How Can You Re-Engineer Your Undergraduate Program to Increase Women’s Representation in Computing?

No simple or single explanation accounts for the gender imbalance in computing. No admission requirement forbids women’s entry. No instructional practice or content is beyond women’s ability to master. No female shortcoming requires compensation. No formal policies of exclusion exist. Instead, the gender imbalance results from a complex process of factors in which our normal educational system intersects with socialization and stereotypes about gender and technology to steer women away from computing.

 

 

Changing a single element is seldom enough to turn the tide of the undergraduate computing program if other elements in the system continue to inhibit women’s full participation. Departments can change the gender balance of their student body through deliberate effort directed at the local system that creates and maintains gender imbalance. That system has several major components, each of which can promote or inhibit diversity either independently or combined with others. When we change parts of the system, mutually-dependent components can reinforce and perpetuate the results. When we ignore the system, our efforts can be neutralized as other components maintain the status quo. Undergraduate departments can take small steps to effect change in the parts of the system their students experience. The effects of systemic change are more widespread and sustainable than the effects of individual changes by a few students or faculty.

 

Change is never easy. According to Ely, several conditions increase the chances that an organizational innovation will be adopted:

  • Dissatisfaction with the status quo. Are your faculty members satisfied with the number and quality of students in your degree program? If not, try pointing out the largely untapped but highly able talent pool of women. Are they aware of the gender imbalance and trends in your program and how they compare with other institutions?

  • Feelings of competence to make the change. Are your faculty members aware that male mentors can be particularly beneficial for women? Have they ever witnessed collaborative or cooperative learning, such as pair programming?

  • Resources, including time, for making the change. Does your department provide temporary reduction in course load or summer support for course re-design?

  • Rewards or incentives for making the change. Do annual reviews consider diversity activities such as outreach or mentoring as service to the department and the discipline? Do conference and journal papers disseminating your successful practices contribute to your publication count?

  • Participation in decision-making about the change. Are faculty members engaged in broad-based or department-wide actions that promote diversity?

  • Visible support from institutional leaders. Are your chair and dean publicly endorsing your efforts and applauding your successes? Do they expect reports on the outcomes of your efforts and track your progress?

  • Committed change agents. Are faculty members piloting practices to demonstrate that diversity is achievable? Are they communicating their successes to motivate and facilitate adoption by others?


References

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon