There is a dearth of women in computer science, but a wealth of opportunity. Learn how K-12 schools, colleges and non-profits are helping women break into and succeed in a field where men dominate the workforce.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Koebele

Jennifer Koebele, MS Ed. is a freelance writer and educator from Charlotte, NC. She has more than a decade of experience researching and writing on topics related to higher education, college financing and technology.

Expert Sources

  • Dr. Penny Rheingans

    Professor Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Department University of Maryland, Baltimore County Director for Center for Women in Technology

  • Dr. Valerie Barr

    Professor Computer Science Department, Union College Executive Committee Member, Association for Computing Machinery Committee of Women (ACM-W)

  • Molly Larkin

    Community Outreach Manager Techbridge

  • Katie Driggs-Campbell

    Outreach Coordinator The University of California at Berkeley, Women in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering (WICSE)

Introduction

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates 1.4 million new jobs in computer science by 2020, yet the number of women pursuing careers in the field continues to fall. Some women are reluctant to break into what many consider a man’s field — they don’t want to be the only female in the class or on the team. Yet with more and more employers eager to diversify their tech departments, women have become a hot commodity in computer science. Many corporations are partnering with colleges and universities to attract female tech talent after graduation.

There has never been a better time for women to enter computer science. The following guide is the result of in-depth research and interviews with expert sources, to identify how women can make the most of this tremendous opportunity. Key areas of focus include:

  • How high school girls can prepare for and succeed in computer science at the college level
  • Computer science scholarships created specifically for women
  • Careers in computer science and how women can break in

Encouraging an Interest
in Computer Science

If computer science offers such bountiful opportunities, then why are so few women entering careers in this field? The reasons are varied, but most revolve around gender stereotypes. In our society, young women are less likely than males to be encouraged to pursue technical careers. Somewhere around middle school, girls begin to turn away from math and science, because it’s a “boy thing.”

Yet results from the Generation STEM Research Study of 1,000 U.S. girls indicate that interest in STEM subjects among girls does not necessarily go away as they get older. It’s still there, but needs to be primed and turned into action. Girls need to be encouraged to pursue STEM-related careers, and computer science work in particular. Parental and teacher support have been shown to impact a girl’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math. Here we look at some concrete actions parents and teachers can take to foster girls’ interest in computer science.

Make it Fun!

There’s a new focus on getting girls to understand that computer science can be fun, rewarding, and even social. The University of California at Berkeley’s Women in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering (WICSE), for example, is very involved in getting this message out, according to outreach coordinator Katie Driggs-Campbell.

“One of the problems with computer science is that it is so abstract, and people of all ages see a lot of it as just typing behind a computer,” says Campbell. “It’s not always obvious how creative you must be to be an engineer and how much freedom you have. We’ve been trying to develop methods of teaching girls the ideas behind computer science and programming without sitting them in front of a computer. We’ve been creating interactive games and demonstrations that bring what happens inside the computer into the real world.”

PBS SciGirls: STEM-sational Resources is a good source of tips and activities designed to interest girls in science and math.

Illustrate How a Career in Computers Makes a Difference

Girls are typically more interested in careers where they can help others and make the world a better place. Making girls aware of the range of science and engineering careers available and their relevance to society will help attract more women. “Young women want to do something that matters,” says Rheingarn. “They grew up in the shadow of national defense, cyber security, artificial intelligence. They want to help solve problems.”

Computer scientists solve problems every day, and yes, make a difference, according to this National Science Foundation video titled Computer Science can Change the World.

Encourage Confidence and Perseverance

There’s a perception that math ability is a fixed trait and not something that hard work can increase. Compared to boys, girls with equal ability are more likely to give up when material is difficult and they don’t immediately succeed. It’s important to teach girls that academic abilities are expandable and improvable. Teachers and parents must foster an “I can do it” learning environment in classrooms and homes.

Molly Larkin, Community Outreach Manager for Techbridge, a program that has been successfully launching girls into a lifetime of learning and excitement about STEM, stresses the importance of helping girls understand their potential. “There is a growth mindset that if they don’t do something well the first time, then they aren’t smart. Or if they are smart, they are afraid to live up to a negative stereotype.”

Dr. Penny Rheingan, a Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at the University of Maryland, agrees. She says, “If you look at male students who leave computer science programs, it is usually because they are not doing well academically, whereas with women it is because the program was challenging and they are afraid they won’t succeed. Women often leave in good academic standing, but fear that the work will become harder. In truth, although the work does get harder, by then you have grown and have more power and more skills. Women have a hard time internalizing this, believing in themselves.”

Introduce Girls to Female Role Models

Show girls proof that computer science careers are great options for women. There are countless women who have succeeded in math and science. 100 Women Leaders in STEM takes a look at female tech leaders on a national level. They and many others at all levels have committed to mentoring the next generation. Ask those in your community to share their experiences, host a visit to their workplace, etc.

Involve Middle School Girls in Spatial Skills Training

According to a Michigan Sate University study, training young children in spatial reasoning can improve their math performance. Spatial thinking is the ability to understand and remember the spatial relationships, to visualize shaped in our “mind’s eye.” This is a skill that improves with use and can be fostered in young children. Visit PBS Learning Media – Spatial Skills Activities for activities and interactive games designed to help kids improve their spatial abilities.

Encourage Enrollment in Computer Science AP classes

Fifty-six percent of all AP test takers in 2011 were women, but only 19 percent of the AP Computer Science test takers were girls. In the Generation STEM survey, nearly half of all girls said they would feel uncomfortable being the only girl in a group or class. Girls need to feel it’s okay to be one or one of just a few in a class of boys. Parents can reinforce their confidence and teachers must make then feel welcome in class.

Sign up for STEM-Promoting Programs

Programs targeted at middle and high school girls can be particularly successful in re-igniting interest in math and science and bringing STEM-related careers to life. These programs reach girls before they make their decisions about college, and help them think about what classes they should take while they’re still in high school. Girls who may be the only females with computing interests among their peers can form communities of like-minded learners through these programs.

University of Maryland’s Bits and Bytes program, for example, works to bring high school students into the STEM fold. “We bring 20 to 30 girls to campus. They shadow students, sleep in dorms, eat in the dining hall, and discover what it’s like to study computing,” says Rheingarns. “We stage design competitions, one engineering and one IT-oriented. The goal is for them to see women a little older than them succeeding and to get a better idea of what it means to study computing in college.”

Another program, Girls Go Techbridge, partners with various Girl Scout Councils throughout the country to provide training, resources, and support with “Programs in a Box,” which includes all the materials for STEM lessons. The boxes come with leader guides, activities, and icebreakers that follow a theme. Each one serves ten children and are also available for purchase through the Science Source.

Pre-College Programs

There are many programs around the country created to foster middle and high school girls’ interest in computer science. Some include:

  • Aspirations in Computing is a talent development initiative designed in 2007 to increase female participation in technology careers by providing encouragement, visibility, community, leadership opportunities, scholarships, and internships to aspiring technically inclined young women.
  • AspireIT matches NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing recipients with participating Academic Alliance members to create and run computing-related outreach programs for middle school girls, including after-school programs, summer camps, clubs, and weekend conferences. It has support from Google, Intel, and Northrop Grumman.
  • Girls Who Code The Girls Who Code Club model is a yearlong program offering essential computer science education and exposure to middle and high-school aged girls nationwide. It includes monthly project-based activities that can be implemented in a wide range of settings, such as after-school clubs to monthly workshops, and is led by industry professionals.
  • National Girls Collaborative Program brings organizations together that are committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers. They maintain a directory of program descriptions, resources, and contact information.
  • Girls RiseNET is a partnership between the Miami Science Museum, the Association of Science-Technology Centers, and SECME, Inc. to strengthen the professional capacity of informal science educators with the goal of motivating minority girls in grades six through 12 to explore careers in science and engineering.

Choosing a College

This reluctance to break barriers continues in college, where women comprised 60 percent of 2010 undergraduate degree recipients, but earned only18 percent of all computer and information sciences degrees. In reality, colleges want to recruit women into their computer science programs and they want them to succeed and move on to lucrative careers. Beyond the basics of selecting a college, women should look for computer science programs that are actively recruiting them and are in tune with their specific needs and challenges. Creating a supportive versus “sink or swim” approach to coursework is of particular importance.

Dr. Rheingans explains that, with STEM, failure is part of the learning process. “STEM majors are hard enough that students will stumble. But it’s what happens next that is important. Male students will stumble and say, ‘Oh that was stupid. It wasn’t my fault- it was the professor, or the exam.’ Women say, ‘There’s a reason I am the only female in the room. It must be my fault that I failed because I can’t handle it.’ That’s a big problem.”

When it comes to grades, women are harder on themselves than men are. A woman might perceive a “B” grade as unacceptable and enough reason to drop out of a class, while men with “C” grades will still carry on. Colleges with effective mentoring and “bridge programs” that prepare students for challenging coursework can counteract this. Additionally, small changes to the curriculum often lead to better recruitment and retention of both women and men in STEM classrooms and majors. For example, having students work in pairs on programming in entry-level computer science courses leads to greater retention of both sexes.

Additional resources about women and computer science majors:

Chronicle of Higher Education: A Reboot in Recruiting Women Into Computer Science This article takes a look at what colleges and universities are doing to recruit more women into their computer science degree programs.

Undergraduate Women in Computer Science: Experience, Motivation and Culture A study reporting on experiences of undergraduate women studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, with a focus on understanding the influences and processes whereby they attach themselves to or detach themselves from the field.

Boston University: Women in Computer Science An example of how one university is providing support for its female computer science students.

Computer Science
Scholarships for Women

As a way to attract women into the field, many computer science scholarships are geared specifically to helping female computer science students pay for college. These include:

  1. SWE Scholarships SWE disburses over 200 new and renewed scholarships supporting women pursuing ABET-accredited baccalaureate or graduate programs in preparation for careers in engineering, engineering technology and computer science in the United States and Mexico. One application covers all scholarships.
  2. Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship In honor of Dr. Anita Borg, who believed that technology affects all aspects of our economic, political, social and personal lives, Google awards this scholarship of $10,000 to female undergraduates based on the strength of each candidate’s academic background and demonstrated leadership.
  3. Palentir Scholarship for Women in Technology Scholarships range from $1,500 to $10,000. Finalists are flown to Palentir headquarters in Palo Alto, California to participate in a two-day workshop with women to experience their work, culture, and the Bay Area.
  4. Michigan Council of Women in Technology High School Senior Scholarship Girls Exploring Together- Information Technology, is a $5,000 award, renewable for four years. It is made possible by corporate sponsors and volunteer efforts of nearly 200 active MCWT members.
  5. SAE Women Engineers Committee Scholarship The SAE Foundation awards scholarship money to award scholarship money to both undergraduate and graduate students to develop the future engineering workforce by helping students achieve their dreams of becoming an engineer. U.S. female students who are high school seniors planning to enroll full time in an ABET-accredited engineering program are eligible for this award.
  6. NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing Recipients, selected for their computing and IT aptitude, leadership ability, academic history, and plans for post-secondary education, receive two engraved awards: one for her, and one for her school’s trophy case. They also receive opportunities for scholarships, internships, research experiences, and other educational and employment opportunities provided by NCWIT member organizations.
  7. Women in Technology Scholarship (WITS) Program Multiple awards of $2500 are given to undergraduates planning a career in computer science, information technology, management information systems, or related fields. Winners are chosen based on academic performance, an essay, and level of participation in community services and/or extracurricular activities.
  8. Sony G.I.R.L. Scholarship Program Sony Online Entertainment awards $10,000 to one woman interested in the video game industry. The scholarship pays educational expenses to gain knowledge and skills in the video game design field.
  9. Carnegie Mellon Executive Women’s Forum INI Fellowship The Information Networking Institute (INI) partners with the Executive Women’s Forum (EWF), to offer a full scholarship to an incoming INI student. The scholarship is sponsored by Alta Associates, an executive recruitment firm that specializes in Information Security, IT Audit, Risk Management and Privacy.
  10. Ann Arbor Women in Computing Scholarship This scholarship was established in 2003 by the Ann Arbor chapter of the Association for Women in Computing (AWC-AA). It is open to female students in an institution accredited for higher education in Washtenaw County.
  11. CWIT Scholars CWIT Scholars receive four-year scholarships ranging from $5,000 – $15,000 per academic year for in-state students, and from $10,000 – $22,000 per academic year for out-of-state students, to cover full tuition, mandatory fees, and other expenses. Each CWIT Scholar participates in special courses and activities and receives mentoring from faculty and participating members of the IT and engineering communities.

Computer Science:
A Great Career for Women

Computer science employers are concerned with the lack of workforce diversity in their industry. Women comprised 57 percent of the professional workforce, but only 25 percent of computer and math professionals in 2011. This is troubling, as studies show that diverse perspectives increase employee innovation, productivity and competitiveness. In a study of more than 100 teams at 21 companies, those with equal numbers of women and men were more likely to experiment, be creative, share knowledge, and fulfill tasks.

A lack of diverse perspectives also means that those inventing the technology do not reflect the customer base. Women are not the ones designing technology, but they are responsible for 45 percent of and influence up to 61 percent of all consumer electronics purchases. Additional research shows that companies with the highest representation of women in senior management teams had a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher return to shareholders. It’s become quite clear to companies that diversity is important when it comes to honing and maintaining their competitive edge.

According to Dr. Valerie Barr, executive committee member of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Committee of Women (ACM-W), “We need all hands on deck. We are seeing increasing applications of computing, an increasing role of various STEM fields in our day to day life, in all forms of commerce and industry, and we simply do not have enough people to fill the jobs. We don’t have enough people to help figure out all the ways in which technology can be used to improve our lives. We lose as a society if we have the creativity and passion and intelligence of only half the population. Also, STEM jobs are among the highest paid jobs out there right now. Why should women not have an equal opportunity to get those jobs and become high earners?”

Recruiting women is critical, but retaining them in the workplace is also a big issue. In fact, according to Stanford University studies, women’s quit rate in technology exceeds that of other science and engineering fields. A full 56 percent of women in technology companies leave their organizations at the mid-level point in their careers.

Yet a career in computer science opens up great opportunities for women who want to make a difference in the world. The jobs are plentiful and the pay is above average. In addition, the nature of many positions in the field allows for flexibility. Many employees are able to work from home, allowing for a better home/family balance.

Additional Resources about women and computer science careers:

U.S. Census Bureau Report: Women’s Employment in STEM Jobs This September 2013 report outlines trends in employment of women in STEM fields.

Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology The Anita Borg Institute is an organization focused on recruiting and retaining women in computing. IT develops tools and programs designed to help industry, academia and government recruit, retain and develop women technology leaders.

Women in IT: The Facts The National Center for Women and Information Technology presents data about the current state of affairs for technical women, in a single, easy-to-access resource. It includes a summary of the key barriers to women’s participation in technology and promising practices for addressing these barriers

Additional Resources

The links below provide additional information and resources regarding women and computer science.

The Ada Project (TAP) A clearinghouse for information and resources related to women in computing. Includes information about conferences, projects, discussion groups and organizations, fellowships and grants, as well as notable women in computer science.

Association for Women in Science (AWIS) AWIS is a membership based organization advocating the interest of women in science, technology, mathematics and engineering. Benefits include career enhancement, coaching programs, workshops, and online communities.

Edutopia: Five Ways to Get Girls into STEM Practical strategies for involving girls in STEM.

Girls Encouraged to Pursue STEM Careers Excellent article from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) website.

MentorNet A non-profit organization that provides a mentoring network to advance women globally. It includes One-on-One E-Mentoring Programs, MentorNet, E-Forum, and a Resume Database.

National Girls Collaborative Project NGCP brings together organizations throughout the United States that are committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Nerdgirls The website is a community that encourages young women to change the world through their engineering and science skills, while showing that interdisciplinary interests and individuality help inspire innovative solutions to benefit individuals, the community and the environment.

Re:Gender Re:Gender’s network connects research, policy and practice to end gender inequity. Individual members include advocates, change agents, policy thinkers, practitioners, public intellectuals, researchers and other allies.