UW CSE program pioneers the way for more women in computing

Due to its efforts to confront gender dichotomies in computing, the UW’s Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) program received an Excellence in Promoting Women in Undergraduate Computing Award from the National Center for Women & Information Technology last week.

“There’s a set of stereotypes that make the field unattractive,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in CSE. 

Via The Daily

He explained how, in a predominantly male field, the pattern can become perpetuated.

“It teaches you a superficial lingo that believes you [as a man] have an advantage over [women],” Lazowska said. “If you have a group of 20-year-old guys, of course they’ll want to hire more 20-year-old guys.”

The award recognized CSE’s student advising team, DawgBytes, and all of CSE’s faculty.

“I was really excited and pleased,” said Allison Obourn, a computer science lecturer and outreach coordinator. “We still have a long way to go, but it’s really exciting and encouraging to get this recognition.”

Obourn said the program still has room for improvement because only 30% of CSE majors are women. However, those 30% are given a lot of support according to senior CSE major Sonja Khan.

“I participated in a women in CS seminar, which is put on every quarter, and we just read research papers, articles, and books explaining why it’s important to have women in the field,” Khan said. “It’s important to just figure out why it’s a problem, the gender imbalance. Before I had joined the department, I didn’t really know it was a problem, but now I see why it’s important because you need to consider different perspectives you wouldn’t get with an all-male team.”

One of the many ways CSE diversifies perspectives within the program is by reaching out to students who have done well in the introductory courses. A student receives an email recognizing and complimenting their performance and is encouraged to take the next course.

“I think it’s very powerful for somebody who was in a class of a thousand students to realize that somebody’s recognized them and knows who they are and appreciates how well they’re doing,” Obourn said.

The CSE program goes beyond reaching out to undergraduates. They also have a K-12 program that hosts events like summer camps, campus visits, computing open houses, and coding competitions.

“The pipeline is important because relatively few women come into college thinking of computer sciences,” Lazowska said.

He said students tend to think majoring in CSE means spending 10 hours a day alone, staring at a computer screen. Regardless of a student’s initial thoughts about CSE, many end up enrolling in courses only to find out that what they thought all along was wrong. Still, Lazowska and the rest of the CSE faculty must continue to advocate for women.

“There’s no silver bullet here,” he said. “It’s just lots of little things.”

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