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CMU Profs Take A Global Look At Women In Computer Science In New Book

Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University professors Jeria Quesenberry and Carol Frieze hold up a copy of their book "Cracking the Digital Ceiling."

In the United States, about a quarter of computer scientists are women. One dozen countries have better representation in the field, a fact that's explored in the book "Cracking the Digital Ceiling," published last month by Cambridge University Press and edited by two Carnegie Mellon University professors.

Carol Frieze and Jeria Quesenberry say they were inspired to put the book together after seeing gender parity change at CMU. Frieze, director of Women@SCS and SCS4all in the computer science department, said when she arrived at the school in 2000, the student body was homogenous.

"Admissions were bringing in students who for the most part had done computing either in classes or at home," Frieze said. "So the population was very skewed towards men, and what you might call the stereotypical geeky guy."

Frieze said CMU eventually dropped a criteria that incoming students needed a background in computing, which created a more diverse student body. In 2017, the university welcomed a freshman class that was 51 percent women.

But nationwide, American women are underrepresented in computing. "Cracking the Digital Divide" compiles 18 perspectives from women around the world, as well as gender ratios for fifty countries.

This analysis finds that many affluent countries with high levels of gender equality in most markers — such as Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Germany — have the lowest participation by women in computer science. Meanwhile, lower income countries, which often have lower levels of gender equality in general, have the highest percentage of women in computing. In Myanmar, for example, 65 percent of computer scientists are women.

The authors say there are a few reasons for why this may be, such as other limited opportunities for upward mobility. But Frieze said there's also a likely reason tied to career options for women.

"If you're given a lot of choices, as a lot of students are in the U.S., for what they can do, it's more gender appropriate to choose something that you know others like yourselves have done," Frieze said.

Quesenberry, a professor of information systems, said there have been a lot of efforts to inspire young girls to pursue computer science in the U.S., from Girls Can Code to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

"Our goal is that anybody who's interested in computing, whether or not they're aware of it, have the opportunities to pursue those interests," Quesenberry said. 

The authors say a good way to make computer science more gender equitible would be to make it a core part of the K-12 curriculum: that way all students, regardless of gender, would have exposure.