(FYI: This is a 6-minute read)
"If more women want to be a part of the computer industry today, they have to do more to put themselves there. Nobody is keeping them out." <- A troubling quote from a very successful video game designer, who also happens to be a woman.
In this post, I'd like to offer the college student's and friend's perspective on the "women in STEM" problem that we love to grapple with in detailed and comprehensive articles (that quite frankly are missing the point). This is not the perspective of the proud professor, the confused university administrator, the couldn't-be-farther-from-the-issue journalist, or the superhero venture capitalist.
My roommate here in Seattle is a 25 year-old woman who has just finished up her second year of undergraduate coursework at the University of South Carolina. She worked full-time upon graduation and decided to go back to school, looking for more from her career as librarian. Her high school GPA earned her the Carolina LIFE Scholarship and STEM enhancement, totaling $7500 each year. In-state tuition at USC is ~$11,128 (you do the math). Because Kayla kept up a 4.0 GPA as a computer engineering major, she received a $500 per-year scholarship from the College of Engineering and Computing. The annual student fee for her respective college is a whopping $400. Money (or lack thereof) is just one of the things that is keeping Kayla and many other women like her out of the computer industry today.
If one woman is able to pay for her schooling or has parents who are willing to do so, she has made it over just one hurdle as a woman in STEM. She's in the college, but now she has to stay there. In class, she feels pressured to raise her hand from time to time, and only asks her burning questions after much apprehension and deliberation. She feels as though she needs to know everything about everything, never miss a beat, do every extra credit assignment, and sit in the front of the class; she never misses class.
The halls of the Swearingen building, which house the College of Engineering and Computing at USC, have a certain pungent stench. That is of Mountain Dew and body odor...See, the CEC makes available to all of its students lounges and areas in which they can convene. More often than not, they are usually full of young brogrammers (yes, that's a real thing) playing or discussing video games amongst each other. Environments like this are often intimidating for the few women who do major in CS or CE, so they find themselves studying alone at the library or in the comforts of their own homes. From early on, they are left out of study and social groups, which often overlap. There's nothing written in these areas that forbids women from partaking in the fraternizing, but that's not to say there aren't unpsoken rules...
Your typical computer science/engineering student is a young man who was meant for this life. He grew up in a middle or upper middle class home; how else would he have access to a computer? High school wasn't too tough for him, and he wrote applications and video games in his spare time. He is awarded a full-ride scholarship to USC and is a student in the Honors College, which grants him access to honors-only courses and early registration. He maintains the 2.5 GPA necessary to keep his scholarship, thereby pocketing the "allowance" his parents would have otherwise used to fund his education. No need for any full-time or part-time employment, freeing up time to socialize-- let's be real, he's been coding since age 12; he's not spending his time poring over code libraries for his upper-level courses. He is buddy-buddy with his professors; they see younger versions of themselves in him.
Last year, 30% of the University of Washington's bachelor's degrees in computer science were awarded to women. UW also receives millions in monetary contributions from Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, a large recruiter of CS students in the area (so it only makes sense). Still, nationally, women are earning only 14.1% of computer science bachelor's degrees and 11.2% of computer engineering bachelor's degrees. <--Not being a Negative Nancy, rather, a Truthful Tati.
"But I heard we have more women majoring in computing fields than ever before!?" - while statements like this may be true, we are not awarding degrees to as many women in computing as we should. Understanding the backgrounds from which these women come may give you some insight into the underlying issue:
1) Late-In-The-Gamer: A student like Kayla who has decided to go to school for the first time, or a student who has decided to go back to school and begin Career 2.0. These students are passionate, interested, gritty, and willing to learn. They are usually paying their way through school while working a full-time job and are interested in getting the most from every learning experience presented to them.
2) The transfer: Many students, like myself, changed majors after being previously discouraged to go into the world of computing. Whether it was the thought of multiple calculus classes or being in a class with all boys, we were hesitating, but decided to pursue our dreams after realizing it was the right thing to do. We are eager to learn and all-in.
3) The organic: Much like the traditional computing student, the organic grew up knowing she was made for computing. She may be part of that boys' club, she may not be. Regardless, she may question her decision to go into this field because while it may be something she's naturally good at, she's not necessarily passionate about it. (nobody cagalyxinhg
*Women in computing majors are not limited to the above three personalities, although you may find yourself fitting into one of these categories. That is OK. The thing they have in common is their willingness and eagerness to learn while just surviving in an environment that isn't necessarily conducive to their success.
Am I done complaining yet? Yes. Do I have any solutions to offer? Of course.
1) Schools need to give more support to those who didn't start on the regular route, as many female computing students did not.
2) Institutions should reward the people who have shown passion and interest throughout their collegiate career.
3) Financial aid offices should reconsider awards for those who are performing well, not just those who have proven themselves before entering the degree program.
4) Schools and companies need to incentivize women in other ways besides salary; we know the money is there, but it's not always at the forefront for us.
5) Professors need to build curriculum that is based on service learning and team projects and collaboration.
6) Spaces where women can discuss their experiences (SWE, NCWIT, and women's computing organizations with university chapters) need to be visible and accessible.
There are quite a few approaches to getting women into computing and keeping them there. Creating safe spaces in and out of the classroom where they can reflect and share experiences is number one. Opening up these environments in a way that encourages questions and evolving ideas is crucial to the success of women in these fields. While we've partially overcome the hurdle of getting women into these fields, but we must, must, must do everything and anything we can to keep them there.
"The most damaging words in the English language are, "It's always been done that way."" - Grace Hopper