The Experiences of Women in Computer Science: The Importance of Awareness and Communication

Article excerpt

Purpose

For years, researchers have been discussing why there are fewer women than men enrolled in computer science programs. The National Science Foundation indicated that in 2002 out of all the undergraduate freshmen intending to major in science and engineering programs, 5.2% of those students were women majoring in computer science and 27.1% were men (NSF "Intentions of Women"). There is an obvious gap at the graduate level as well. In 1977, there were 1559 female graduate students in computer science programs, making up 17% of the total graduate computer science population. Although the number of female graduate students in computer science has expanded roughly ten times, to 14,791 in 2003, women represent only 27% of the total population (NSF Graduate Students. Table 4, Table 5). Strides have been made, but women are still underrepresented in computer science.

As a result, educators, social scientists, and computer scientists have been trying to find the answers to two questions: Why do fewer women than men enter computer science programs? Why do women drop out of these programs? As research has been conducted over the years, several causes have been identified, along with a number of solutions.

METHODS

By comparing previous studies with a new set of data, in the form of interviews, this study examines the effect of a variety of influences, including parents, teachers, educational history, and stereotypes. The intent in this comparison is to note what is being done in response to literature, specifically noting which factors are still problematic and what progress has been made. I chose to form my line of inquiry around the things that motivate women to pursue computer science: classes, advice, and programs. I decided to see how these factors affect the experiences of women in computer science, hence the title of this study. Specifically, I wanted to look at what classes and programs women participated in during college, what advice they had been given, and how their perceptions of computer science had changed over time.

I began the planning for this project in May 2006. I assembled a project committee, met with the Honors Program director, and prepared a proposal of my project. Because I planned to tape interviews with participants, my research needed to be approved by the University of Massachusetts Lowell's Institutional Review Board (IRB). Specifically, I prepared an informed consent form and developed questions to use in my interviews. All of the participants in this study signed an informed consent form, assuring protection of their privacy. I received my approval from the IRB on June 13, 2006.

Over the course of the summer, invitations to be interviewed were sent by email to over one hundred women, in the hopes of forming a randomized purposeful sample. They were referred through contacts, referrals, and social networks. In one example, a student at one university heard about my project and graciously offered to pass a memo to the women's list at her computer science department. All of the women that were invited were either current students or students who had graduated within the past two years from area colleges and universities. They ranged from entering freshman to women who had completed doctoral studies, to capture both initial impressions and to have input from more experienced members of the computer science community.

My goal was to conduct at most twenty interviews. By the end of August, I conducted 15 interviews. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 30, with an average age of 22. They have attended public and private colleges and have pursued additional majors and minors in history, biology, engineering, linguistics, mathematics and biological information systems. Most of the students were American; one was from India and another was from the Czech Republic. The diversity in the group reflects the variations in the larger computer science community. …