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SCS betters gender ratio

Enrollment in the School of Computer Science (credit: Anne-Sophie Kim/Assistant Layout Manager) Enrollment in the School of Computer Science (credit: Anne-Sophie Kim/Assistant Layout Manager)

When Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest, published the company’s employee diversity statistics last October on medium.com, she revealed that 11 of Pinterest’s 89 engineers — roughly 12 percent — were women. Chou’s post foreshadowed a wave of similar reveals at other tech companies the following spring. Along with showing heavy racial imbalances in favor of white and Asian workers, all of the companies that revealed their employee statistics showed a disparate number of female employees.

Apple said in a diversity report on Tuesday that its workforce is 70 percent male and 30 percent female while Google, in May, said in a blog post that 30 percent of its employees are female. Facebook, similarly, is 69 percent male and 31 percent female, according to its press blog. A host of other companies — including Twitter and Yahoo — have similar proportions of male to female employees.

Google wrote on its blog, “Put simply, Google is not where we want it to be when it comes to diversity,” while Facebook wrote, “As these numbers show, we have more work to do — a lot more.”

At Carnegie Mellon, according to the Student Information System, 47 out of 136 incoming undergraduate full-time first-year students in 2013 in the School of Computer Science, or about 35 percent, were female. Across the six undergraduate colleges, 642 out of 1,442 students, or around 45 percent of students, were female.

Like many of Silicon Valley’s best-known companies, Carnegie Mellon still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality. The university, however, is making strides toward having a more balanced School of Computer Science. According a July article in The New York Times, 40 percent of Carnegie Mellon’s incoming
School of Computer Science students this year are women, the “largest group ever.”

Carnegie Mellon, the article continues, has worked to remove obstacles for women interested in computer science without changing the content of the computer science curriculum.

Lenore Blum and Carol Frieze, both professors in the School of Computer Science, published a study in 2005 that concluded that, in balanced learning environments, women and men showed little to no differences as students of computer science. Blum and Frieze’s work refutes several studies done by Carnegie Mellon in the 1990s, The New York Times said, that found that women care more about real-world applications of computer science, while men are more interested in the actual programming.

Many of Carnegie Mellon’s measures to include women in computer science stem from a 1997 paper co-authored by Allan Fisher, Jane Margolis, and Faye Miller, which showed that women in the School of Computer Science felt unprepared for their coursework, typically having less prior programming experience than their male classmates, and perceived themselves as less successful students than they actually were.

The study, which comprised interviews of 29 male and 20 female Carnegie Mellon students majoring in computer science, along with samples of female non-computer science majors who took computer science classes, “counter[s] the suggestion that prior computing experience is necessary to do well in undergraduate computer science,” the researchers stated in a paper titled “The Anatomy of Interest: Women in Undergraduate Computer Science.”

This study led to several policy changes, including the removal of prior programming experience as an admissions criterion for the School of Computer Science.

Gail Wilson, a junior computer science major, said via email that being a woman in the School of Computer Science has its ups and downs. “I’m worried about answering the wrong questions in class where all the guys seem to know it all and have done CS for so much [longer] than myself,” Wilson said. “And sometimes people are just surprised and skeptical to learn I’m in CS myself.”

Wilson added, however, that “I sometimes like surprising them, because it seems like such a good thing. Responses like ‘Wow, you must be crazy smart!’ are always fun.”

Additionally, Carnegie Mellon is home to organizations such as Women@SCS, which is directed by Frieze.

Women@SCS, its website says, is meant to “create, encourage, and support women’s academic, social, and professional opportunities in the computer sciences and to promote the breadth of the field and its diverse community.”

Wilson also appreciates the experiences she’s had with Women@SCS, calling it an organization that “brings together women in our CS department to connect, talk, support each other, and host events that help encourage women to feel like a community in computer science, and also outreaches to young women in the nearby community to encourage them to discover the innovation and fun of the technology industry as well as let them know there are so many women who are a part of it too.”

Women@SCS organizes outreach programs such as TechNights, a series of weekly workshops for middle school girls interested in computer science.

Many of Carnegie Mellon’s measures to include women in computer science, it seems, are paying off. In July, Business Insider published a list of “22 Of The Most Powerful Women Engineers in the World.” Merline Saintil (SCS ’05), head of global engineering operations at Yahoo, was number six on the list.

Saintil received her master’s degree in computer science from Carnegie Mellon, and went on to work at companies like Sun Microsystems, Adobe, and PayPal before she landed at Yahoo. Earlier this year Saintil also joined Carnegie Mellon’s Alumni Board of Directors.

Obstacles for female computer scientists are not con- fined to higher education, however.

Another article from The New York Times cites “Technology’s Man Problem” as another major obstacle facing women interested in computer science. The article tells the story of Elissa Shevinsky, who left her business partner at a start-up called Glimpse Labs after one too many misogynistic tweets. Among women who become computer scientists, the article says, 56 percent leave by mid-career, revealing a problem not only in recruiting women as computer science majors but retaining them in the midst of the industry’s culture.

“A culprit, many people in the field say, is a sexist, alpha-male culture that can make women and other people who don’t fit the mold feel unwelcome, demeaned, or even endangered,” the article continues.

The industry, however, is also changing.

Wilson mentioned that “in more ways, I feel being a woman has been a benefit. Again, it gets me noticed. I make friends with other women in computer science.” Wilson, who spent her summer interning at Zillow, said that being a woman often helped in the industry. “The women recruiters for companies seem to love to see women in the technology business. I’ve even been tweeted about by the CEO of Zillow during my internship twice partially because I’m a woman in CS.”

Rebecca Greenberg, although she is a senior business administration major with a minor in computer science, has spent her last two summers as a software development intern at Intuit and Salesforce.com, respectively. Greenberg said that she spent her summer at Salesforce on a “team that was dominated by female engineers.” She said of her experience in computer science classes at Carnegie Mellon, “There are definitely CS classes where you look around the room and there are not many females, but overall CMU is an accepting community.”