Computers are everywhere: on our desks, next to our beds, in our TVs and in our pockets. In a business that infiltrates almost every aspect of our lives, it is hard to believe nearly half the population is not represented, simply because of gender. This is the case, though, in the computing industry, where men dominate the workforce and a female presence is almost as rare as finding someone who likes Comic Sans.
The Cal Poly Computer Science Department is no different.
Approximately 12 percent of computer science and 18 percent of software engineering students at Cal Poly are females — though the department has nearly 700 students, according to department chair Ignatios Vakalis. As a result, the department is trying to recruit more women to balance out the ratio, Vakalis said.
“Female students do not understand the amazing opportunities that computer science and software engineering would provide and are inadequately informed about the creativity and collaborative work in computing,” Vakalis said.
Computing the reasons
There are a couple of reasons the department believes women are not immediately attracted to this field, Vakalis said. Mostly, it’s a combination of old-fashioned thinking and stereotypes, he said.
“Computing is perceived as a male-dominated field; they perceive that most of their careers will involve work in isolation from other humans,” Vakalis said. “Also (some females) fear that the field is non-creative. That’s a big issue.”
Because of these beliefs, women are missing out, Vakalis said.
Women may also be hesitant about studying computer science and software engineering because they are misinformed about technology in high school. There also aren’t as many female role models as males in the field, he said.
“They don’t see that many women in powerful positions,” Vakalis said. “They don’t get the correct high school education in computing. From high school, they only get ‘computer science is programming.’ That’s not true.”
Some of the issues may come from outdated ways of thinking, software engineering lecturer Julie Workman said.
“I think that a lot of it came from the beginning, just ingrained in our society — the men do science — and I think that a lot of computer games are geared toward men,” said Workman, who is one of three women on the 30-person faculty.
When women first get into the department, some feel like they may not belong, Workman said.
“There’s a big problem with this field called ‘Impostor Syndrome,’” Workman said. “The women feel, not speaking for everyone … like they shouldn’t be there, and their success is due to luck or some other thing like ‘This person helped me’ and not based on their own merit.”
There is a lot of excitement about computing in the department, the industry and among the students, though, as gaming, smartphones and apps are becoming more accessible to women, Workman said.
“I think that computer games are becoming more mainstream, we have our mobile phones and women use the apps just as much as the men,” Workman said. “I think they will get interested in it at a younger age and hopefully start getting excited about it.”
Clubs and conferences
The department is making progress though, through computing and software clubs geared towards women, Workman said.
The Women Involved in Software and Hardware (WISH) club helps women be successful, president Halli Meth said. The club creates a community for women in computing and provides upper-level female mentors for the freshmen students, Meth said.
“For our events we encourage all women, and men who support women in computing, to attend,” Meth said. “I think by having those events and scheduled times when women come together help just make you feel less alone.”
And recently, a group of female computer science students were feeling much less alone. Some 20 female students in the department attended the Grace Hopper Conference, a national conference for women in computing in Baltimore.
“You go to the conference, and there’s no guys there, and there’s women from all over the country that are doing the same thing and feel the same way you do,” Meth, who also recently had a summer internship with Google, said. “They’re successful and so I think that just inspires all of us.”
A career fair that runs throughout the conference sparks interest and ideas in the students, and powerful women share their thoughts, Meth said.
Looking for careers
The chance to connect with companies is also beneficial for increasing diversity in computer science and software engineering, Vakalis said.
“Industry realizes that innovative ideas stem from a group of diverse gender and thought,” Vakalis said. “All computing and software companies are extremely eager to hire the female students. All of them. That’s exciting.”
Lead program manager at Microsoft Research Michael Zyskowski is one such person. The industry needs women, because the combination of men and women develops the best products, he said. The more diversity on a team, the more perspectives brought to a problem, Zyskowski said.
“Views and experiences that women can bring and what technology can come up with is huge,” Zyskowski said.
Because companies value what students can bring as well, annual salaries are averaging around $65,000, according to a Career Services survey. This heightened salary is one of the factors that can lead to more women entering the profession, Zyskowski said.
“Ultimately I think one of the main differences, and something we are trying at Microsoft, is to make the culture of the company a place where women enjoy working, a place where they feel like they really have those opportunities — good culture where they are part of a team like everyone else,” Zyskowski said.
Even as the industry is making strides in a more diverse direction, at Cal Poly, the department is trying to make even larger strides into the future of computing.
The department has an industry board representing large computing businesses that meets twice a year at Cal Poly. The board provides advice and recommendations on course content, and also suggests the development of new courses to reflect current and upcoming areas in computing, Vakalis said.
The continuous updating of course content keeps the major fresh, Meth said.
“I think that it’s exciting. I love this field because I love learning and I just love to go to a new class and learn something completely different in my field,” Meth said.
Computer science and software engineering will provide a lot of opportunities. Within the field, there are many different things you can do, she said.
“Maybe I can come up with my own app someday and it’s just exciting,” Meth said. “I feel like I’ll never be bored because if I ever stop liking what I’m doing, there’s a million other things to try.”
Anna Jacobsen contributed to this article.