CSU professor starts club to combat stereotypes against women in computer sciences

Special Assistant Professor of Computer Sciences Chris Wilcox once looked out at his sophomore-level class of 100 students and was shocked to see only 10 women. Wilcox, who has made an effort to increase the diversity among computer scientists by starting a new club, answered questions about women in the computer sciences:

In your career as a computer scientists, what percentage of your coworkers would you estimate have been women?

“Maybe 10% at Hewlett-Packard, less that 5% at Nvidia Corporation (0% in the local office) and maybe 25% among computer science faculty.”

Is it harder for women to get ahead in the world of computer sciences?

“Absolutely because of many factors ranging from subtle discrimination to blatant harassment and even misogyny.”

Why do you feel the computer sciences are so male-dominated?

“Since back in the 1980’s, the BS/CS graduation rate was 37% female, so it’s an evolving story. One theory is that when personal computers appeared, everyone bought one for their boy. An officer in the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT) told me that. There are many other theories, from lack of encouragement by parents and teachers to negative media portrayal.”

What recommendations do you have for women entering the computer sciences?

“Make friends, female and male, don’t accept condescension, be aware that you are just as capable as the male students, never be ashamed of being smart and realize that everyone struggles.”

Are changes being made within the computer sciences to cater toward women?

“Several. One is separating students in the first freshman CS course into those with previous programming experience and those without. More assignments with creativity, graphics, music, etc. More assignments with social relevance. Scholarships for recruiting and retention for female students, a faculty diversity committee. A tab on our website for diversity, coming soon. Support for our ACM-W club, which is the women’s chapter of the main CS professional society. We sent seven students to Grace Hopper conference last year, which is the premier women in CS conference, up from 0 the year before, outreach including Girls Who Code and a Summer Programming Camp for female students. More training for TAs to create a more welcoming environment within our department and to avoid inadvertent discrimination.

Wilcox and his colleagues are working hard to increase the diversity among computer scientists. He recently created a club called Girls Who Code. In the club, middle and high school girls are taught lessons in web design and programming with the goal of sparking interest in the computer sciences among young women.

While CSU’s lack of diversity among computer scientists is large, Wilcox did note that improvements are being made across the country and that some schools have been able to increase female participation in computer science programs by 30% or more.

“It’s a matter of getting administration and faculty to commit to making changes,” Wilcox said.

The club will be meeting every Tuesday evening from 6 p.m.-7:40 p.m. in the CSU Computer Sciences Building, room 215. Wilcox hopes to create a similar program for the summer and continue with the club next semester.