Women a minority in computer science
By: Wallace McKelvey
At the beginning of the semester, there were a handful of female
students in freshman Assia Dimitrova's introductory computer science
class. As the end of the semester approached, a scant few remained.
"Apparently they don't find sitting in front of a computer screen
all day debugging code or solving programming issues fun," Dimitrova
According to the National Science Foundation, this phenomenon is
not uncommon. The number of women receiving computer science bachelor's
degrees dropped from 38 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2003.
Daniel Chester, a computer science professor, said women represent
approximately 20 percent of undergraduates in the major.
"I'd like to reverse that trend," Chester said.
Women who enter the field are successful, he said, but many
teenaged girls do not believe it is an appropriate occupation for them.
"We need to make it clearer to them what the field is like so they
aren't scared away by misconceptions," Chester said.
Jelena Mirkovic, one of four female professors in the computer
science department, said the field does not move forward as quickly
"With predominantly male members, computer science is becoming an
individualistic science instead of a community science," Mirkovic said.
She said women are attracted to fields such as medicine and
education in which people work collaboratively to make a direct difference
in people's lives.
"There is an image that media built of computer nerds sitting in
front of their screens and eating fast food, having no social life,"
Mirkovic said. "While the image is too plastic, some parts have a lot to
do with reality."
Dimitrova said the stereotypes do contain a "kernel of truth," but
they do not accurately represent the average computer science student.
"We're not all socially awkward," she said. "We don't all share
the love for pocket protectors."
Computer science professor Lori Pollock said there are sometimes
no females in the department's classes.
Pollock said diversity is necessary in computer science because a
whole segment of the population is not well-represented in the development
of new technology.
"The perspectives of women in this development are being
increasingly lost," she said.
Pollock said the misconception of computer science begins in
middle school with the geek and nerd stereotypes.
"It's not being cool as a teenager to be excited about computers
and problem solving," she said.
A common misperception is that computer professionals sit alone in
a cubicle programming, Pollock said.
"There are many careers for people with a computer science
background that do not involve programming," she said. "Those that do
involve programming are done in project teams so people skills are
Mirkovic said the department needs to build a scientific
community, rather than emphasize individual scientists.
"We also need to build a support network for female students who
tend to be more shy about asking for help," she said.
Being able to work on projects with tangible results, Mirkovic
said, rather than spending years learning code would make a real
difference to women.
"It would spark their interest in the field and give them
motivation to survive long hours of code debugging," she said.
Pollock said students should be taught how computer science is
applied to scientific discovery and helping improve people's lives.
Chester said the CISters student group works to support women in
the male-dominated computer science and information systems major.
Mirkovic said she faced challenges with her career when focusing
on her family because the criteria for success in the field is tailored to
Though there is government-mandated time off for pregnancy, she
said the support generally stops there.
"Taking a break in research to focus on your family and having no
publication output for a few years is perceived as certain death in the
field," Mirkovic said.
She said women frequently give up their job to maintain a family.
If they try to juggle both a career and family, they endure a great deal
Providing flexible working hours to female workers and allowing
children and a babysitter to accompany them to professional events would
help, she said.
"I know some institutions who do this," Mirkovic said. "But it's
far from being commonplace."
Pollock said she came to the university from an institution where
she was the only female faculty.
"I listened to a lot of sports conversations," she said. "The
department here at UD is clearly a better environment.
"We all joke about there being no line for the bathroom during the
breaks, but underneath we are saddened by the lack of participation of
young women in a field we all find quite exciting to work in."