Understanding where bias exists is critical to creating real solutions.
The push for more women in tech has been a focus of many corporations, universities and even childhood programs for the past decade, yet the professional landscape of computer science shows it continues to be a man’s world.
How male is that world? The Statista chart below, based on various tech companies’ diversity reports, indicates female employees make up between 26 percent (Microsoft) and 43 percent (Netflix) of the workforce at major tech companies (as of March 2018.) Those numbers include all female employees in the company; the percentage drops when it comes to women in tech jobs.
Even the National Science Foundation, a leader in funding efforts to diversify the sciences, reported an upward trend of women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) in every discipline except for computer and mathematical sciences, which showed a decline from 1993-2010.
Infographic by Statista
This trend isn’t just due to a lack of programs or resources for women in STEM, according to Regina Barber DeGraaff, the STEM Inclusion and Outreach Specialist in Western Washington University’s College of Science and Engineering and an instructor in the Physics and Astronomy Department. The gap has more to do with cultural and institutional bias, and how females and other underrepresented students are supported in the learning environment.
Western has a Computer Science/Math Scholars program funded by a $1 million NSF S-STEM grant to support low-income students (the first cohort has a majority of women), and the GEMS (Girls in Engineering Math and Science) program to help increase access for young women, but Barber DeGraaff says “until we dismantle stereotypes, discrimination and institutional bias, there will be no change.”
As a multiracial female scientist who grew up in rural Lynden, Whatcom County, Barber DeGraaff is committed to smashing the public’s stereotypical idea of who a scientist is.
“In the sciences, we’re taught to be objective and above our biases, but we’re not,” she says. “To get more women into tech, the students need programs encouraging girls to get involved early, but another layer needs to be faculty awareness and fellow student awareness on discrimination and bias – both gender and race.”
DeGraaff co-facilitates WWU’s STEM-focused Campus Equity and Inclusion workshops every quarter with fellow science faculty members Lina Dahlberg and Robin Kodner. The four-workshop sequence is designed to bring awareness to individual bias and perceptions, with a goal of having 70 percent of STEM faculty and staff complete the entire sequence and help shift the institutional culture to be more inclusive.
For the students, Perry Fizzano, professor and chair of WWU’s Department of Computer Science, incorporates implicit bias awareness into every new major orientation and is participating in ongoing research and training with the National Center for Women in Information Technology. NCWIT works with academic institutions, industry partners and nonprofits in tech to improve representation of women and other underrepresented groups.
Western was selected for NCWIT’s Pacesetters Program, in which Fizzano’s cohort developed and tested a worksheet for students to talk about implicit bias. The group critiqued the materials, gave feedback to NCWIT, and is continuing to work with the organization to change the demographics in computer science.
Once WWU students declare to be a computer science major, they participate in an exercise in their first quarter about building a community of collegial respect and inclusiveness. The faculty and students explore why people in the same department have radically different perceptions of the department, and why some students might not feel as represented in computer science as they do within Western or even within the state of Washington.
“We feel if people who come into the major and leave because they don’t like it, that’s fine,” he says. “But if the reason they are leaving is because they do not feel welcomed, included, or heard, then we’re failing.”
Another factor believed to keep females from completing a computer science degree is the premise that women tend to be more perfectionist and self-doubting by nature – a phenomenon addressed in Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani’s TED Talk, and the book “The Confidence Code.” Fizzano said there may be validity to that based on what he’s seen in the department.
“If a female is getting a B, they might think they cannot be successful. Whereas a male student getting a C- might brag about being the best coder.” Fizzano adds, “If you look at the graduates’ GPAs, female graduates from our program have higher GPAs. Unfortunately, the only women who stick around are the top performers.”
Western’s CS department has been invited to be part of a new smaller Pacesetters cohort aimed at taking a deeper dive into why women leave computer science programs. Fizzano hopes the results of the study will help remove the barriers to women staying with the discipline and retain more women who may be succeeding with less than perfect grades.
Fizzano says the computer science department has evolved from being about 10 percent female, when their first NSF S-STEM grant aimed exclusively at women was awarded in 2011, to 25 percent over the last two quarters, and he’d like to see the positive swing continue in that direction.
Western Washington University offers a variety of degree options at various locations throughout the state, in addition to opportunities to impact communities. To learn more about how to support Western Washington University and access to higher education, visit foundation.wwu.edu.