Lisa Ballesteros on Lack of Women in Computer Science

Wednesday, January 14, 2009 - 12:00

Questioning Authority asked Lisa Ballesteros, associate professor of computer science, about the decline of women entering the field of computer science. Here’s what she had to say.

QA: A recent article in the New York Times reported that the percentage of women entering the field of computer science has fallen since 1991, although women in other science and engineering fields have reached parity. Have you noticed this phenomenon?

LB: Yes. Beginning in the early 2000s, universities and colleges across the U.S. began to see a steep decline in the number of students declaring a computer science major, with the drops in enrollment of women being more pronounced.

QA: What do you think is the cause of this decrease?

LB: There are a number of factors believed to have influenced this overall decline, the main two being the collapse of the dot-com bubble and the trend toward outsourcing. The former factor led to the misconception that working in the field of computing was no longer lucrative, while the latter resulted in the misconception that the majority of technology jobs were being moved offshore. Another factor in the decline may be a commonly held belief that computer science is largely programming.

QA: What would you suggest doing to encourage young women to pursue careers in computer science?

LB: We need to clear up these misconceptions regarding the career opportunities in computer science as well as the nature of the work involved. As far as job opportunities go, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that professional-level information technology jobs will grow faster than the overall workforce from 2006 to 2016. And the work goes far beyond programming. In fact, computer scientists draw upon a combination of creativity and logical thinking; programming is merely one of the tools we use to study and solve many interesting and relevant problems.

Computer science is one of the most interesting disciplines to study because it is fundamental to progress in so many other disciplines. Through computation, simulation, analysis, and visualization, computing enables the study of dynamic processes that are difficult or impossible to observe physically. Take, for example, predictions concerning global warming, which can only be carried out through modeling and simulation, not via experimental analysis. Computer science has become an integral part of the sciences, playing a crucial role in mapping the human genome and in ongoing efforts to understand fundamental scientific processes such as protein folding and protein docking, which is integral to drug design.

As computing technologies shape and change the way we communicate and interact with the world, computing has begun to play a larger role in the social sciences. For example, Facebook, Google, and Amazon.com have led to new ways of socializing and finding information, products, and services. They also provide new ways for sociologists, economists, business people, and others to study and measure social networking patterns, marketing trends, political movements, and other phenomena. Computing technologies are also yielding new areas of study in the humanities such as digital art, cybertext as narrative, and digital media. Furthermore, the pervasive use of computers in society makes them of critical importance in communication, transportation, medicine, energy production and delivery, banking, voting, and many other areas of our everyday lives. This reliance on computing technology has also led to a host of new questions and concerns surrounding its social and ethical impact and the legal implications and widespread consequences of policy decisions. Consider, for example, the problem of security in electronic voting.

QA: Is MHC successful in encouraging students in computer science? Why or why not?

LB: Yes, Mount Holyoke does a good job in promoting computer science as a field of study as well as a career path. The liberal arts philosophy of building strong communication and collaborative skills, as well as developing the ability to view a problem from different perspectives, gives our students an advantage over many students graduating from traditional computer science departments. Mount Holyoke’s computer science majors have diverse interests and backgrounds, many of them with minors or double majors, for example, in theatre and visual arts, economics, psychology, and physical sciences. Independent research is an important part of our curriculum. Our students have the opportunity to pursue a variety of interesting, often interdisciplinary topics, such as multimedia search, natural language processing, structural properties of proteins and other biomolecules, and graphics.

Our students also have access to a wide variety of internships and study abroad opportunities in places such as New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, and India. Those who have chosen to go to graduate school have studied at many of the top computer science programs, including Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, MIT, Harvard, University of Washington, and University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Students who went into industry have worked for a variety of companies, including Goldman-Sachs, Microsoft, Google, Morgan Stanley, and Pfizer.

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