By Ji Hyun Lee
It used to be that some professions were thought to be just for men — picture rugged firefighters, those thoughtful doctors in pharmaceutical ads and, of course, the hyperactive geek types associated with programmers of the Mark Zuckerberg kind. Another profession in which women have been missing out on is computer science. Despite the gender stereotype that women can’t do math, many tech leaders are adamant that women computer scientists have the capacity to elevate an industry that is hungry for fresh, new talent, and schools have taken notice.
Michigan Technological University was recently chosen to participate in the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s Pacesetters program, a highly competitive initiative that allows selected schools give a hand to women CS students. Some 20 are participating in the program, including Virginia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech.
“Women represent a largely untapped potential [talent] pool,” said Linda Ott, an MTU professor and head of the program, in a news release. “The more diverse the talent pool working in a field, the more diverse the solutions will be and the more diverse types of problems that will be tackled. As an example, she noted, “we have seen in the computer game industry that when a field is dominated by one gender, the default is to produce products of greater interest to that gender.”
During the program’s two years, tech industry leaders have worked with schools to actively recruit more women into the workforce. More than 1,600 women computer scientists have been recruited in tech as a result. MTU’s efforts to bridge the gender gap have been aiding its own needs, as well: Since 2005 the school has seen a 36 percent increase in female student enrollment in its College of Engineering.
At the Rochester Institute of Technology, the push to recruit women extends beyond the university. RIT implemented the Women in Computing outreach program, which pairs undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students with local elementary and high school girls to encourage them to explore computing as a career. The benefits of the program go both ways. RIT’s students “are excited to work with young girls and explain opportunities in computing to them while also boosting their own confidence in their major area of study,” says Sandra Murphy, the effort’s program coordinator. The program gives “school-age girls an opportunity to write code and connect hardware and feel successful when their projects are completed.”
- Women in IT Face Down Stereotypes and Bias
- Schools Push for Women Computer Scientists
- H-1B Women Few and Far Between
- Interview: Lyla Perrodin, CIO, MRIGlobal
- The Disappearing Women of IT
Just how valuable are programs like these? RIT-bound high school senior Jennie Lamere recently made news for winning the TVnext Hack competition for her development of Twivo, a browser plugin that blocks tweets containing TV show spoilers. She was the only female to enter the competition.
Other schools leading these kinds of efforts include Western Washington University, whose Association for Women in Computing forms a community of its CS women students. Both Carnegie Mellon and Stanford have similarly focused and woman-led aspects in their CS programs. Stanford seniors Ellora Israni and Ayna Agarwal see the need for women to enter the male-dominated industry as being so great, they founded She++, a woman–in-tech conference geared to CS students looking for female role models from Silicon Valley leaders. “We wanted to build a community of budding female technologists who can learn together, grow together and be a support network for each other,” says Agarwal.
Since its founding, the pair has been named among the Top 50 Women in Technology by Silicon Valley Global. She++ has also been the subject of a documentary and much media coverage.