Women a minority in computer science

Printed in UD Review

By: Wallace McKelvey

Posted: 5/1/07

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 said.

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 without women.

"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 important."

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 men.

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 of stress.

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."