University of Washington solves gender gap in computer science degrees

May 26, 2015, 10:28 AM | Updated: 2:10 pm
Ed Lazowska (left) is the Bill and Melinda Gates chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the U...
Ed Lazowska (left) is the Bill and Melinda Gates chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. Crystal Eney is Director of Student Services. Allison Obourn and Ruth Anderson are university faculty. (Photo courtesy Ed Lazowska)
(Photo courtesy Ed Lazowska)

Last year, there was a big uproar in Silicon Valley over Google’s diversity breakdown; 83-percent men and 17-percent women in their tech departments.

Theories were thrown around, but it’s actually quite simple and it seems the University of Washington has figured it out.

The UW Computer Science and Engineering School has doubled the number of women graduating with a major in that field in the last ten years. Now, 30 percent of their majors are women. It’s an achievement that was just recognized by Google and the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

For 37 years, Ed Lazowska has been the Bill and Melinda Gates chair of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington.

He explained that when he started 40 years ago, the Computer Programming field was full of diversity. Then the 80s came around.

“There was a serious downturn in the mid-1980s from which we’ve never recovered and you can hypothesize about why that was. Maybe it was the birth of personal computing, maybe it was the birth of video games, something turned this into a guys thing,” Lazowska said.

So what happened and how do we fix it?

He started with reaching out to local K-12 schools that aren’t up to speed yet on introducing things like computer programming. That works two-fold. It showed kids how computer programming can change the world and also nipped the “geek” stereotype in the bud at an early age. Surprisingly, many students will admit the “nerd” label is what keeps them from pursuing computer science degrees.

Then, when kids get to college and take the introductory course their freshman year, Lazowska and his staff pay extra attention to student progress.

“Aside from generally trying to help everybody succeed, to reach out to students who are dong particularly well and suggest that they take the next course, suggest that they consider becoming a major,” Lazowska said. “If you’re one of 1,000 people in a course taught in an enormous classrooms of 500, you know, if someone reaches out and tells you that you appear to know what you’re doing, this has an enormous impact.”

There’s also a very diverse pool of teacher’s assistants. Nearly 50 percent are female. That’s part of what made a difference to student Siena Dumas-Ang, who didn’t intend on being a Computer Science anything during her time at the university. She now plans to get her PhD in the field.

“I found women who were like me. I think there was also a stereotype of the type of women who did computer science on top of the male-saturated environment. I found women who were incredibly intelligent and driven and also like me. I didn’t realize it was a social environment,” Dumas-Ang said.

Dumas-Ang entered the University of Washington at the age of 16. Her dad was a mathematician and she attended private school. Yet, the “nerd” label is what almost kept her from exploring her talents at the school of Computer Science and Engineering.

That’s what Lazowska and his colleagues have been fighting back against for so many years. He wants to show every student that they can excel at his school &#8212 there’s no special “gift” or type of person who should be a computer programmer.

Lazowska has largely achieved that goal by simply creating an environment at the university where everyone feels like they belong. Not just women &#8212 everyone.

“I think the diversity programs that work the best are the programs that help everybody. It may help some people differentially but the goal is to help everybody succeed and make everybody feel like they belong. Nobody can complain about that,” Lazowska said.

You can’t say that’s just feel-good lip service because now 30 percent of college students graduating with a major in Computer Programming at the UW are women, which is double the national statistic.

“The really compelling reason [to involve more women in computer programming] is that software design, computer system design, and engineering are inherently creative and all of us bring our own background, our own perspective to any creative enterprise and if there are perspectives that aren’t represented, then you don’t come up with as good of a solution,” Lazowska said.

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University of Washington solves gender gap in computer science degrees