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Data Reveals Gender Gap in Computer Science at Harvard

Sixty-seven percent of women in computer science courses this year said they had one or fewer years of programming experience before arriving at Harvard, compared to only 41 percent of men, according to data collected by the student group Women in Computer Science.

The group presented the results of a year-long effort to collect data on the gender gap in computer science at an event Friday after having surveyed more than 900 undergraduates to analyze students’ experience with Harvard's Computer Science Department.

Breaking the Silicon Ceiling
Seltzer speaks about the gender gap in computer science at the an event called "Breaking the Silicon Ceiling" held by the Women in Computer Science Advocacy Council in 2016.

Female computer science concentrators with eight years of programming experience report being as confident in their skills as their male peers with zero to one year of programming experience. While 47.5 percent of women respondents reported the process of recruiting for jobs and internships as “very stressful,”only 27 percent of men reported said the same.

Computer science professor Margo I. Seltzer ’83 also presented results from a survey of students in introductory computer science classes. Seltzer found that the ratio of men to women who take the introductory course CS50 is two to one. The ratio in CS50’s spring follow-up course, CS51, is three to one. Another introductory course, CS 61: “Systems Programming and Machine Organization,” has a five-to-one male-female ratio.

“What I’ve been looking into, is this intro sequence and where we’re losing the women, where the ratios change and trying to come up with some hypothesis so that the next round of data collection we can get the right information to figure out what’s going on” Seltzer said.

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Alongside the data presentation, a panel of computer science professors highlighted how the study of computer science could improve at Harvard.

Computer science professor Radhika Nagpal emphasized blind grading, a process by which students’ problem sets would remain anonymous, as one possible response to implicit biases and create a more equitable experience.

“There is a lot of evidence that suggests that we are biased in many ways, we use names, we use assumptions about them, even people who don’t want to make mistakes, make mistakes. So, one way to stop that is to take every opportunity we have to remove names, do things, and then put the names back,” Nagpal said. “It’s the big intro classes where it’s most effective and I think most needed.”

Students who intend to concentrate in Computer Science also expressed their support for tackling the larger issue of gender inequality in the field of technology.

“Seeing the data presented right in front of me, I think that was an eye opener because I am not the only one feeling that way, and a lot of the other women are going through the same experience,” prospective computer science concentrator and WiCS marketing director Yong L. Dich ’19 said.

Other students said they were heartened by faculty members’ focus on gender inequities in the field.

“It’s really cool to see how many of the CS professors were at this event and how committed they are to it,” Alex Wendland ’19 said. “ It sounded resoundingly that they are all very invested in fixing this gender gap problem.”

The event also marked WiCS’ launch of an online portal to access the survey data.

“The purpose of this is to showcase the data about the campus so that everyone can learn about how these issues plays out here and be a part of solving it. The other purpose of this is to showcase some of our thinking on this issue and resources that are available for people,” Ramya Rangan ’16, a former President of WiCS, said.

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