Women scarce in MHS computer programming courses

Henri Robbins | Online Editor

As technology moves forward, a major part of the population may be getting left behind. 

With dozens of scholarships being awarded to women who study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and computer science, colleges are making a large push for women to become involved, but there is still a large gap between men and women in those careers. 

According to studies by the National Center for Education Statistics, there were over four men for every woman graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in both 2016 and 2017, and two men for every woman graduating with a master’s degree in the same time period. Similarly, most computer programming classes in Mason have a large majority of male students, which becomes more apparent in higher-level classes. 

When she first started taking computer programming (CP) classes in Mason, senior Shreya Gundavarpu said her interactions with classmates pushed her away from the field. 

“People will try to tell you ‘girls can do whatever they want,’ but then they’ll praise you for doing something that’s considered normal,” Gundavarpu said. “For me just going into computer engineering, they’ll say ‘oh, you’re going into computer engineering?’ and I’m like ‘yeah, I’m a girl. Anyone can go into computer engineering, it’s not a big deal.’ But people at Mason still have that mindset.”

When Gundavarpu took CP 1, there were only seven girls in her class. When she moved on to CP 2, she was the only girl in her class. Similarly, senior Deeya Shah’s CP 1 class had four female students, two of who went on to take CP 2. Shah doesn’t believe the ratio of students is the main issue, though. Instead, she thinks the issue is the way they are treated in the class. 

“I don’t think they’re intimidated because there are so many guys,” Shah said. “It’s more the fact that people encourage them to go into CP, but once they get into the class they aren’t seen at the same level.” 

While she was in the environment, senior Reagan Courtney said she would hear sexist comments from time to time, but most students did not seem to support it. 

“[When I heard sexist comments], I would turn around and other people would look around too,” Courtney said. “Their eyes would get bigger, they’d be like ‘what just happened?’ I think everyone’s body language changed, especially mine. I spoke up in class a couple times, and they took it and said they were sorry, but it didn’t really stop them from doing it in the future.” 

In his engineering class, teacher Joseph Schnell sees these issues frequently. He said these issues come from historical views of gender roles and create much greater difficulties for women to be recognized in the field.

“I think there’s just the perception of the engineering field being so male-dominated that there’s undue struggle for females to get recognized for their work and be seen on equal footing,” Schnell said. “There was a perspective a long time ago that girls are good at art and English, and boys are good at math and science, so just trying to get over that historical perspective is something that I think is improving, but is taking time.”

When considering a career in STEM, Courtney agreed that the imbalance of gender could result in some conflicts and issues, but also that it could have some positives. 

“There’s positives and negatives to going into the computer programming field,” Courtney said. “We’re a minority, so if we do really well then we’ll be hired and have a lot of opportunities, but then there’s the other part. I feel like in the future, if we continue in this field, it’ll be a lot like computer programming classes, where we feel singled-out since we are girls.” 

Even though biases are starting to fade, as Schell said, they are still a reality for many students. Gundavarpu said that in her CP 2 class she almost never interacted with other students because of the assumptions they made about her abilities. 

“Automatically, the second you walk into the class, everyone underestimates you,” Gundavarpu said. “Even the kid next to me didn’t talk to me for the first three weeks of class. He would be confused and he would be afraid to ask me because I was a girl and he’d be like ‘oh, you don’t really know.’ This one time, he was really confused and he didn’t know what to do so he finally asked me, and then he realized ‘oh, she knows what she’s talking about.’” 

While many female students will face adversity in the classroom, this is not always the case. Schnell said, even though some issues arise, students are usually able to work together. 

“I have never seen sexist behaviour or females not working well with males,” Schnell said. “There’s a lot of group work in the class, and when there are males and females working together, it seems to work out well. The thing that I’ve noticed, though, is that the girls have a tendency to work together. Because they’re in the minority, I think they feel more comfortable doing that.”

To help students become more integrated, Gundavarpu said that girls should start being involved in computer science earlier on, possibly even in middle school. 

“I feel like it’s just an issue of having more girls there,” Gundavarpu said. “Encourage it in middle school, or start classes in middle school if they could, as a computer elective.” 

Many colleges today are pushing for more women to be involved in STEM, but even that can feel alienating to many, said Gundavarpu. 

“When you go out into the real world, people are always encouraging girls to go into STEM,” Gundavarpu said. “They will always be like ‘we need more women in STEM.’ Even the college visits will be like ‘we’re so proud of our, like, 30-70 female-to-male ratio, but we need more females.’ A lot of people are trying to get more women in STEM, which I think is good, but sometimes it can push women away because of how much they push it onto them.” 

Courtney shared the same sentiment, and said the positive focus on women could be indicative of the discrimination they would face in the future.  

“[Our teacher] would look at us positively and say ‘There’s not a lot of girls in this field, especially in the future, so if you guys want to participate and you choose to step up, you’ll be able to go to conferences and represent that female minority,’” Courtney said. “He did bring it up a lot, and it felt like it was a thought that everyone had in the class, like it was known that we were in the minority.” 

Although there is a large generalized push for female students to become involved, Schnell said that directly getting students to apply can be more difficult due to the barriers between students and elective teachers. 

“When I have conversations about scheduling, any students who I think have a good mindset for engineering, which is basically creative problem solving, I try to say ‘hey, you should take this class as well,’” Schnell said. “I’ve gotten a few female students to sign up because I basically said ‘hey, I think you would be really good at this,’ but I have to rely on counselors or other science teachers to propose or suggest taking the course if they’re not already interested in engineering in the future.” 

Because of these limitations in recruitment, along with the issues with interactions in the classroom, Gundavarpu said there is often a loss of interest in female students when they take these classes. 

“I feel like a lot of girls who start technology at Mason end up losing interest in it,” Gundavarpu said. “I know people who just take classes at Mason think that this is what technology is and they think that they don’t want to go into that field because they see other girls dropping out and they see that not a lot of girls want to do it, so they don’t really take an interest in it.” 

Graphic by Henri Robbins.