How this Canadian university plans to get more women into computer science

Waterloo's great initiative to reverse women's flight from computer science. Source: Brooke Lark on Unsplash

As the number of women enrolled in other STEM fields like engineering is growing, the same can’t be said for computer science and maths programs in Canada. Underrepresentation remains a problem – Their numbers have stayed stagnant at 25 percent, a decline observed even before the 2002 dot-com bust.

Figures in the early 1990s show there were actually more women in these fields, making up 30 percent of the student cohort then. What happened?

Joanne Atlee of the University of Waterloo suspects the source of this inequality could be traced back to the proliferation of home computers and technology. Companies marketed these tech toys to boys, and not girls.

The “prevailing theory is that it’s because of the advent of the PC,” she said, as reported by The Globe and Mail.

“When the PC came out, it was originally marketed to electronic hobbyists who were mostly men. A lot of the software was business or games, which was advertised to men to buy for their sons.”

It’s a shame because girls should be encouraged to sign up for university courses and aim towards computer science degrees – it’s time to break these archaic stereotypes and who better to fill the shortage of talent in these fields?

In a bid to bridge this gender gap, the University of Waterloo has made it mandatory for all maths students have to take a computer science course to expose them to the discipline. High school girls are given one-day workshops on the subject.

At Waterloo, men outnumber women by 56 to 44 percent, according to this 2010 article. It’s a ratio reportedly unmatched by any other university of remotely similar size.

“The reason isn’t hard to find. Two of Waterloo’s largest faculties are engineering and mathematics (which includes computer science), fields identified by Statistics Canada as having the lowest levels of female enrolment,” it wrote.

But with these new initiatives, the university says it’s now seeing greater admission and graduation rates in the field.

Monica Xu, who now chairs Waterloo’s student chapter of women in computer science felt like she had “imposter syndrome” during her early days in university. She had no programming experience then, but attending the program meant she could join the study parties, have mentors and attend tech talks. Doing so connected her to other women who felt similarly overwhelmed.

“It really helped empower me in a way, just hearing their stories.”

And with a grant of CA$400,000 from Google Canada, the women in its computer science program will now get to create a permanent space for Technovation, a program that challenges girls to identify a problem, build a mobile app and business plan to launch it with the help of mentors and their curriculum.

“The students go from knowing nothing, to building an app that does something for their community,” Atlee explained.

To learn computational thinking is the grant’s aim, not just to program.

Melissa Dominguez, a Google engineer who leads the Canadian chapter of Google Women Engineers from her Waterloo office said: “Coding is like writing software. Computational thinking is training you to think in the way that is necessary to be successful as a code.”

“It is teaching you how to break down problems into procedural steps and how to be very logical in how you approach problems. It can be done without having to buy a computer.”

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