When Jean Yang ’08 arrived at Harvard in the fall of 2004, she was in many ways a typical, undecided freshman, contemplating concentrations ranging from economics to biology.
But after enrolling in CS50, Harvard’s introductory computer science class, she instantly developed a passion for the subject.
Yet in Yang’s early semesters of studying computer science, she faced challenges that she never expected. Having graduated from an all-girls high school, she was surprised to find herself in classes with fewer than 10 women, and she struggled with the persistent sense that she was unwelcome or unqualified.
“When you’re an undergraduate woman, and you don’t have a ton of self-confidence, you’re going to have to really assert yourself in a field where you’re being treated by others as if you don’t know anything,” Yang said.
Despite these difficulties, Yang decided to concentrate in computer science, and after graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2008, she is now pursuing her computer science Ph.D. at MIT.
But as some women interested in CS face similar challenges, few remain in the field long enough to experience the same success.
In fact, computer science is the most gender-skewed concentration offered at Harvard, with women comprising only 13 percent of undergraduate CS majors.
The proportion of female CS majors is similar at some of Harvard’s peer institutions—including Princeton, where it stands at 19 percent, and Stanford, where it is 14 percent.
But interviews with over a dozen women involved with computer science revealed no clear consensus on the issue. While some believe this disparity is due to the difficulties faced by female CS concentrators at Harvard, others say that they have found a welcoming environment in Harvard CS and ascribe the variance to experiences that women face prior to college.
AN INVERSE RELATIONSHIP
According to statistics provided by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the gender imbalance within CS classes seems to grow with each subsequent course on the CS track.
While 34 percent of students in CS50 were female when the class was offered last fall, female enrollment in CS51 and CS61—the two classes that typically follow CS50—are 25 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
By the time students reach CS124, a class that usually comes later in the track, female enrollment drops to 18 percent.
Women are also more likely to concentrate in another coding-heavy field or to minor in CS than they are to actually concentrate in the subject.
According to data collected from the Registrar’s Office, 43 percent of students concentrating in Applied Math: Computer Science are female, 36 percent of students concentrating in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science track of the Engineering Sciences degree are female, and 25 percent of students pursuing a CS minor are female.
From this data, it seems that women are moderately likely to enroll in introductory CS courses. But subsequently, some women opt for CS-related concentrations or the CS minor, which require less intensive exposure to the subject, while most women abandon the field entirely.
AN EARLY START
Several undergraduate women involved in CS said that factors leading to the gender imbalance at Harvard include social pressures and men’s broader exposure to the topic in the time leading up to college.
“In high school, I think girls are more sensitive to peer pressure and don’t want to be perceived as ‘nerds,’” said Prajakta D. Jaju ’10, who has completed a secondary field in computer science.
Cansu A. Aydede ’11, who works as the head TF for CS50, said that the male “gamer” stereotype may also indirectly contribute to the gender skew.
“The people who come in with a strong CS background may be the types more interested in computer games...and so [they] may more often be boys than girls,” she said.
The high school disparity is evident among those who take the Advanced Placement Computer Science A and AB exams. According to data from the CollegeBoard, 84 percent of test-takers were male when the test was given in 2006.
According to many women interviewed for this article, the fact that females often come to Harvard with a weaker CS background leads fewer of them to try out the subject at all.
“There’s no real encouragement for women who are considering CS but aren’t sure,” said Nivedita Sarnath ’12, a current computer science concentrator who is switching to Applied Math for reasons unrelated to the gender skew.
And even for those women who do enroll in CS courses, some fear that they are somehow unprepared for the challenges of the concentration.
“I think there is always a sense that you are playing catch-up,” said CS concentrator Lee E. Evangelakos ’11.
Multiple women also pointed to gender differences in college work habits that may also deter undergraduate women from concentrating in CS.
One widely reported issue was the difficulty in finding partners for problem sets in early CS classes.
“Freshman year, I found it really difficult to find people to work with,” Yang said, adding that she believed many males “wound up [living] with other guys who did math or physics or CS, and they all worked together,” but she lacked this option because her roommates were all studying humanities.
Sarnath agreed with Yang: “It is still true that guys tend to work with guys, and that makes it a little more difficult if you don’t know any other girls in your class, to find someone to work with.”
Some women also noted that collaborating on problem sets in larger groups often brought out gender-related differences in work habits and communication styles.
Evangelakos said that her interactions with male CS concentrators had sometimes led her to doubt her own qualifications.
“Even the guys who you take all your classes with will sometimes try to explain things to you that you already know,” Evangelakos said.
Jaju agreed, adding that group work could also lead to social discomfort.
“A lot of times, I felt like I didn’t fit in when people would have conversations about technology or gadgets [or] video games,” Jaju said. “Classes were fine and the work was fine, but talking in problem set groups made it hard to relate.”
Several female CS concentrators said that they were able to cope with these issues and enjoy their coursework simply by having a high degree of confidence in their own abilities as students.
Batool Z. Ali ’10, a CS concentrator who will be working at Google after graduation, said she has “never felt disadvantaged” due to her gender but added that she is an “in-your-face kind of person.”
And Neena Kamath ’11, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in CS, said that there are “many advantages to being in the field as a woman,” but that she, too, has a “strong personality.”
Both women acknowledged that the gender imbalance could be more intimidating for women who entered Harvard with less faith in their abilities.
“Walking in, you need to be able to deal with the fact that you are going to be in the minority,” Kamath said.
And even among women who reported few problems with feeling like “the only girl in the room,” some still expressed a desire to see more women in their classes.
“All the people I’ve worked with have been pretty much male. It doesn’t really bother me,” said Tiffany J. Au ’12, an engineering concentrator who is considering a switch to CS. “But it would definitely be nice to have more females.”
LOOKING FOR A SOLUTION
Despite the difficulties that some of them have faced, nearly every undergraduate woman interviewed for this article stressed that she had found the faculty in the CS department to be welcoming and supportive.
Several CS professors indicated that encouraging more women to study the subject was among their top priorities for the future.
“It’s something that we talk about a lot,” said Associate Dean for Computer Science and Engineering J. Gregory Morrisett. “We are coordinating with a bunch of departments around the world and are trying a lot of different things in the hopes that we will uncover some of the issues and correct for them.”
Morrisett said he hoped to increase the number of female CS faculty members, which currently stands at four out of 18, in order to provide role models for female students considering CS.
He also praised the efforts of CS50 Lecturer David J. Malan ’99, who has worked to make the introductory coding class more accessible to those without a CS background. Under Malan’s tenure, CS50 has attracted record levels of female enrollment, though this has not yet translated to higher numbers of female concentrators.
CS Professor Radhika Nagpal said that while she has grown “more and more puzzled” over the gender disparity, she believes that Harvard can look to some of its peer institutions to improve female participation in CS.
In particular, she highlighted MIT—where 31 percent of CS concentrators are now female—as a school where a concerted effort to improve gender ratios in CS had been extremely successful.
“It isn’t as if there is one factor [causing the imbalance], but that isn’t a reason to give up,” Nagpal said. “I think at Harvard, we have to find a solution. We have to find one that works.”
—Staff writer Evan T.R. Rosenman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.