that courses that have female instructors often have higher female enrollments,” Albrecht said.

Currently only two female faculty members work in the computer science department, but the department has hired another female professor who will start this fall. Despite the relatively small number of female faculty, the department has had high female enrollment in recent classes with female instructors.

“I taught a section of CSCI 237 [Computer Organization] this fall, which is a course that historically has not had a high percentage of women. I had 50 percent women, which was very exciting, especially since this is a gateway course for the major,” Albrecht said. “It’s not clear yet if this will in fact lead to an increased percentage of women majors, but we are hopeful.”

Beyond their faculty, the department also tries to employ female teaching assistants whenever possible, particularly in introductory classes, and a high number of female summer research assistants.

Students in computer science have also taken several initiatives such as forming the club Underrepresented Identities in Computer Science (UnICS).

“UnICS was created with the goal of providing support for students who feel excluded, especially students from groups underrepresented in computer science,” Lauren Yu ’16, who founded the club with Pamela Mishkin ’16, said. “Our main objectives in starting it were to expand dialogue around diversity and to put changes in place that would meaningfully improve students’ experiences.”

UnICS hosts regular dinners for its members and hosted a panel last fall to offer career and internship advice for students who are members of groups underrepresented in computer science. While this group is exclusively student-run, there is also a similar faculty-led group.

“We have a ‘Women in CS group’ that meets several times a year to informally chat about various topics,” Albrecht said. “The main goal of the group is to foster a sense of community and build positive relationships.”

While overall gender disparity remains high in many departments across the College, the computer science department, among many others, is actively looking to close the gender gap and encourage inclusiveness and parity.