Gender and the Computer Science Classroom

We welcome to the Bok Blog a new contributor: Anna G. is a junior at Harvard who teaches one section and also serves as assistant head-TF for CS-51. This semester, she’ll contribute a series of posts in which she reflects on issues facing undergraduate TFs. 

Anna G.I was having dinner with two other female computer science TF’s and the issue of gender in SEAS classes came up.  One of my dinner companions has a female freshman student who is nervous about being in a very male dominated course and would  like to be in a section with other girls and have a female lab TF. I am currently responsible  for sectioning over 200 students for Computer Science 51 and this issue has also come up in our staff meetings.

Given that the staff is mostly male, we can’t guarantee a female lab/section leader. I’m not even sure we should be trying;  in this discipline, the male-female ratio is very skewed and the faster one starts getting used to it, the better. But should we be trying to balance our sections? Some have suggested having all female sections, but that is not the solution. While it can be unpleasant to be the only girl in a section, the three of us agreed that being  in an all female section in a clearly male dominated course would make us feel separated from the class and like we were given special treatment, which would make us feel strange and bring up the question of why exactly we needed special treatment in the first place. I wonder whether it makes sense to strive for a several-or-none gender balance: every section has either no girls or a few girls, but never just one.

I’ve gone back and forth on this and I don’t see a solution. While the gender ratio in introductory Computer Science courses is increasingly more balanced, the gender ratio remains extremely unbalanced in upper level Computer Science courses —  I am the only female in my graduate Computer Science course this semester and that has been the case for quite a few of my recent Computer Science and Math courses.

I’m a junior studying Computer Science and Math — I’ve gotten used to it at this point, but how can we make the ramp  gentler for freshman girls interested in studying these types of subjects?

3 thoughts on “Gender and the Computer Science Classroom

  1. Unfortunately that’s the way it is in the IT field in general. So they may as well get adjusted to it if they plan to work in the IT and computer engineering fields. IT for some reason is a male dominated workspace and until more women get interested in developing and IT as a whole it will most likely stay that way. Sorry.

  2. Great post, Anna! I feel like the above commenter missed your point: the gender dynamic of science and math courses isn’t something to “get adjusted to,” it’s something that needs to change. If anyone is interested in hearing more about this topic – which is a big, contentious one – check out the following event:

    March 17, 2008
    Some Reflections on the Dearth of Women in Science: A talk by Ben Barres, Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford
    4:00 pm – 5:30 pm
    Fong Auditorium, Boylston Hall (Free)

  3. I’m a year late on this but i still want to give my input–i’m a female CS student (sophomore at USF). I don’t think you should try to focus on trying to balance the genders in classes–that is absurd and most women going into computer science know they will be in the minority. I think a more realistic and still helpful approach is just creating a support system like maybe organizing a coffee/meetup for female CS students and faculty so that girls can see they aren’t alone even if they feel like it. Over time people could get to know each other and the newbies could ask the veterans for advice or just have someone to go to if they ever need anything.

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