New programs aimed at boosting women in tech workforce

The University of Colorado Boulder this week announced that it has implemented several new programs over the past three years designed to make computer science more female-friendly, with the larger goal of increasing the number of women employed in technology roles nationwide.

The programs are starting to pay off with the number of women enrolled in CU-Boulder’s bachelor’s degree in computer science more than doubling from 18 students in 2007 (8 percent of majors at that time) to 47 students (17 percent of current majors) in 2011, said professor James Martin, chair of the Department of Computer Science.

The Department of Computer Science at CU-Boulder is working to increase its female student enrollment through enhanced outreach to high schools, new content in its introductory computing courses designed to appeal to non-computing majors, better community support for female computer science majors, and work on a new computer science degree program for students in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The new content in the introductory computing courses moves away from traditional, abstract examples of linked lists and binary trees to adopt a media-based focus in which students develop programs to manipulate sounds and process images, Martin said.

The new degree program, now under review, is a bachelor’s degree in computer science that would allow students in the College of Arts and Sciences to major in computer science while also providing space in their curriculum to earn a major or minor in another field of study. It is hoped that this new degree will lead to further increases in the number of women taking computer science because of the more balanced gender demographics of the College of Arts and Sciences, Martin said.

Taken together, the initiatives are designed to attract women to the field who might otherwise have dismissed computer science as being too focused on programming without realizing the positive impact computer science can have on society and people’s quality of life.

The efforts are part of the Department of Computer Science’s participation in NCWIT Pacesetters, a fast-track program from the National Center for Women and Information Technology in which universities and corporations commit to increasing their numbers of women in technical fields. Pacesetters organizations work to recruit previously untapped talent pools and retain women who are at risk of leaving, resulting in “net new” women for the computing and IT workforce.

“We’re excited to see a growing number of women take interest in our computer science degree programs,” Martin said. “It’s great for the discipline of computer science as a whole to have participation by a broader range of backgrounds and perspectives. We also see room for growth. Women currently make up 17 percent of our undergraduate program; we would like to see that percentage increase to support the national goal of NCWIT to achieve gender parity in information technology over the next 20 years.”

Ken Anderson, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Computer Science, agrees. “Our work as part of Pacesetters has spurred improvements across our entire undergraduate program. These improvements, while designed to attract more participation in computer science by women, result in a higher quality experience for all of our students.”

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that more than 1.4 million computing-related jobs will be available in the U.S. workforce by 2018, yet by current trends American colleges and universities will produce less than one-third of the trained graduates needed to fill these jobs. Increasing the participation of women, who currently represent half the professional workforce but hold only 25 percent of technology jobs, holds the potential to increase both the quantity and quality of U.S. technical talent.

The current cohort of NCWIT Pacesetters organizations includes Apple Inc.; AT&T Corp.; ATLAS Institute; Bank of America; Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Carnegie Mellon University; Georgia Institute of Technology; Google Inc.; IBM Corp.; Indiana University; Intel Corp.; Microsoft Corp.; Pfizer Inc.; Qualcomm Inc.; Santa Clara University; University of California, Irvine; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of Colorado Boulder; University of Texas at Austin; University of Virginia; University of Washington; Villanova; and Virginia Tech.

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