Computer science now the top major for women at Stanford

stanford-students-file.jpgStanford students in file photo.

This is a milestone for Silicon Valley and for higher education in America, precisely because it has apparently never been true before. The most popular major for female students at Stanford University to declare this academic year is computer science. It's Stanford's most popular major overall, but that hasn't been true for women there or possibly any place else. The reticence of women to study computer science and the STEM sciences in general at top universities has long been known; the previous number one major for women at Stanford had been human biology.

The school told Reuters on Friday that 214 women are now majoring in computer science, or about 30 percent of the majors in that department. "We've crossed that threshold where women feel supported and comfortable," said Eric Roberts, a Stanford professor emeritus of computer science. "What we need to do is not turn anyone away because they feel unsupported, and a vibrant core community with a critical mass is essential." It was news even on campus.

A few years ago, the skateboard-riding scientist who is president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Maria Klawe, set out to reverse the waning numbers for women in computer science. (See my 2012 post, Harvey Mudd turns around ebb in female computer scientists.) By making some small changes, such as reorienting the introduction course, Harvey Mudd raised the number of women in computer science significantly. Computer science is now the second-most popular major for women after engineering, a spokeswoman said.

Here's an interview with Klawe today saying that women don't see enough role models to convince them they would fit, find people like themselves in the tech field, and enjoy the work. "We are not promoting the correct image," Klawe said. An op-ed piece in the New York Times Sunday also raised the cultural discouragement that many women feel when they look at the boy-dominated tech field.

Over and over, Dr. Cheryan and her colleagues have found that female students are more interested in enrolling in a computer class if they are shown a classroom (whether virtual or real) decorated not with “Star Wars” posters, science-fiction books, computer parts and tech magazines, but with a more neutral décor — art and nature posters, coffee makers, plants and general-interest magazines.

The researchers also found that cultural stereotypes about computer scientists strongly influenced young women’s desire to take classes in the field. At a young age, girls already hold stereotypes of computer scientists as socially isolated young men whose genius is the result of genetics rather than hard work. Given that many girls are indoctrinated to believe that they should be feminine and modest about their abilities, as well as brought up to assume that girls are not innately gifted at science or math, it is not surprising that so few can see themselves as successful computer scientists.

In another experiment, Dr. Cheryan and her colleagues arranged for female undergraduates to talk to an actor pretending to be a computer science major. If the actor wore a T-shirt that said “I CODE THEREFORE I AM” and claimed to enjoy video games, the students expressed less interest in studying computer science than if the actor wore a solid shirt and claimed to enjoy hanging out with friends — even if the T-shirt-clad actor was another woman.

From a follow-up report to the Stanford news in the Silicon Valley Business Journal:

While the numbers are encouraging, Stanford may be an anomaly. A report out in January from the National Student Clearinghouse looked at degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and discovered that the number of STEM bachelor’s degrees granted to women dropped over the past decade. The largest decline was in computer science, where women received just 18 percent bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014, down from 23 percent in 2004.

Currently, only 27 percent of entrepreneurs are women, per Reuters, citing Ross Levine, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is researching the gender gap in entrepreneurship. Increasing the number of female computer science majors is seen as a major step toward putting more women in leadership roles at major tech companies.

Women are as much as 10 decades away from reaching gender equality in the C-suite in the United States, according to a study published by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. Per the study, women are almost four times more likely than men to think they have fewer opportunities to advance because of their gender.

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