For Stanford’s computer science department, the future won’t be like 1984

You are here

For Stanford’s computer science department, the future won’t be like 1984

by Jonna Louvrier on Monday, November 16, 2015 - 12:48pm

On January 24, 1984, Apple launched its Macintosh computer with a now legendary commercial depicting a striking female athlete wielding a sledgehammer, who destroys a screen showing the image of an Orwellian Big Brother figure droning the promise of unified thought to a hall full of identical, bald colorless men. The gender dynamic of the commercial is fascinating, representing a woman as having the power to change the future of technology. Unfortunately, the commercial was not predictive of women’s role in computer science. 1984 marked the year women’s attainment of computer science undergraduate degrees began a dramatic decline that has continued until the last few years, from a high of 37 percent, as reported by the National Science Foundation, to 18 percent in 2012.

Thirty years later, Stanford’s computer sciences department is reversing that trend. In 2015, computer science became the most popular undergraduate major for female students at Stanford, who now represent about 30 percent of computer science majors. Eric Roberts, professor emeritus of computer science and faculty advisor at the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership, talks about the challenges of recruiting and retaining women in computer science programs.

Roberts attributes the historical decline in women’s participation in computer science studies in part to a supply and demand problem. In the 1980s, universities were unable to respond to the increasing number of students. This led to upping the requirements of prior computer science experience, disproportionally affecting women and minorities, who often began college with limited computing experience. Universities like Carnegie Mellon and Stanford have since removed those requirements in order to attract, and then educate, a more diverse student population.

Over the last few years, a rapid increase in the number of students has again begun to strain the capacities of computer science programs throughout the United States. “We are facing a similar problem as [we did] in 1984,” says Roberts, “where student demand exceeds the capacity of the institution.” Roberts emphasizes the need to identify strategies that will help prevent the loss of gender and ethnic diversity this time around.

Maintaining diversity in the face of capacity limitations

Women turned away from computer science for a variety of reasons, says Roberts. These include lack of prior computer science education experience, a culture that is unattractive to women, the scarcity of role models and a lack of critical mass for creating supportive peer communities. To fill the pipeline, Roberts and his colleagues have focused their efforts on increasing the number—or critical mass—of women enrolled in computer science rather than simply looking at percentages.

Much of the department’s work has been directed at making introductory courses more accessible. Typically, Roberts explains, introductory courses in computer science are designed to weed out all but the best students. At Stanford’s computer science department, introductory courses have been designed to appeal to a wide audience, with the goal of allowing as many students as possible to complete the course. This in turn encourages a greater number of diverse students to pursue computer science as a major. The department’s statistics show that, over the past ten years, both the number and percentage of women enrolled in the courses have increased. The course also offers positive role models for women, Roberts adds, from the many women course lecturers, teaching assistants and undergraduates who lead individual sections of the course.

Roberts has also implemented a strategy he calls “stepping-stone role models” to ensure that students from a wide variety of backgrounds can find familiar role models at every level of their education. As he points out, it isn’t enough to have female faculty teach classes. The department also focuses on encouraging undergraduate women as teaching assistants. Only a few years older than the students, they can be relatable role models and mentors.

Bridge programs encourage retention

Gates buildingTo address the issue of retention, the computer science department organized bridge programs to counteract years of social conditioning and motivate students to continue their studies in the field.

As part of Stanford’s Sophomore College undergraduate program, Roberts teaches a course designed to dispel the myth that computer science is only about coding and programming. Students have an opportunity to engage in an academic exploration of subfields, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, graphics, computer architecture and human-computer interaction.

The Computer Science Undergraduate Research Internship (CURIS) encourages undergraduate students to pursue careers in research by getting involved with faculty mentors early in their careers. According to Roberts, female participants have commented that participating in the program has made it easier to be in contact with faculty members, and has helped allay the fear that research is very solitary work—one of the reasons women often cite when explaining their lack of interest in research careers.

Stanford’s computer science department is reaching a critical mass of female students. With the department’s explicit objective to increase diversity, and concrete practices to attract and retain diverse students, concludes Roberts, we may finally see a steadily rising curve for the enrollment and retention of women and underrepresented minorities in computer science education. 

Eric Roberts
Professor of Computer Science

Eric Roberts is a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.  At Stanford, Professor Roberts has received several teaching awards, including the Bing Fellowship, the Dinkelspiel Award, and the Hoagland Prize.  He has written eight computer science textbooks that are used at many colleges and universities throughout the world.  Professor Roberts has also been active in several organizations seeking to...

Jonna Louvrier
Postdoctoral Fellow 2014-16

Jonna Louvrier holds a Ph.D. in Management and Organization earned at the Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki Finland. In her doctoral thesis she examined the meanings of diversity, difference and diversity management in Finland and in France from the perspectives of both diversity managers and ethnic minority employees.

Central themes in Jonna’s research are diversity and equality in work life. While at...