Building a culture of belonging for women in CS degrees

In an interview with Vogue earlier this year, much celebrated software engineer and outspoken advocate for women in technology Tracy Chou recalls the first computer science class she ever took. She walked into the class, thinking it would be a familiar environment since she grew up as the child of two programmer parents in Silicon Valley. Instead she felt put off by the pronouncements from male students in the class that the subject was ‘a piece of cake’.

This is an experience shared by many women, both those who enter technical degree with some programming experience under their belt and those that start as complete beginners. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, talks about the effect that this sort of behaviour can have on other students, particularly women.

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Rethinking introductory CS classes to make them less intimidating for beginners

For many students, the experience they have in their first year or even first semester of university can have a considerable impact on their decision to continue with a degree, change degrees or drop out entirely. In a survey of 1200 Australian students who had withdrawn from, deferred or changed their university enrolment 48% of students were in their first year of study and a further 34% were in their second year.

Women were significantly overrepresented in the group of students who withdrew from study completely (59%) as well as those who changed degrees (67%). Women were also far more likely to cite course difficulty as their main reason for withdrawal. Interestingly, female students who changed degrees most often cited lack of enjoyment, concern about career prospects and preference for teaching styles as their reasons for change.

Although universities and faculties have limited control over the personal circumstances of students who drop out or change degrees, they have a direct ability to impact the institutional/course factors in this equation.

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