It’s no secret that while computer science offers great job prospects and interesting careers, attracting women to the field has been problematic. In fact, fewer women are entering computer science than a generation ago. Many women who initially have an interest in the field often become discouraged and quit.
With continuing industry demand, especially in the state of Washington, the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is providing awards and scholarship opportunities for high school girls in computer science. The awards program has been shown to be successful in recruiting girls into the field. In part, it simply provides needed encouragement for young women to overcome prejudice and stereotypes that can keep them from pursuing the field. WSU focused its recruiting efforts for the awards program with Spokane County high schools this year and will expand to the Tri-Cities next year.
Once they get to WSU, the school is also making a concerted effort to keep women in computer science. The school, for instance, is working to provide a gathering room for women computer science students. Having a place set aside for women has been shown to help them stay in male-dominated programs. At the same time, students in the women’s WSU chapter of Association of Computing Machinery have begun mentoring all female students in the program. The club is one of two new groups in the school that are tailored specifically for women.
“The goal is to have junior and senior students help the incoming female students adjust to the program and help them to overcome the obstacles that they might experience during their first year,” said Sakire Arslan Ay, assistant director of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who is leading retention efforts. “We hope that catching problems early on and providing help to solve them will help retain more females in the program.”
The school has also begun working with introductory programming course instructors to make classroom and lab environments more supportive for women by, for instance, bringing female students together in lab sessions. Usually, women drop out from computer science and engineering programs because of the lack of support around them, not because they can’t succeed in classes, said Arslan Ay.
“They often don’t feel like they will ever be able to fit in in a male-dominant field,” she said. “We are trying to establish this support circle for them, provide opportunities for them to get help, and encourage them to seek for help when they need to.”
“As a female computer scientist, I have experienced the same problems that today’s computer scientists have,” said Arslan Ay. “But we need women in computer science and engineering; I would like to help the new generation of women become aware of their qualities and not let anything stop them.”