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Not So Fast, CS

Increase in female concentrators requires a closer look.

By Irene Y. Chen

It is with great joy that professors, students, and faculty welcomed the record number of women who declared computer science this year: 21 out of the 51 sophomore concentrators are female. Just last April, The Crimson reported that the concentration had the greatest gender imbalance at the College, with only 13 percent of undergraduate concentrators being female. While the ratio of women to men might indicate a growing interest in computer science among women or an elimination of the social stigma against women in the field, it is a far-from-perfect metric .

Harvard’s most popular introductory computer science course, Computer Science 50: Introduction to Computer Science has proved wildly successful, largely thanks to the charisma and engaging methods of course instructor, David J. Malan ’99. By developing adaptive, interactive methods to introduce computer science—a stereotypically dry or incomprehensible subject to learn from scratch—to students with a wide spectrum of previous experience, Malan is often credited with showing undergraduates that computer science can be relevant, accessible, and cool. Perhaps this has contributed to the increase in female concentrators who may not have felt as comfortable delving into the concentration otherwise.

At the same time, female computer science concentrators who declare their sophomore year may well have been influenced by factors outside of the academic draw of the concentration, such as the CS50 Fair at the end of the semester, complete with popcorn, corporate sponsors, and stress balls. But although a class ethic and appealing light-hearted touches are appealing incentives, they are no substitute for a genuine attitude shift toward women in the sciences—one that acknowledges their abilities and respects their potential. This, more than concentration counts, is how we should measure the degree to which CS and other science fields are gender equitable.

The rise of women concentrators in computer science is thrilling because it indicates an expansion of fields where women dare trod now. However, female computer science participation at Harvard still has a long way to go. For example, while the gender ratio in the concentration hovers tantalizingly close to 50 percent among sophomores, the gender disparity in more advanced computer science courses like Computer Science 124: Data Systems and Algorithms remains enormous. Though the increase female computer science concentrators indicates an increase of role models for future classes, what does the dismal lack of such role modes in higher level computer science courses tell contemplative freshmen?

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has clearly made efforts to close this gender gap and promote computer science as a whole. While I fully support methods that earn the field a second glance—encouraging students but women in particular to consider computer science when societal notions and the lack of role models seem to suggest otherwise—we should make sure not to lose sight of this more intangible, more important goal of feeling respected as promising academics by their peers. To this end, although there is no comprehensive measure of how much gender equality has permeated the computer science concentration, we must look beyond the gender ratio: female participation rate in higher level classes and the careers females ultimately pursue after graduation are important signs. Until we cease to report these statistics at all to prove improvement, we march onward.

Or, to be more precise, we code onward.

Irene Y. Chen ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

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