Fewer women graduating with college degrees in computer science

The decline in women graduating with degrees in computer science may be due to stigmas attached to the field. (NINA LIN / THE STATESMAN)

When Jennifer Wong first started teaching at Stony Brook in 2006, she caught a male student in her CSE 220 class aiming a laser pointer at her rear.

Even though she dismissed the student from the class, she said she did not think it would have happened if she were a male teaching the course.

According to a study from the National Science Foundation, the number of women graduating with degrees in computer science has actually decreased compared to data from two decades ago.

In 2010, female students earned 18.2 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science.

In 1991, that number was 29.1 percent.

In a male-dominated field like computer science, Wong said that perhaps students were not used to seeing a woman leading the lecture. Students had signed her up for random email lists and taken out personal ads in her name, filling up her voice mailbox.

But with a Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California, Los Angeles, Wong has done well for herself in her field.

Part of the reason for the decline, Wong says, is a lack of proper exposure to computer science.

“There are a lot of younger women who think ‘oh you know, computer science means sitting behind a computer all day and programming and making video games,’” Wong said.  “And to some of them, that’s not what [they] want to do, kind of like the same notion you get from some of the other STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] disciplines.”

But another part of it has to do with a social connotation.

“There’s that ‘geeky’ stereotype that some people have that ‘oh! I don’t want to be a geek,’” she said.  “But I think that most of it is that younger people don’t know what it means to be a computer scientist.”

Senior physics and computer science double major Hanne Paine came to Stony Brook as a freshman with very few female peers in her studies. When she joined the Stony Brook Computing Society, she was the only one of the four members that was not graduating.

“I was elected president unanimously by three people at the end of my first semester freshman year,” Paine said. “I started organizing movie nights, game nights, tech talks, tours of companies and stuff that I thought would get people interested in becoming more involved.”

Paine said the scarce number of women in computer science stems from a combination of stereotypes and little confidence.

“I think starts really early,” she said. “It seems like there’s a stereotype of women not being able to do as much in science and math that really stays with them through middle school and high school and can make them feel intimidated.”

Another part of it is poor marketing on behalf of event planners. “We’ve been noticing a really low attendance of women at hack-a-thons and some of things people do to advertise jobs and hack-a-thons can be really degrading sounding,” Paine said. “They advertise beer and girls and that’s pretty offensive, as a woman.”

Like Wong, Paine also encountered sexism as a computer scientist. In high school, she worked as a programmer at a space camp that she had attended as a child.

“As the first female programmer at this space center, I got a lot of condescension from the guys,” she said. “They didn’t really want to teach me so I ended up teaching myself.”

Despite receiving little encouragement at the space camp, Paine continued to pursue computer science.

“It got me thinking that I should keep trying and set an example for other people,” she said. “There are so few women in the industry and I thought [the space camp] could be a really great place for everybody.”

But over her last few years at Stony Brook, Paine’s efforts have paid off.

“We’ve now twice taken [50] people on a bus trip to Michigan to one of the biggest hack-a-thons in the world,” she said. “This semester, we started our first meeting with 85 people, all the way up from four, so it’s pretty exciting for us.”

This article was originally published in the March 31, 2014 issue of The Statesman.

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