Gender Equality in Computer Science at the University


Shruti Sharma

Shruti Sharma is a sophomore at UW in the Pre-science major and is an intending a STEM major. She is originally from India but completed most of her middle and high school and the Cambridge Advanced level course in Nigeria. She was the assistant director of communications and marketing on the community council of the Stevens Court residence hall in 2017-2018.

**Sharma's initial research proposal is included below:

Introduction and Research Question

In this ethnography I will focus on researching the community of female undergraduates in the Computer Science program or those that are planning to get into the major, in the University of Washington, Seattle. By studying this group of people I hope to better understand what factors affect female students’ choice of CS as a major at an undergraduate level (Bachelor’s degree). I would like to know their journey into college and into the major to figure out what obstacles they have personally faced or what motivated them to continue to pursue CS as a major.

As a first-year female student planning to get into the Computer Science program next year, I am interested in getting to know other women like me who have probably come from a similar background or have had similar perceptions about women in Computer Science. I am interested in bringing their story out to an audience to create awareness of an ongoing declination in the number of females in the Computer science field. Hence, the aim of this project would be to understand why these women chose computer science and what factors affected their decision before and after entering college.

Background and Context

An extensive archive of statistical data analysis dedicated to finding out the reason for this phenomenon already exists. According to the National Science Foundation, modern computer science is dominated by men. But it hasn't always been this way. Many computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women —like Ada Lovelace, often regarded as the first computer programmer. We might also consider Grace Hopper, the first person to create a compiler for a programming language and one of the first programmers of the Mark I computer, an electro-mechanical computer based on the Analytical Engine. For decades the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed: the percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields continued to grow. What happened? The NSF spent a  great deal of time trying to answer this question, but there's no prevailing, single answer or theory. I believe that there is a need for my proposed research because it can help university students and the society to notice the imbalance of gender in the field of Computer Science. My work might also help non-CS majors feel more confident in their decisions to explore introductory courses in the discipline as electives. 

Significance of the Project

As mentioned in The Seattle Times, University of Washington does not support the perception that the computer science field is a “combative, aggressive, male-dominated environment”. It has taken several initiatives to be inclusive of women in the major and has succeeded to a large extent. According to 2015 article, 30 percent of CS majors at the university are women. This implies that we are still dealing with a ratio of 3: 7 (women to men) in the field and although commendable, this great feat does not imply that work in this area should stop. I think my research can help bring a different perspective into the study and eventually aid the process. I would be combining qualitative and quantitative methods of research for this project which will help us to look beyond just the numbers and get an idea of a mentality that is probably hindering growth of the number of women in Computer Science.