By Ashley Hunn
Published March 2015
If you enjoy problem solving, and you’re looking for a career where you can make a difference, then computer science might just be for you! Computer scientists are involved in all aspects of computing. They create techniques for computer problem solving (called algorithms), develop software, and implement hardware and software. We know computer scientists do things like write computer games, create web pages, and set up computer networks. But there is much more to computer science! Computer scientists impact the world in so many ways beyond video gaming and the web. They program robots to perform surgery, develop facial recognition systems used for security, and create remote sensor networks that can monitor conditions in harsh physical environments as well as inside the human body!
Table of Contents
1: Understanding Computer Science
2: Where Are All the Skilled Women?
3: Outreach Programs
4: STEM Education
5: Colleges & The BRAID Initiative
6: The Top Ten Schools
7: Careers in Computer Science
8: Scholarships for Women
9: Additional Resources
So what is computer science? Well, it’s a lot like playing chess. “The skills required for chess are similar to those required for computer science,” said Dr. Jennifer Leopold, Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies and Outreach Activities and Associate Professor of Computer Science at Missouri University of Science & Technology. “Both require coming up with a sequence of actions to solve a problem. Both are heavily dependent upon conditional logic, namely, if I do X then Y will happen. And both benefit from finding optimal solutions to solving problems – what is the fewest number of moves required to checkmate my opponent?”
Okay, but what does it take to be a successful computer scientist? Passion, ability, creativity, and attention to detail, according to the Computer Science Department at Boston University. “The qualities of a good computer scientist include a passion for finding elegant solutions, an ability to use mathematical analysis and logical rigor to evaluate such solutions, creativity in modeling complex problems through the use of abstractions, attention to details and hidden assumptions, an ability to recognize variants of the same problem in different settings, and being able to retarget known efficient solutions to problems in new settings.” The bottom line is this … if you like to solve puzzles, then computer science is for you!
Passion, ability, creativity, and attention to detail – traits of men and women alike! So why are there so few women in computer science? Some of the earliest computer pioneers were, in fact, women. In 1958, Elsie Shutt founded Computations, Incorporated (CompInc), one of the first software companies in the world – and staffed entirely by women. The percentage of women in computer science was on a steady rise when it flattened and then plunged in 1984, according to National Public Radio’s Planet Money. Some blame the rise of personal computers marketed to boys. Researcher Jane Margolis interviewed computer science students from Carnegie Mellon University and found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls.
Gender stereotypes surely contributed to the decline of women in computing decades ago, and the trend continues decades today. According to the National Science Foundation, computer science is the only field in science, engineering, and math in which the number of women receiving bachelor’s degrees has decreased since 2002 – even after showing a modest increase in recent years. Dr. Leopold believes not understanding what computer science entails and a lack of role models in the media are other contributing factors to the declining percentage of women in CS. Fewer than one in five screen characters depicted in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers is female, according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media.
Whatever the reasons, the field of computer science is missing out on a huge pool of talent. Girls need the same kinds of encouragement boys are getting.
Kylonnie Jackson always loved math and problem solving. Because she was good at math and science, someone once told her she could be a computer engineer. This was in the 1980s, the early days of personal computers. She had no idea what it meant, but a seed was planted. Her initial introduction to computer programming was using Turtle in elementary school and then middle school. She was using very basic programming languages, but she could already see the application of programming in real life. In high school, she focused on a college prep curriculum that would prepare her to study engineering. She went to college with the intention of studying civil engineering, but after her first required programming course, decided to study computer engineering. She liked that programming was basically about being logical, solving a problem, and seeing the results almost instantly. She was also interested in how she could use what she learned to create games and websites and write code to program hardware like robots and remote control cars.
Kylonnie was fortunate to have parents who encouraged her interest in math and school. She also had teachers who encouraged her and made her feel good about wanting to learn and doing well in math and science. But there were also challenges. She got tired of people saying things like, “you’re good at math (science, engineering, etc.) for a girl.” Because she was confident in herself, she decided to do the best she could and force people to drop the “for a girl” part. Admittedly, her classes were not easy. She had to study and work – a lot. In the end, she really enjoyed the process of learning, the hands-on interaction with programming, the problem solving, and the creativity involved in CS. Today Kylonnie has a degree in Computer Engineering with a Computer Science focus from Texas A&M and works for Texas Instruments as a Senior Business Analyst.
Where do we go from here? It’s important to introduce computer science in the early years and offer programs, support, and encouragement to girls like Kylonnie. There are a growing number of clubs and organizations created to foster girls’ interest in computer science. They include:
A national initiative to increase girls’ access to meaningful, inclusive computer science education during the middle school years.
- Girls Who Code
Launched in 2012, Girls Who Code aims to provide computer science education and exposure to 1 million young women by 2020. Currently, the 7-week Summer Immersion Program is offered to high school sophomores and juniors in 15 cities. Girls Who Code Clubs for middle, high school, and universities have launched in over 20 states, offering forty curriculum hours and project-based activities during the school year.
- Made With Code
Google’s initiative to inspire girls to learn and make with code.
Established in 2013, Code.org is a non-profit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color.
- National Girls Collaborative Project
The National Girls Collaborative Project brings organizations together throughout the country that are committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM.
- Girls Inc. Operation SMART
Operation SMART programs reinforce girls’ interest in STEM and show them that careers in the field are viable options. Girls Inc. also helps inform policymakers and the media about girls’ issues and needs.
- Pathways to Science
STEM programs, funding information, career information, and other STEM resources for K-12 students and their parents.
- iD Tech
A family-owned and operated company, iD Tech offers summer day camps and overnight camps for kids and teens. Their computer camps for kids are offered at more than 100 college campuses nationwide, including Stanford, Princeton, and Yale.
Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is the nation’s leading STEM solution in more than 6,500 elementary, middle, and high schools across the country. The number of job openings projected in 2018 for STEM fields will reach 2.8 million, and approximately half of these will be for computer specialists. To build student interest and engagement in computer science, and prepare more students for career opportunities that require computational thinking, PLTW launched a four-year computer science program for high school students in fall 2014.
In addition to its engineering and biomedical tracks, Computer Science and Software Engineering (CSE) is currently underway in more than 60 high schools across the U.S. “We see intense demand for a challenging, comprehensive K-12 pathway in computer science,” said Anne Jones, senior vice president and chief program officer at PLTW. “When we engage students at a young age with authentic, problem-based learning in computer science – and then continue that positive engagement in the classroom – we address problems of access and equity with a solution that really works.”
PLTW offers a strong support system for STEM education and a national college and university presence to create opportunities for students and teachers across the country. More than 150 colleges and universities recognize and reward the work being accomplished by PLTW schools, students, and teachers. Postsecondary institutions recognize PLTW students in a variety of ways, including scholarships, admissions preference, and college-level recognition.
Support and encouragement cannot end after high school. The latest step in increasing the percentage of women in computer science is the Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) initiative. In September 2014, the Anita Borg Institute (ABI), a non-profit organization focused on advancing women in computing, and Harvey Mudd College announced the BRAID initiative to work with computer science departments at 15 universities across the country to increase the percentage of their undergraduate majors that are female and students of color. Industry giants Facebook, Google, Intel, and Microsoft are supporting BRAID with three-year funding commitments. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd, and Telle Whitney, president and CEO of ABI, will lead the BRAID initiative.
“Undergraduate computer science departments across the country are interested in attracting women and underrepresented minorities to their programs,” said Whitney. “Leveraging the experiences of successful programs like those at Harvey Mudd College provides an attractive path to redesigning their programs. BRAID is designed to jump start their efforts and document the results to identify best practices that consistently yield results.”
Under BRAID, the 15 academic institutions’ computer science departments have committed to implementing a number of approaches that have demonstrated success at Harvey Mudd and other institutions. Missouri S&T is one of the 15 universities hoping to increase recruiting and retention of female undergraduates in computer science. Dr. Leopold shared their proposal, which includes revamping the curriculum of core courses to include more examples of how computer science can be applied to socially relevant problems, creating interdisciplinary courses and minors in specific areas which have been found to attract female students, increasing the number of social events of interest to female students, and increasing the number of outreach events to rural and urban K-12 schools in Missouri in order to make students better aware of what computer science entails and what opportunities are available to them.
“The BRAID initiative is the most exciting project I’ve been involved with to expand diversity in computer science,” said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College. “I’m thrilled by how enthusiastic department chairs have been about taking on this initiative to change their culture in a way that will make it more inclusive to underrepresented groups, including women and minorities. It’s also inspirational to see how quickly the four companies stepped up to fund the initiative and the research study on effective educational practices.”
The undergraduate computer science programs participating are:
In addition to Harvey Mudd College, other schools have had success with increasing recruiting and retention of women in their computer science programs. Last fall, women made up 40 percent of the incoming class of undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. Last spring at the University of California-Berkeley, women outnumbered men in one of the school’s introduction to computer science courses – for the first time ever. Each of these schools is also ranked in the top ten computer science schools in the U.S., according to College Factual:
Prospective students should visit universities to talk with faculty members about courses that are offered as well as the research projects that are taking place. Take time to find out which university best matches your interests.
What happens after graduation? If you want to alleviate the stress of finding a job after college, then computer science is the path to take! Based on current trends, U.S. universities will graduate about 400,000 computer scientists between 2010 and 2020, a decade during which 1.4 million U.S. computing jobs will open up, leaving a gap of about a million computing jobs. Together, those one million jobs would pay $500 billion in wages, according to Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Code.org.
If you’re looking for a job that pays well, CS hits the mark again. In 2012, four of the 20 top-paying jobs for women were in computing. The best tech jobs for women are positions such as computer programmer, software developer, information systems manager, and systems analyst, with entry-level jobs paying $80,000 to $100,000. Not only do computing jobs often pay better, but they can offer more flexibility and reasonable work hours than other jobs requiring a four-year bachelor’s degree. Computer-related careers can be ideal for women who are looking to balance work and home life. In fact, many computer programmers work online from home.
A CS degree can take you pretty much anywhere. Jobs in computer science aren’t solely found in the technology industry. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, computer-related jobs are distributed more widely across different industries than any other occupation. Computer scientists can work in fields including education, finance, government, healthcare, manufacturing, and many more.
Show me the money! There are numerous scholarships available to those interested in pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science. In an effort to draw more women into the field, several of the scholarships listed below are geared specifically toward females. This is not a comprehensive list! Be sure to check for additional scholarships (local and national) and those that may be offered based on ethnic heritage.
1. The Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship
Google hopes to encourage women to excel in computing and technology and become active role models and leaders in the field. Scholarship recipients receive a $10,000 award. Scholarships will be awarded to a group of female undergraduate and graduate students based on the strength of each candidate’s academic background and demonstrated leadership.
2. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) Foundation
The ESA Foundation established a scholarship program to assist women and minority students who are pursuing degrees leading to careers in Computer & Video Game Arts. The scholarships are offered for full-time undergraduate study at accredited four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Up to 30 scholarships of $3,000 each will be awarded annually, 15 to graduating high school seniors and 15 to current college students.
3. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) G.I.R.L. Scholarship Program
The G.I.R.L. (Gamers in Real Life) Scholarship is a scholarship program designed to educate and recruit more women into the field of video game production and design. SOE’s G.I.R.L. Scholarship will give a student a unique opportunity to get a foot in the door with an optional internship at SOE, plus $10,000 towards tuition and other educational expenses at the school at which the student is currently enrolled.
4. Women in Technology Scholarship
Visionary Integration Professionals (VIP) is committed to improving educational opportunities for young women and investing in the future of the IT industry. WITS offers support for women who are pursuing a career in computer science, information technology, management information systems, computer engineering, or another related field, and attending or planning to attend a two- or four-year college within the U.S. VIP awards multiple scholarships of up to $2,500 per recipient.
5. The American Physical Society (APS)/IBM Research Internship for Undergraduate Women
The APS and IBM co-sponsor a research internship program for undergraduate women with the goal of encouraging women students to pursue graduate studies in science and engineering. The internships are salaried positions typically ten weeks long at one of three IBM research locations and give the opportunity to work closely with an IBM mentor.
6. Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Scholarship Program
The SWE Scholarship Program provides financial assistance to women admitted to accredited baccalaureate or graduate programs, in preparation for careers in engineering, engineering technology, and computer science. In 2014, SWE disbursed over 230 new and renewed scholarships valued at over $700,000.
7. Alpha Omega Epsilon National Foundation
The A.O.E. National Foundation promotes academic excellence by awarding scholarships in varying amounts to women who promote engineering and technical science by exemplifying high standards in a variety of areas. Applicants for the Engineering and Technical Science Achievement Scholarship must be a woman undergraduate majoring in engineering or technical science.
8. HP Helion OpenStack Scholarship
The HP Helion OpenStack scholarship is a special program for college women pursuing a career in technology. This HP program awards four female candidates a scholarship of $10,000 each, plus mentorship and potential internship possibilities in the future. All women who are enrolled full time in an information systems or computer science (or equivalent) major course of study and capable of developing a project using OpenStack technology and/or Cloud Foundry are eligible.
9. NCWIT Collegiate Award
The NCWIT Collegiate Award (sponsored by Hewlett-Packard) honors outstanding undergraduate women for their computing and technical accomplishments. Awardees receive $7,500 cash award and recognition at the annual NCWIT Summit.
10. Palantir Scholarship for Women in Technology
The Palantir Scholarship for Women in Engineering was created to support and celebrate women pursuing technical study and beginning careers in technology. Palantir is committed to advancing women’s development and representation in the field by recognizing achievement in the study of computer science, engineering, and related disciplines. All finalists will receive a grant, ranging from $1,500 to $10,000, toward supporting their studies.
11. American Association of University Women (AAUW) Selected Professions Fellowships
Selected Professions Fellowships are awarded to women who intend to pursue a full-time course of study at accredited U.S. institutions during the fellowship year in one of the designated degree programs where women’s participation traditionally has been low, including computer/information science.
12. The Science, Mathematics And Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship for Service Program
The SMART scholarship program is an opportunity for students pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in STEM disciplines to receive a full scholarship and be gainfully employed upon degree completion. The program has been established by the Department of Defense (DoD) and aims to increase the number of civilian scientists and engineers working at DoD laboratories.
13. Buick Achievers Scholarship Program
The Buick Achievers Scholarship Program offers up to $25,000 per year for 50 first-time freshmen or existing college students, renewable for up to four years and one additional year for those entering a qualified five-year engineering program.
14. Buildium’s Build U. Scholarship
Buildium’s Build U. Scholarship awards one $2,500 prize each semester to the Product Design, Interaction Design, UX Design, Engineering, or Computer Science student who best explains how the concept of ownership is critical to building a great company.
The Ada Project (TAP)
TAP is a clearinghouse for information and resources related to women in computing. It includes information on conferences, projects, discussion groups and organizations, fellowships and grants, notable women in Computer Science, and other electronically accessible sites.
The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT)
NCWIT is a non-profit community of more than 575 universities, companies, non-profits, and government organizations nationwide working to increase women’s participation in computing and technology. NCWIT equips change leaders with resources for taking action in recruiting, retaining, and advancing women from K–12 and higher education through industry and entrepreneurial careers.
Anita Borg Institute (ABI)
ABI is a non-profit organization focused on the advancement of women in computing.
About the Author
Ashley Hunn is a freelance author focusing on resources for college-bound students. Her professional career includes six years of service in the U.S. Air Force, where assignments included public affairs, media relations, news writing, and leadership and staff coaching and development. She graduated from Boston University.