Creating Opportunities for Women in Computer Science

Employment for computer and information research scientists is projected to grow 15 percent from 2019 to 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a much faster predicted jump than the average for all occupations, but some potential innovators may be missing out on the opportunity. In the United States, women represent fewer than 20 percent of computer science graduates.

Stock image of woman at computer screen

To help address that gender gap, remove barriers, and increase the number of women graduating with computer science degrees at Cal State Fullerton, the university has been awarded a $650,000 “Best Practice” grant from the Center for Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University. The Center for Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University is funded by Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company created by Melinda French Gates.

“For some unknown reason, which this grant will allow us to research and change, we have a very low enrollment of women in computer science,” says Doina Bein, the grant’s principal investigator and associate professor of computer science. “Computer scientists play an essential role in our success as a nation, and without having women as part of that workforce, we are weaker,” says Beth Harnick-Shapiro, co-PI on the grant, a lecturer in computer science, and faculty coordinator for the Women in Computer Science and Engineering (WiCSE) program at the College of Engineering & Computer Science at Cal State Fullerton.

Over the last six years, Bein and Harnick-Shapiro have been working to engage women in computer science in novel ways.

To create a more inclusive, engaged community that encourages female involvement, they’ve successfully launched or advised a number of initiatives, including: clubs and activities with the Association for Computing Machinery Women in Computing (ACM-W) student chapter, student-led community outreach events, and an annual STEM Expo and ACM-W’s “Creative Coding” program (in concert with the Girl Scouts of Orange County), which was funded by Google igniteCS grants and promotes young girls’ interest in computer science.

“These projects were made possible due to immense interest and engagement by students of all genders to create a more inclusive culture and help increase the pipeline of women in computer science,” Bein says. “At the same time, we are having conversations within our department about the curriculum and culture. With funding from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), we’ve coached other faculty to discuss outreach opportunities on campus and success strategies for increasing our graduation rate.”

In addition, WiCSE – initiated through a grant and now funded by individual donors – helps freshmen and new transfer students succeed in pursuing their engineering and computer science degrees by connecting them with industry professionals through site visits, speaking engagements, mock interviews, and the Entrepreneur-in-Residence programs; offering academic support and tutoring; and connecting them with special-interest clubs like Cal State Fullerton’s CubeSat and Titan Rover teams.

This “360-degree approach,” Harnick-Shapiro says, creates student leadership opportunities, encourages faculty to look at how students experience their courses, increases partnerships with innovative external organizations, and highlights women in essential industry leadership roles. Northeastern’s CIC grant allows Bein and Harnick-Shapiro, as principal investigators and facilitators, to take this mission even further.

Working Toward a Welcoming Environment and Foundational Change

The new grant helps enhance what has been a labor of love these last six years. Up to now, most efforts by students and faculty have received limited financial support. This new grant will provide resources to take engagement to the next level through support for students, faculty, and staff.

“It allows us to expand the projects we’ve been working on and actualize some of the ideas students have brought to us,” Harnick-Shapiro says. “We can’t have full inclusion if we don’t include people who want to be part of these efforts but can’t afford the free time, so we’re trying to create support for these individuals.”

The goal, says Bein, is to leverage all of these pieces to create an inclusive and welcoming environment that promotes success for all students, including women, so they can go into graduate studies and careers confident, well-prepared, and with the skills and knowledge they need to be leaders.

“If you’re the one female student in a class of 35, it’s easy to feel alone and get discouraged,” Bein says. “We need to transform the culture for all underrepresented students, while also helping to make students more marketable for internships and careers. That means giving them opportunities to develop soft skills, like communication and collaborative teamwork, and specialized skills in growing fields, like cybersecurity.”

The earlier students are engaged, the better, adds Harnick-Shapiro. That’s why outreach to elementary- and middle-school Girl Scouts and other young students and early support for freshmen and transfer students is so important. They are now looking at ways to better engage and encourage students in community colleges to pursue computer science as a major and also to promote a computer science minor as a value-add for Cal State Fullerton students outside the program.

“Workforce needs have changed and understanding computer science makes you more valuable to an employer,” Harnick-Shapiro says. “A computer science minor gives students more options for pursuing graduate studies and opportunities for advancement as they begin their careers.”

Continued progress is possible with the help of partners like Northeastern; student groups like the ACM-W chapter, the ACM chapter, and the Offensive Security Society; the constant support of the Department of Computer Science, Dean Susan Barua, and other college leadership; and an engaged group of students who see a need for supporting female students and professionals, Bein and Harnick-Shapiro say.

“We want to foundationally change allyship in the industry and develop practices that improve students’ education and transfer to the workplace,” Harnick-Shapiro says. “And we’re looking for help from anyone interested in trying to create a positive environment for women to thrive in computer science.”

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