The Dalhousie computer science department reinvented itself to attract more women. It’s working.

Posted on December 13, 2019 | Sarah Smellie | 0 Comments

The undergraduate computer science program at Dalhousie University would barely be recognizable to anyone who had graduated a few years ago — both from the outside and from within.

Courses have been overhauled and program tracks are rerouted. The assignments are different. There are more scholarship opportunities.

And it’s all aimed at a new measure of success: when someone peeks into a classroom, the faculty wants them to see more women in the desks.

“We all acknowledge that if we build systems, if we build software that shapes how people live, we have to integrate everyone’s perspective into the design,” says Christian Blouin, the department’s associate dean. He’s shown in the centre of the picture above.

Last year, the number of women enrolling more than doubled. That gain held steady this year. Blouin says the number of women undergrads is now growing faster than the number of men.

The change is the result of a two-year effort, called WeAreAllCS, to root out gender barriers in the program and focus on better recruitment of women.

Margaret Hamilton developed the on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo Moon missions.

He’s quick to praise the academic changes: “We turned computer science on its head.”

But he’s hesitant when describing the change in enrolment numbers. “We can’t claim success when it comes to gender balance, but I’d like to say that we’ve successfully started to make a difference,” he says. “Changing the gender balance in computer science—I would probably say it’s true for all STEM fields—requires a sustained effort for many, many years.”

And looking at the larger picture, he says, a change in culture in his department is just one tony piece of a massively complex puzzle.

It wasn’t always this way

Computer science wasn’t always dominated by men. Ada Lovelace, for example, is said to be the first computer programmer. In the early 1840s, she wrote what is considered to be the first algorithm specifically designed for a computer.

Ada Lovelace is shown here in a portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon.

Data shows that in the early 1980s, women made up nearly 40 per cent of computer science students in the U.S. and started bowing out of the field around 1984.

An NPR investigation into the change didn’t come up with a conclusive answer, but presented a hypothesis: that’s the year personal computers hit the market. Because they came stacked with games like Pong and simple shooters, they were aggressively marketed to boys.

Here in Canada, a Statistics Canada report found that in 2010, just 15 per cent of first-year students in computer science were women. A few years ago at Dalhousie, less than 20 per cent of computer science undergrads were women.

With all that in mind, the Dalhousie department took a hard look at itself and began a transformation.

‘It just makes better computer scientists’

Blouin says they quickly found that a stubborn insistence on offering just one route to success—learn some programming, then do some programming, then do some more—was a barrier. It took a while for students to hit a course where they’d see any relevance of what they were doing, or even explore some of the pressing ethical questions dogging the field.

Now courses explore social responsibility as well as C++, and there are two new mandatory courses in computer science history.

Dorothy Vaughan worked for NASA until 1971. She was a mathematician and an expert in the FORTRAN programming language.

“It’s not about programming as just a tool. It’s about thinking about the human first in the web design course; it’s about thinking about big, wide questions in our systems course; and big societal questions in the history course,” Blouin says. “Really, it just makes better computer scientists overall.”

There are also more routes through the courses, allowing the confident students to zip through and the less confident students more time. Assignments are different, feedback is more frequent and there are more teaching assistants to help.

The faculty works with the student-led women in tech group to offer peer mentoring programs and industry has stepped up to offer scholarships and mentoring, he says.

‘The change starts at home’

As the tech sector grows in Atlantic Canada, more skilled workers are needed and many are looking to address the gender gap to fill that need. As for whether the change at Dalhousie is a step toward that goal, Blouin says it’s pretty small.

“Universities … and colleges are only one cog in a much more complicated machine,” he says. To get women in more tech jobs, we need change at least as far back as elementary school, he says.

The tech sector also needs to take a look at itself. “There’s a lot more to gender balance than just saying so and trying to hire more women,” he says.

His advice?

“If [you] have daughters and nieces that are showing an interest in mathematics and computer science and technology and engineering, pause and think twice before giving career advice. I think a lot of the future of girls is decided in very benign conversations that we have within families. The change starts at home.”

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