How to Get Women into Computer Science in 3 Easy Steps

A few days ago, our research team received an email inviting us to participate in a contest. The goal of the contest was to attract more women into engineering by creating a TV series that featured as a lead character a female engineer. Now, I usually don’t get involved in gender discussions one way or another, but a cause I deeply care for is education. I decided to enter this contest, but then the real question was:

“What motivates women to go into engineering?”

I do not have the answer unfortunately, but thinking about it made me realize that our research lab, aside from being the fastest growing lab in the department is also (I believe) the only lab in computer science where women significantly outnumber men (60% female to 40% male approximately, putting it in perspective, according to “In middle school, 74% of girls express interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), but when choosing a college major, just 0.3% of high school girls select computer science.”). The most amazing thing though is that we weren’t even trying!

So I decided to interview all of the amazing and smart girls that work with us to figure out how they got there and also, why they stayed (some have been there for several years now). Here is what I asked and here is what they answered:

  1. Does a female leader (professor, senior Ph.D. student, etc.) play a role in how likely you are to work here (or any other lab for that matter)?

Not surprisingly, the unanimous answer was no, and that they didn’t particularly care for that. I say not surprisingly, because our lab is led by two male professors and I am the senior PhD student. It appears that if you treat them inclusively, respectfully, and involve them in significant projects they are happy to work on research regardless of the gender of the lead figures.

  1. Did you started working here because they were many girls working here already?

Again, the unanimous answer was “no”. In fact, some of them started working when we were primarily a male team. Others mentioned that they would still work there because they liked the research, even if the team shifted towards a larger male population. Finally, most of them said they didn’t even know each other before coming into the lab. They actually met there.

Our research is about creating virtual agents that connect with people. Most of our agents are female, but we have tried both genders. People do not appear to prefer one over the other. One of our colleagues earned our respect and admiration by recording the more than 320 phrases the agent can say and motion capturing dozens of her movements.
  1. Being female students in computer science, there are many opportunities out there for you. Certain labs or professors encourage especially female students to join their research groups. Why do you prefer working here than on those labs?

This was a bit more unexpected. The majority who had the opportunity to work for other labs said that they felt “pushed” sometimes into the research. In particular, they said they felt pressured to excel or be outstanding and that they felt the main reason they were recruited was because they were female. They felt “the responsibility to show their professors and peers that they could do things as good as any guy”. If this setting was their first research experience, they said that they often were disappointed by the type of research, had trouble getting out of the group, and some even discarded the possibility of doing any type of research again.

  1. Some of the most experienced girls in our lab have received multiple recognitions and in some cases media attention. I asked them what they thought about that.

They briefly said they disliked being showcased “like some sort of trophy” and that sometimes they felt that it was like their “only accomplishment is being a woman”. Some mentioned that they were aware of male students who far exceeded their capabilities and would not be recognized the same way. Of course they also agreed that they could “fight” to reach that academic level, but that some of the attention they received felt was undeserved at the moment.

  1. So, on to the big question: What made you want to work at this particular research lab?

This was a rather long discussion. I will summarize and write a companion article inclusive of both genders as how we became the largest lab in computer science in a very short time, since the reasons people join (regardless of gender) are similar. Back on topic though, they said that they were not recruited. Most (if not all) approached our lab on their own (or with some guidance from their academic advisors – thank you!) They said it was because they thought the research topic was interesting, because they browsed the faculty section at the computer science website, or because they had the chance to participate as a test subject in one of our experiments or attended one of our demos.

No one mentioned stereotypes. Either way I can assure you, I've seen code from almost everyone at the lab and I still can't tell if it was coded like a girl or like a guy.
No one mentioned stereotypes. Either way I can assure you, I’ve seen code from almost everyone at the lab and I still can’t tell if it was coded like a girl or like a guy.

For me, this was the greatest takeaway: Female students join research groups because they want to and because they like the research. The only things they want from the people who are working there are to:

  1. Be included in the research team. From the casual “hello” to the “let’s do our homework” or “study for a test” scenarios, the sense of community and belonging is important.
  2. Be respected. Most girls will not raise their voice to (even unintentional) sexist comments, especially if they do not feel comfortable enough with the group. These comments surprisingly come from both men and women. In our lab I have heard women raise their voice and draw the line, however, people who cross those lines are usually unaware that they are being sexist and we have corrected our ways because of this. We do not make a big deal of these things, we apologize, smile, and continue our conversations. Live and learn.
  3. Be motivated. This is where it gets interesting. They mentioned they don’t want or need to be motivated to work, but rather that the work has to be motivating. What is the really big question we are trying to solve? How is it going to change the world? Why are we the best people to solve the problem? Are their contributions visible to the rest of the group, locally, or publicly? Most complained that other labs although they work on “important stuff”, the research is often just like “solving a homework exercise” with “no visible impact”.

Finally, I would like to close by saying that some of this things apply to any type of student regardless of gender. I am lucky to work with such a talented and dedicated group. As for all the girls in our team, they have earned their keep (and way beyond that). So let’s forget a second about pushing them into research, recruiting them, showcasing them, or helping them. They are smart, they are strong and they can help themselves.

Instead let us focus on building research environments where students and professors know how to make them feel welcome, like they belong, where we show them that their contributions matter, and where we learn to respect them, after all, isn’t that what we all want?

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