Should we change Universities deeply to get more women in CS?

October 5, 2011 at 9:41 am 8 comments

I spoke to an expert on women in CS a couple weeks ago, who said that she really hates efforts to make deep changes in courses, like curriculum changes.  “That sends a signal that women can’t succeed in the current classes, that they need changes in curriculum in order to be successful.”  She’s concerned that these efforts make women feel inferior or inadequate.

On the other hand, here’s a study from Mary Frank Fox and colleagues saying that these smaller, surface-level, student-focussed changes are not going far enough to get more women into STEM fields.  They call for changes in “faculty and institutional structures.”  Is a call like this counter-productive, in terms of influencing self-efficacy in a negative direction?  Or are Universities “broken,” in the sense that the deck is stacked against women (and other minority groups), and we have to change the structure, just to get a level playing field?

Despite years of trying to improve the number of women undergraduates in science and engineering, a new study shows most universities are failing. Not only are women lagging behind their male classmates, efforts to close the gap too often focus on students instead of faculty and institutional structures.

This is first study that looks at the full range of programs for undergraduate women in science and engineering in the U.S. It gathered information from nearly 50 difference programs.

Despite seeming to understand the problem, the authors found that many institutions did not try to change the climate in the classroom, create more faculty advisors, or improve and strengthen the faculty commitment to educating women in science and engineering. Instead, they found programs often left these key structural obstacles “untouched,”—especially when it came to faculty. Diversity training for faculty, mentoring of undergraduates and new course components are examples of programs that could make a difference, researches say.

via Women in science? Universities don’t make the grade.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bonnie MacKellar  |  October 5, 2011 at 10:09 am

    I don’t think university structures are the problem at all – in fact, in most majors, schools are desperately trying to get more MEN! Even in the sciences – biology, for example, is inundated with women. The problem is really specific to a few fields, most notably physics, engineering, and computer science.

    If anything, I think changes at the university level are going to happen in order to encourage more men to go to college. See this article in the Chronicle

  • 2. thinkingwiththings  |  October 5, 2011 at 10:45 am

    It’s important not to equate “changing the curriculum” or “changing the faculty” with dumbing down for the sake of women or other underrepresented students. This is a false choice. Thanks to Mary Frank Fox for holding our feet to the fire. Poor pedagogy, common at universities, disproportionately deters the underrepresented. If you are concerned that you might not “belong in this program,” in part because so few people look like you, then the negative reinforcement that bad teaching practices give to all students may weigh more heavily on you than on your majority peers. Better teaching practices will benefit all students, and will particularly help the underrepresented.

    For more on this, see my blog post:

    Sarah Kuhn
    UMass Lowell

  • 3. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo)  |  October 5, 2011 at 10:47 am

    In general I think the shortage of men in undergraduate programs across the curriculum is a large and widely ignored problem. But the shortage of women in CS is an issue we should not ignore. I think it is wrong to look to only the student or only the curriculum or only the classroom enviornment. All probably share some of the “blame” for want of a better word.
    I think there are some types of men who feel excluded by some of how we teach computer science and even the sort of enviornment on some CS labs. Changing the curriculum and/or enviornment in ways that make them more attractive to women may help widen participation among men as well. In general I think we teach CS in ways that turn off a lot of people.
    Also studies show that men tend to overrate their abilities in CS while women underrate theirs. This means that men who should try something else don’t and that women who are actually quite good at CS leave the field. My sense is that for much of our history we have created CS courses to chase away those who are not good performers. This has the unfortunate side result of chasing away many women who do not seem to grasp how good they are. I am not sure how to deal with this. It seems (I lack data here) that is is easy to chase women away by playing on their incorrect self-assement but very hard to help them overcome it.
    A HS teacher I know, Pat Yongpradit, has had some good success retaining girls in his program with an all-girls after school program that focuses speficially on their interests. It may be that some sort of peer support group for women at the univeristy level might be more effective than massive changes to the curriculm. The uber geeky guys have their own defacto support groups. They are the students who scare the normals away. Perhaps we need to support helping the rest of the students build their own groups.

  • 4. Bettina Bair  |  October 5, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I agree with your expert. Universities should not change their curriculum to make them “safe” or “attractive” to a certain group.

    Universities should pay attention though, when their curriculum starts to alienate 40% of their potential base.

    Women arent the problem. Women are the canaries in the coal mine, alerting you to the problem.

  • 5. Elizabeth Patitsas  |  October 5, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    “”That sends a signal that women can’t succeed in the current classes, that they need changes in curriculum in order to be successful.” She’s concerned that these efforts make women feel inferior or inadequate.”

    Indeed, throughout my studies in CS, I’ve found that well-intentioned events/programs/etc for women in the field do more to make me feel isolated and put down than anything else.

    • 6. Gail  |  October 6, 2011 at 5:15 pm

      If you’re comfortable I’d love to hear more about why this is. I am one of the founders of our women in science/engineering group, and we try hard not to let this happen. I know before I joined the founding team I tended to feel the same way because I never felt out of place anyway… but once I started taking part in our own activities and building my female network, I was surprised to learn how much benefit I got from it! I’d love to know what sorts of things cause others to feel this way so we can know to avoid them. 😉

  • 7. Gail  |  October 6, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Related to some of the earlier comments, I tend to explain my viewpoint by saying that I don’t want to change what is taught, but how it is taught. In other words, I don’t see it being necessary to change the content because a particular group (like women) can’t handle it, but rather it’s worth changing how the content is approached (for instance, using more interesting applications as in the media computation curriculum).

  • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 28, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I’ve just posted about spin UCSC put on this issue recently:


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