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Introduction to Computer Science is Just a Start

My alma mater, UC Berkeley, put out a progressive news release last week: for the first time ever, there are more women enrolled in the Intro to Computer Science class than men. It’s an amazing accomplishment in light of the male-dominated software engineering industry; much digital ink has been spilt about how uncomfortable women feel around much bigger groups of men, even if there’s no explicit ill will and no overt sexism. As they teach in harassment training courses, it’s usually not the obvious gestures that create an uninviting environment, but rather the culmination of inadvertent moves and jokes and mannerisms that make a workplace inhospitable. That there are more women interested can only mean we’re making progress, right?

My take is an optimistic, but reserved “yes”. That we have more women interested in Computer Science is undoubtedly a good thing; we are relatively better off in gender ratios than at any point that the class has been offered in Berkeley’s history. There’s also the fact that Cal’s CS program produces a lot of hirable engineers, so this ought to translate into more women in the workforce, relative to years past.

But.

We are talking about the introduction class, whose curricula lean towards gauging student interest more than diving into the science of computing. When I started at Cal some 1 1/2 decades ago, we had a similar starter CS class, taught in the same vein as the MIT intro course – using Scheme – and is actually more concerned with showing off the fundamentals than the updated coursework. The class was meant to funnel students into the lower-division CS61 series, starting with CS61A, the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.

And back in 2000, in the midst of the dotcom boom, everybody was interested in finding some connection with programming[1], but they encountered immediate resistance with these lower division “weeder” classes. Both men and women flunked out of CS classes at a steady clip, but the classes that began the actual journey towards a CS/EECS degree started with 61A, and the ratio there remains predominantly male. Compare the teaching staff of CS10 and CS61A and notice the delta in gender ratios.

The positive takeaway here is that we are promoting the right kind of awareness and interest with women about computers and computer science. The next steps are to nurture that interest, and provide support and encouragement to counteract the intimidating dudebro been-hacking-for-10-years guys who make up the supermajority of the school’s CS programs. If the other STEM majors are any indication and guidance, it’ll only be a matter of time.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Though once the bust started to make itself obvious by 2002-2003, student interest tanked.
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