Klaire Tan ’19 always knew she needed to know how to code.
Originally from Silicon Valley, Tan grew up surrounded by technology, but had never taken a computer science class until coming to Yale.
Now, one week into CPSC 201, Tan finds herself somewhat intimidated by the prospect of being a STEM major. At the end of her first week of classes, she made the trek familiar to nearly every computer science major — the walk up Prospect Street to “the Zoo,” as the computer science building is nicknamed. Upon entering the room where office hours were being held, she noticed something strange: Everyone there was male.
“I’d always heard that women in STEM was an issue, but I’d never personally seen that,” Tan said. “I never thought that after coming to Yale, I would start to think that too.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Of the 119 computer science majors at Yale last year, nearly 100 were male.
So in a higher-level computer science class, which typically enrolls around 40 students, only six would be female. Such a pattern is often daunting for women entering a field already well-known for being male-dominated.
“As a freshman coming into the major, you are already intimidated,” computer science major Jayshree Sarathy ’18 said. “ A lot of the male students naturally form into groups and the women are left out.”
Sarathy knew coming into Yale that she wanted to major in computer science, but she did not anticipate all the obstacles she would encounter. For most of her first year, Sarathy felt excluded from the rest of the computer science community, struggling to break into the “all-male” environment.
Amelia Holcomb ’16, a mathematics major who has taken many core computer science courses, recalled similar experiences. She said although women in computer science classes perform well, they underestimate how well they are doing, often feeling less qualified than their peers and the stereotype of the male student “who started coding at age two.”
Holcomb said she has noticed particular gender disparity amongst computer science majors during her senior-year job search.
“I think there’s a dramatic difference in the way I see myself and my female friends applying for jobs in tech and the way I see guys applying for jobs,” Holcomb said. “The sentiment I hear again and again is, ‘Well, maybe I don’t have enough preparation yet; maybe I should get a little more experience under my belt,’ and I don’t hear that from guys.”
Several female students interviewed said the Computer Science Department’s gender disparity feels particularly taxing because of the major’s collaborative nature. According to a survey sent out by the News to computer science majors, almost 50 percent of the over 100 respondents said collaboration is extremely important to their coursework.
Working together on projects and problem sets is very common, Sarathy said, but since male students mostly collaborate with each other, female students have trouble finding others to work with. 95 percent of female respondents to the News’ survey said their gender impacted their interactions with peers in the major.
“I can’t tell whether or not men collaborating with men is [due to] the fact that 80 percent [of the students in the major] are men,” said computer science major Alexander Reinking ’16. “A group of six is more likely to be all men than not. I have never seen anything that makes me think people are intentionally not trying to work with women.”
Holcomb praised the Computer Science Department for its unique office hours system, which offers a space for people to work together on assignments and consult peer tutors. Here, she said, students could find a “default [study] group.”
Still, computer science major Payal Modi ’17 recalled attending one core course’s office hours, where she sat on one side of the room and all the male students congregated on the opposite.
Computer science professor Dan Spielman ’92 has been interested in the impact of collaborating in computer science classes, and first decided to take an empirical look at the issue when teaching a large lecture class at MIT over a decade ago. After gathering data on whom students were collaborating with, he found that almost all the students working independently were women.
“I was concerned,” Spielman said. “It seemed that the presence of the social network in this MIT class was favoring men over women.”
To combat the issue, Spielman prohibited collaboration in many of his classes. While he said the initiative was originally popular, Spielman began receiving more negative feedback in recent years, especially from women who said collaboration helped them learn. In response, Spielman reversed the policy last year. This year, he will again be collecting data to look for trends.
Spielman pointed out other difficulties facing women studying computer science, such as the fact that more male students have prior knowledge of computer science than do female students their first year in the major, according to research from the American Association of University Women.
“Because computers have been sold for a long time as a toy for men, [there are] a lot of men coming into computer science with a stronger background,” Spielman said. “If you’re in a programming class and you’re competing with someone who has been programming for three years, people with less experience get worse grades and are discouraged.”
He added that revising the major to allow for different tracks depending on the student’s background could address the discrepancy in experience levels.
Computer Science Department Chair Joan Feigenbaum recognized that gender disparity in computer science is well-documented, and said the issue is far from exclusive to Yale.
“Objectively speaking, I have no idea why so few girls and women pursue degrees and careers in computer science,” Feigenbaum said. “Male dominance of CS and other scientific and technological fields is a very pervasive cultural phenomenon. Therefore, I doubt that Yale or any other single institution can change this state of affairs dramatically or quickly.”
Still, in spite of this, she added that Yale is “doing very well with respect to female faculty,” and highlighted that four of Yale’s 16 full professors are women. According to the 2014 Taulbee Survey, Yale’s computer science faculty, which is 25 percent female, is more gender-inclusive than the average North American department, which is 13.3 percent female.
And Feigenbaum said the department hopes to hire more women; of the 12 candidates being interviewed for two open faculty positions this year, she noted, five are women.
The department’s hope has always been that more female faculty would consequently bring in more female students, but that does not seem to have happened, Feigenbaum added. She theorized that more girls would grow up expecting to be scientists and engineers if more female scientists and engineers appeared in popular culture.
Most computer science professors and students interviewed echoed Feigenbaum. Women get less exposure to science from a very young age due to a social perception that technical fields are for males, and that women should go into humanities, computer science professor Mariana Raykova said. Jessica Yang ’16 observed that some female students push themselves to take more programming-intensive classes — even if they aren’t interested in the course topic — in order to prove that women can be programmers.
“The visual evidence says you are not supposed to be there,” said Penny Rheingans, director of the Center for Women in Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “If you are [in the computer science major] and surrounded by people who look different, it’s impossible not to question [if you are supposed to be there].”
FLOATING, NOT DROWNING
Although gender disparity in computer science is now widely acknowledged, solutions remain elusive. At Yale, student-led initiatives aim to even the playing field.
One of the oldest campus organizations for female computer science majors is Women Active in Computer Science at Yale, or WACSY. Yang, the group’s president, said the group does not meet formally; rather, it is a mailing list that recruiters and others can use to contact the community of female computer scientists at Yale. The group used to meet weekly for lunch, Yang added, but has recently stopped because of poor attendance.
A newer group, Float, has tried to integrate the technical and social sides of the field. According to Modi, the group’s president, Float focuses on networking, community building and providing a support system. Float members also organize and teach programming workshops.
According to the News’ survey of computer science majors, 70 percent of female respondents had been involved with Float and 45 percent with WACSY. 20 percent had been involved with the Society of Women Engineers; according to SWE President Sai Koppaka ’17, the Computer Science Department’s recent move to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has brought an influx of computer scientists into the group.
At this point in her freshman year, Tan hasn’t participated in campus communities devoted to women in computer science.
“I just heard of WACSY and Float this semester,” Tan said. “It kind of makes me think: Why didn’t I know about these last semester?”
For some, support has come through less-structured avenues. This fall, Jessica Pancer ’17 was one of over 100 computer science students taking Systems Programming and Computer Organization — better known as CPSC 323, a required course for the computer science major that Pancer called “infamous” for its workload (rated a 4.8 on CourseTable). Sarathy, who also took CPSC 323 last semester, said she considered dropping the course while working on the first problem set.
Pancer knew she needed a good support system, so she invited a number of female classmates she knew to have dinner one night. The meal was a success, and expanded into weekly dinners and study groups, now informally known as “Women of 323.” The 20 members were always willing to help one another fix bugs or understand topics, Pancer added. Holcomb said Women of 323 changed her CPSC 323 experience and made working on problem sets enjoyable.
“It’s more important that the support come from your peers — the people that you work with and the people you see in classes,” Jay Hou ’17 said. “I felt Women of 323 was a lot more productive than other groups.”
88 percent of respondents to the News’ survey said it should be Yale’s responsibility to provide resources to support women in computer science. Feigenbaum noted that the Computer Science Department does not currently support any resources aimed directly at women’s participation aside from Float.
And some women fear that initiatives aimed particularly at women’s issues might actually widen the department’s gender divide.
“I worry that ‘women of everything’ is going to be a thing,” Modi said. “I don’t want the girls to be separate in everything.”
ROOM TO GROW
According to the 2014 Taulbee Survey, only around 15 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computing areas were earned by women.
While Yale is on par with this statistic, it falls short next to some of its Ivy League peers. At Harvard, around 30 percent of computer science majors are female, according to a March 2015 article in the Harvard Gazette. The Daily Princetonian and the Columbia Spectator cited similar statistics — 26.5 percent and 33 percent, for their respective institutions.
At Brown, female students make up 28 percent of the computer science major, according to an April 2015 article in the Brown Daily Herald. Although the breakdown of male and female students in her introductory class was nearly even, junior computer science major Julia Wu said as she moved to upper-level classes the gender ratio skewed increasingly towards men.
Wu is part of Brown’s Women in Computer Science group, which holds training sessions for teaching assistants at the start of each semester. Called “culture training,” the program has coordinators from WICS speak to all teaching assistants about unconscious biases, gender discrimination, microaggressions and how to deal with female students in a male-dominated environment.
“All of this is happening among the teaching assistants who have a lot of say in shaping a student’s mindset and culture of the department,” Wu said. “[It is] part of the effort to embrace diversity and make sure we are aware of all these issues on a daily basis.”
In addition, teaching assistants at Brown help create course material, allowing them to impact the department’s environment.
Harvard also has a Women in Computer Science group, where female computer science majors find a community of like-minded peers. The student-run organization provides opportunities for community building, networking and mentorship. Harvard junior Hana Kim, a co-president of Harvard WICS, said the group was fundamental in her sticking with computer science and choosing it as a major.
Harvard junior Michelle Danoff, the other co-president of Harvard WICS, said the group feels lucky for the support that it has received from faculty. Kim agreed, adding that it seems like the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is actively looking for solutions to the problem of gender inequity.
“In the Computer Science Department and SEAS, gender parity is on everybody’s mind,” Kim said. “Everyone is thinking of ways to even the numbers.”
Computer science major Deborah Alves, who graduated from Harvard in 2015 and is now working at question-and-answer website Quora, said she never felt the weight of gender disparity during her time at Harvard. Although she said the predominance of male students was “definitely noticeable,” it was never something that made her feel uncomfortable or discouraged.
One of the Harvard Computer Science Department’s initiatives to support female majors is funding an annual trip for a handful of students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, according to Amy Yin, a 2014 Harvard graduate and a co-founder of Harvard WICS.
At Yale, Pancer said, sending as many students as possible to Grace Hopper would be the most important thing that Yale could do to support female computer scientists. Many attendees say the experience is extremely valuable, said Holly Rushmeier, a computer science professor and the Float faculty advisor.
Feigenbaum said this year, the Computer Science Department was able to allocate $5,000 for travel expenses for Float members; one possible use was for attending the Grace Hopper Conference. She added that this was the first time a lump sum had been allocated for the purpose. The money came from a one-time alumnus donation, but she hopes to keep allocating funds as long as the departmental budget allows it.
Money is a particularly important concern for groups like Float, Modi said, and she stressed the importance of departmental support.
“Admin support is important when a minority is trying to have its voice heard,” Modi said. “University support would be great just because it’s hard to make things happen without the help of people who are more powerful or have more resources.”
Rushmeier agreed, adding that she thinks the University is improving its general support for groups struggling with harassment, crises of confidence and other issues that often plague underrepresented populations.
Rheingans said the most effective approach is a combination of student-run organizations and institutional investment in resources. At UMBC, the Center for Women in Technology offers mentorship, scholarships and other resources; the result has been a retention rate of over 90 percent among technology majors within their formal programs.
“It’s the university’s responsibility to further their defined values,” Rheingans said. “You can’t claim we’re all about diversity and not do anything.”
When talking about institutional intervention to encourage women in computer science, Harvey Mudd College is the often-referenced success story. Their 2006 approach, which involved dividing students into different introductory classes based on level of experience and taking students to Grace Hopper, was rooted in research — and it worked. Within two years, the percentage of female computer science majors increased from 12 percent to 40 percent, and the AAUW referred to it as “a roadmap for reversing the downward trend in women’s representation among bachelor’s degree recipients in computing.”
The idea of achieving gender balance by changing the computer science curriculum is a controversial one. A study carried out at Carnegie Mellon between 1995 and 1999 strongly advocated for a change in theory-based curriculum towards more practical applications.
However, a study carried out almost 10 years later by Carnegie Mellon professors Lenore Blum and Carol Frieze found no significant difference between the source of men and women’s interests in computer science. Rather, Blum claimed the differences found in the original study stemmed from the women’s negative experiences of being a minority.
“The reason [the study] was touted was because it fit into a lot of people’s stereotypes,” Blum said. “They were saying we have to provide different kinds of experiences for women and men and we’re saying no — you have to provide the same kind of experiences.”
Still, the initial Carnegie Mellon study’s position persists. One male responder to the News’ survey suggested that Yale’s computer science curriculum is not “relevant to the work that women often care about, like bettering communities or making art.”
Changes to the computer science curriculum are in the works at Yale, Spielman said. Although this curriculum revision is not explicitly intended to address gender imbalance, Spielman said a curriculum revision that takes into account prior experience might even the playing field.
CS50, Harvard’s introductory computer science course now being co-taught between Harvard and Yale, has played its own role in shaking up the way students encounter computer science. At Yale, the course’s staff is around 39 percent female — far surpassing the percentage of women in the major and the equivalent statistic at Harvard, where the course’s undergraduate staff is around 26 percent female.
Holcomb, a course assistant for CS50, said CS50’s model seems to follow many of Harvey Mudd’s strategies, whether intentionally or independently. The way CS50 is presented allows students at a very early level to feel like a part of the computer science field, Holcomb said.
“There is an old perception that computer science is pursued only by men who sit in basements, illuminated only by the glow of their screens,” computer science professor Brian Scassellati said. “That is just not true. I think classes like CS50, that attempt to show the exciting, vibrant and applied areas that computer science covers, help to overcome that stereotype.”
Tan, who took CS50 last semester, said the class was fun, yet challenging — everything she had hoped computer science would be. She made friends that were also interested in computer science, many of whom were female.
“I never felt discouraged,” Tan said. “I never thought my gender was an issue.”
* * *
On the first day of CPSC 365, the highest-level required course in the computer science major, Spielman explained the history behind his collaboration policy to the class. Sarathy said that just hearing him acknowledge the problem was encouraging. Holcomb thinks this approach — “actively making a change and not passively hoping things will even out” — is what the University must take to address gender disparity in the field.
“It is in the interest of all these fields [computer science and mathematics] to get the best talent,” Holcomb said. “For some reason, I don’t believe that all the talent is white men.”
Correction, Jan. 29: A previous version of this article misstated Michelle Danoff’s class year at Harvard. It also misspelled the names of Penny Rheingans and Klaire Tan ’19.