What a Woman Wants: Will Computer Science Programs Step Up?

Sep 18, 2012   //   by Karen Lopez   //   Blog, Professional Development, WIT  //  9 Comments

For more than a decade I’ve worked on teams that accredit college and university programs in computer science, information systems, and technology.  For the most part the criteria we use for computer science programs has been traditional: algorithms, programming, math, software engineering, components and architectures, models of computation, analysis of algorithms, fundamentals of program specification and verification, computational complexity, automata, etc.  There are requirements for humanities and other subjects, but it is rare to see programs remain unaccredited if they were missing them.  A sample set of criteria can be found on the CIPS website.

One of the things that annoyed me during computer science accreditation visits were the all too common references to women not being able to succeed in CS programs.  When I’d ask why, I was usually given one of these types of answers:

  1. Women are incapable of thinking of complex topics
  2. Women just don’t want to learn computer science
  3. Women don’t want to study in programs where they are outnumbered
  4. We’d have to dumb down the programs too much (see point 1).

It took all my might to simply record their responses and not fight it out.  I figured their answers might be a reflection of their program administration and management than of the women they are running out of their programs.  For instance, a computer science program chair told me directly that if he had to dumb down his program enough to get women to stay, "no one would be able to log in".  Tell me what sort of rewarding student experiences the females in his classes have on a daily basis?

Applied vs. Research Programs in Computing

One of the issues computer science programs have is managing the fact that they often exist as a research program but many students are more interested in studying computing at an applied level.  In other professions, applied means just that – learning to apply sciences in a practical, real world environment.  Other professions produce professionals just that way: lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers. For the most part, they study in applied programs.  But in the research world, applied is the equivalent of dumbed down. So many computer science programs are designed to produce researchers even though the vast majority of students are there not to become researchers, but practitioners.  And yet most women are drawn to professions where they can see a direct link to studying and working on projects that will change the world.

I was thinking about this while speaking on the #SQLSat157 San Diego WIT panel this past weekend. When I got home, I found this great interview with Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College: Q&A What Women Want in the Communications of the ACM.  One of the questions was exactly what I experienced when choosing a program of study all those years ago:

You’ve talked before about the importance of teaching practical applications from the start, rather than waiting until students have mastered the building blocks.

We know from research that for women and minorities, the attraction of computer science is what you can do with it. It doesn’t mean they are not interested in complexity theory or other esoteric parts of the field, it just means that that tends to be the driving motivation. And in our experience, it’s not like women take one course or go to the Hopper conference and say, "I want to be a computer science major." It’s more like, you take one course or go to the Hopper conference, and you take the next course. And then you take the course after that, and by then you’ve taken three courses and you’re going, "Oh, I’m actually good at this, and it gets me summer jobs. Maybe I should be a CS major."

The curmudgeon computer science chair and his colleagues also had thoughts on programs that shifted their marketing and delivery, but not their content, to appeal more to women and minorities: it was cheating.  As an IT professional, I say "Let’s cheat, then".  Let’s ensure that computers science and other technology programs can step up their game to be more appealing.  As a business person and someone who interviews candidates for jobs, I want to see people who understand theory AND application of it all.  Cost, benefit , risk and all.  Saving the world.  Making a difference.

Information systems and technology programs are generally applied programs of study.  However, we tend to see them as lesser siblings of computer science.  Maybe we shouldn’t, especially as employers for organizations that don’t directly hire researchers.

Step Up

Do we need theoretical, research-only computer science programs?  ABSOLUTELY!  But we also need IT professionals who can fit solutions into a corporate environment.  One that can’t just think in terms of theory.  And I want a more diverse, educated workforce available to hire from.  Not just for the numbers, but because we get better solutions.  But in order to get this, our programs of study need to step up.


  • Good points, and it rings true from my time as a faculty member. However, I’d say that many of the reasons you’ve heard I’ve also heard about “students today” more generally. In other words, this isn’t just a good strategy for women (which it is), it’s a good plan for CS courses more generally. People learn through real problems, and CS courses are generally very bad at making that the drive behind their curricula. Even “research-only” programs can be driven by real problems, as CS is what Michael Scriven called a “transdiscipline”, i.e., both a discipline in its own right, and a set of methods and techniques used in other disciplines. It is this that CS programs need to bear in mind, and they have generally failed to do so.

    • Yep, for all. Maybe it’s because this is so familiar to me that it seems so obvious. I’ve never considered myself a typical female, either. But when I was choosing programs, the ones that drew a clear distinction between study and making a difference in the world resonated with me.

      This feeling continued into my classes. I remember the calculus classes I took were mind-numbing until I took two semesters of calculus for business. Sounds like a terribly dumbed-down version of the subject, doesn’t it? Maybe they were. But for the first time in a long time I found my math classes exciting! Calculating a profit optimization? Determining an optimal point of production? Amazing stuff. Somehow, for me, engaging brain cells to solve problems that had a real-life application was amazing.

      I studied Information Systems. It was all about application of technology and data. Every class, even the fundamentals of programming, was tied to solving people problems. It was great stuff for me.

      • My fun was in software engineering, redoing the code for the Mars lander. Just the last code that read sensors and adjusted throttle/pitch/yaw as it came down. Tedious coding, but cool.

  • Completely agree. I loved the Calculus and other subjects I took, but I enjoy college. Lots of people would prefer to have a program tailored to them, and for many that might be fun, practical stuff. Colleges that want to really grow need to do this. And they need to appeal to different groups in different ways.

    • Practical doesn’t always mean “fun”, but I get what you mean. I seem to recall we did many large projects that focused on designing and implementing solutions about ordering, manufacturing, shipping and payment. Full life cycle of the technology and the business processes. Of course, I do remember that during one of my systems analysis courses my team chose to design a solution for Cyberdyne Systems
      http://terminator.wikia.com/wiki/Cyberdyne_Systems. That made for a very fun project.

  • It’s been 34 years since I created the academic program Computer and Information Technology at Purdue from which you graduated:
    http://www.tech.purdue.edu/Cit/ so I am somewhat dismayed by posts such as yours asking for MORE programs such as the one I created in 1978 which is the academic program I would have wanted for MYSELF when I studied computer science as an undergraduate. Actually, MY undergraduate program (in “business data processing” 🙂 was probably the only one of its kind in the late 1960s shortly after Computer Science was created at Purdue 50 years ago:

    It’s gotten better since then with the creation of accreditation programs in Information systems and in information technology in addition to computer science in the US: http://abet.org/computing-criteria-2012-2013/ If you like, we can discuss how we got there and why we haven’t gotten any farther!

    • I have worked with the ABET criteria before. And the criteria we have here for CIPS is radically different between CS and all other types of programs (mostly IS, diploma and special programs of study).

      I see CIS/CPT going through accreditation every few years, but the last time I looked it seemed like they were seeking accreditation under a less than BSc level program, which I found odd.

      I personally think industry needs more programs like IS program. Plus we need to stop seeing traditional CS programs as the pinnacle of all education in computing, with all other programs some how “less valuable”. I want to hire people who can apply computer science and other disciplines. I’ve blogged before that our attitude right now would be the same as expecting medical doctors to major in organic chemistry or biology, rather than study in medical programs.

      • Although ABET MAY have accreditation for AAS programs, both CIT BS programs at West Lafayette and IUPUI are accredited.

      • Just as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” so ‘value’ of academic programs depends on WHO is making the value judgment. Just as prospective students (and parents 🙂 must be ‘educated’ to differentiate among computing programs, prospective employers ought to be even ‘easier’ to educate because they ought to understand their needs even better!

        To give you ‘hope’ that all things are possible, remember that I have a Ph. D. In computer science and I both created and ‘turned around’ undergraduate IT programs which I would have wanted for MYSELF (when I was an undergraduate) as I said in a previous comment! 🙂

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