Retaining Women in STEM (RR #3)

Retaining Women in STEM (RR #3)

Women in IT

Preconceived notions take a long time to get rid of and they are detrimental to women gaining and maintaining interest in computer science and engineering. Usually we relate to people who look like ourselves. Generalizing the IT field as full of white male nerds, does not allow many women to connect to the people in IT. Of the people who get bachelor’s degrees in computer science, only 20% of them are women. It has been shown through several scientific studies that when women interacted with a stereotypical person in IT, their interest fell significantly in the field. This loss of interest was also seen when a classroom catered to and was decorated in a nerdy way. Instead of filling a classroom with Star Wars and Star Trek posters and science fiction books, more neutral decorations will not alienate as many women.

The most important and effective method of getting women into IT fields is through education, both at high school and post-secondary levels. The retention rate of women who want to do IT work is critical and the pipeline for new women to be welcomed in needs to be made larger. Making both big and small changes to curriculum taught at those levels is a good start. Make the college level education more broad and accepting for newcomers. For example, at the UW both CSE 142 and CSE 143 can be particularly challenging to the point of being a weed out class. To people new to programming this is not a tolerant-of-failure environment and especially not for women who are out there trying to learn about computer science for the first time.

Many high schools do not offer computer science courses. This is one of the most pressing problems at the current time because without access you cannot learn about computer science no matter the lack of diversity surrounding the field. Many high schoolers are also very concerned with their image; girls might not take a computer science course if it was offered because they do not want to associate with being a nerd. It is also very challenging for girls to connect to anyone when there is only one or no other girls in the class. The stereotype that computer science is for boys persists, and parents who believe this might limit access to a computer for a girl at home. Not being able to use and learn about computers at a young age puts, in this case girls, at a disadvantage because they might never learn to enjoy them or be curious about them. This is similar to the way that many girls do not think they do well in math. It is caused by lack of self-confidence and the feeling of being an outsider, because “only boys are good at math.” Both of these prevalent ideas are false and need to be changed by school administration and teachers and who are both men and women. A diverse group of teacher will cater to all students and help them connect to someone who is like themselves.

In Why So Few, it was mentioned that people who take Calculus or higher level math in high school were much more likely to pursue a degree in a STEM field. Unrelated to math, it was also found that generally women have worse spatial skills than men and this needs to be corrected. Women who have can visualize objects in space are much more likely to stay in STEM and successfully get a bachelor’s degree. To help women and men (because both are pretty bad at imagining something in 3D), we need to do as the authors of the study did at the test university. Teaching these skills, as a quick one credit class, can improve everyone’s spatial ability while at the same time giving a chance for everyone to have the same skills.