Focus on Women in Computer Science

Mark S. Hancock, Rhian Davies, Joanna McGrenere
Department of Computer Science
University of British Columbia


The University of British Columbia (UBC) has been active in its attempts to increase female enrollment in the Department of Computer Science. Currently, female enrollment in computer science is well below the average across all disciplines at UBC (56.7% in 2002) at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Computer Science Department, along with the Focus on Women in Computer Science (FoWCS) committee is currently involved in a variety of initiatives to eliminate this gender gap. Departmental initiatives vary from an Alternative Routes to Computing (ARC) degree program for students with non-technical backgrounds to a Computer Science Learning Centre (CSLC) available to first-year undergraduate students. The committee initiatives include information gathering, information sharing, support and networking, social activities as well as a high school outreach program. In this paper, we discuss the motivation and the current progress of each of these initiatives.

Keywords: Women, gender, female enrollment, programs

1. Introduction

A growing concern in post-secondary institutions is the low percentage of females in information technology courses. The computer science program at The University of British Columbia (UBC) is no exception to this phenomenon. The impact of this low enrollment ranges from a less valuable learning experience for the students who are enrolled to a lack of participation from females in the design of technology in our society.

In the Computer Science Department at UBC, we are working to increase the percentage of female students in our undergraduate courses and graduate program. In this paper, we describe the current situation with regard to the percentage of women in Computer Science, and compare it to other faculties at UBC as well as other computer science departments across Canada. These statistics clearly show that female students are under-represented in computer science at UBC.

Studies have shown that males and females view computers very differently. We discuss how insights from these studies could be used to ensure that introductory courses appeal equally to both female and male students. These differences may also explain the greater popularity among female students of multi-disciplinary programs. Examples of such programs at UBC are the Cognitive Systems Program, and a wide range of combined majors programs.

Females and males differ in their computer experience prior to their first computer science course. This can be explained, in part, by reports showing that access to computers is less for female teenagers than it is for male teenagers. This too suggests possible changes to the curriculum, such as separate streams in the early introductory courses to allow those with less experience ample time and support to catch up to their more experienced peers.

UBC has been pro-active in addressing the issue of gender disparity. Initiatives include research projects such as SWIFT, a project, now ended, that focused on increasing female participation in information technology, to a learning centre for students in introductory courses, a new initiative in the Computer Science Department. FoWCS, a UBC Computer Science Department committee with the express mandate to increase female participation in computer science, initiates outreach to high schools, holds support and networking events, and conducts research projects. For example, a focus group for women in first year computer science courses helped to elucidate some of the issues concerning females in our introductory courses and was used to motivate the design of a survey for first year students.

We believe the range of approaches taken at UBC to increase female participation in the Computer Science Department is itself one of the reasons for some of the success we are seeing. Although one coffee house event alone does not result in a significant change in atmosphere, it contributes to a shift in the culture within our department. We believe that social events, initiatives to understand the lack of female enrollment, iterative redesign of the computer science curriculum, and high school outreach programs, together will have a positive impact on female enrollment.

2. Female Enrollment in Computer Science

We have collected computer science departmental data for the years 2000, 2001, and 2002. We have recorded the number of graduate students that fall into the following categories:

We compare this data to publicly available data on currently enrolled students in all faculties at UBC [14]. Regrettably, we do not have comparable data for the computer science undergraduate program. We do, however, report statistics for undergraduate programs in all faculties at UBC and across Canada. Informal observation suggests that female enrollment in undergraduate programs at UBC is similar to the national average and is likely far less than male enrollment.

2.1 Departmental Statistics

The data collected at the departmental level is summarized in Tables 1 and 2. The percentage of females in every category and program was lower than 35%. For Master's students, the number of females who applied and were enrolled in computer science are similar across all three years, but the number of offers and acceptances appears to have declined. On the other hand, the percentage of female Master's students graduating has increased somewhat from 18.4% in 2000 to 23.4% in 2002 and, in the Ph.D. program, the percentage of women in all categories in the year 2000 appears to have increased by the year 2002. Although the percentage of women in some categories appears to be on the rise, these statistics show that female students form a clear minority within the Computer Science Department at UBC.

Program Category Year
2000 2001 2002
% female Total % female Total % female Total
M.Sc Applied 26.7% 221 29.8% 255 28.2% 433
Offered 34.0% 100 31.9% 91 27.4% 84
Accepted 31.9% 47 33.3% 39 23.3% 43

Ph.D. Applied 16.7% 42 10.3% 29 24.7% 77
Offered 7.7% 13 25.0% 12 20.0% 20
Accepted 10.0% 10 16.7% 6 21.4% 14

Total Applied 25.1% 263 27.8% 284 27.6% 510
Offered 31.0% 113 31.1% 103 26.0% 104
Accepted 28.1% 57 31.1% 45 22.8% 57

Table 1. Percentages of female students who applied, who were offered studentship and who accepted an offer in the years 2000-2002, split by graduate program.

Program Category Year
2000 2001 2002
% female Total % female Total % female Total
M.Sc Enrolled 28.7% 87 31.7% 101 29.2% 106
Graduated 18.4% 38 22.5% 40 23.4% 47

Ph.D. Enrolled 6.7% 15 31.8% 22 25.8% 31
Graduated 0.0% 5 25.0% 4 20.0% 5

Total Enrolled 25.5% 102 31.7% 123 28.5% 137
Graduated 16.3% 43 22.7% 44 23.1% 52

Table 2. Percentages of female students enrolled in and graduated from the Computer Science department at UBC in the years 2000-2002, split by graduate program

2.2 Enrollment in Other Disciplines

The percentage of female students enrolled in a graduate degree program in computer science is lower than any faculty for all three years, including the Faculty of Science, the home faculty of the Computer Science Department. Moreover, the maximum percentage of female graduate students reached by the department (31.7% in 2001) is still lower than the minimum percentage of female students in any faculty (33.3% in 2000 by the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration) and well below the average percentage of female graduate students across all faculties for all three years (54.2% in 2000, 55.3% in 2001, and 54.8% in 2002). Clearly, the female student population in the Computer Science department is well below what should be expected of a university program.

Faculty Year
2000 2001 2002
% female Total % female Total % female Total
Agricultural Sciences 70.9% 213 68.4% 196 71.0% 210

Applied Science 39.2% 1,096 39.0% 1162 38.2% 1,216
Arts 64.5% 1,342 64.9% 1324 65.3% 1,423
Commerce & Bus. Admin. 33.3% 342 37.8% 362 33.6% 393
Dentistry 58.6% 29 65.6% 32 60.0% 35
Education 69.9% 1,307 71.9% 1379 71.6% 1,451
Forestry 35.8% 201 42.5% 181 45.6% 180
Graduate Studies 59.2% 422 61.2% 454 60.3% 532
Law 61.4% 70 59.2% 71 52.3% 65
Medicine 57.6% 507 56.7% 554 57.8% 566
Pharmaceutical Sciences 50.0% 56 52.8% 53 44.0% 50
Science 37.1% 852 38.6% 848 35.9% 878
Total 54.2% 6,437 55.3% 6616 54.8% 6,999

Table 3. Percentage of female graduate students enrolled in various departments at UBC in November of 2000-2002.

Faculty Year
2000 2001 2002
% female Total % female Total % female Total
Agricultural Sciences 73.9% 760 77.4% 804 76.5% 871
Applied Science 31.0% 2,914 33.0% 3,000 31.8% 3,194
Arts 66.2% 9,918 65.0% 10,746 64.5% 11,215
Commerce & Bus. Admin. 51.4% 1,951 50.4% 2,228 50.5% 2,633
Dentistry 47.1% 204 44.3% 192 51.6% 217
Education 69.0% 2,343 67.9% 2,508 67.4% 2,525
Forestry 35.5% 606 36.8% 484 34.7% 518
Law 53.9% 694 54.3% 622 57.9% 700
Medicine 56.2% 1,306 55.3% 1,335 56.8% 1,242
Pharmaceutical Sciences 63.0% 557 63.8% 556 65.2% 552
Science 52.3% 5,965 50.9% 6,479 52.6% 6,545
Unclassified 64.7% 1,477 63.9% 2,337 65.7% 1,440
Unknown 75.9% 116 77.8% 18 52.7% 569
Total 57.5% 28,811 57.2% 31,309 57.1% 32,221

Table 4. Percentage of female undergraduate students enrolled in various departments at UBC in November of 2000-2002.

2.3 Enrollment in Computer Science Courses Across Canada

Data from Statistics Canada revealed that enrollment in computer science courses at the college and university level by Canadian female students also hovers around 25%. The type of degree program (graduate or undergraduate) was not specified. The percentage of women enrolled full time in Computer Science and Mathematics career programs in community colleges from 1994/5 to 1998/9 ranged from a low of 23% in 1996/7 to a high of 26% in 1994/5.

This data also showed that female students accounted for about 20% of all students graduating with a Bachelor's degree in computer science in Canada during the years 1994-1998. During those years, 1997 had the smallest percentage of women graduating (20%) and 1994 and 1997 had the highest percentage of women (22%). The years 1995 and 1998 fell between those percentages.

Data from PhD granting universities in Canada gathered by the Computing Research Association's Taulbee Survey shows that in 2002, women were awarded 24% of the Masters degrees in computer science, with men being awarded 64%, and the remaining unknown. At the PhD level, women were awarded 12% of the degrees, men 80%, with the remaining unknown.Comparing the data given above to the UBC data shows that we are on par with the rest of Canada for the year 2002. In the PhD program, our number of graduates (20%) is much greater than the national average (12%).

3. Factors Impacting Female Enrollment in Computer Science

Several studies have shown that males and females view computers very differently. Females are more often concerned with an associated societal context than their male counterparts [11]. Females tend to be interested in the impact of technology on other disciplines and think of the computer as a tool that can be used to help better society. On the other hand, males tend to think of computers as a toy. The focus of their interest is much narrower and does not require a connection to a larger goal. Males are often satisfied with the thrill of finding the fastest algorithm or building the biggest computer [11].

At UBC, the curriculum may be partially responsible for low enrollment in our field. The computer science courses at UBC have an early concentration on programming and data abstractions. The societal contexts of technology are not well presented to incoming students. An approach suggested by a study at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is to increase the concentration of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), as well as other interdisciplinary courses, and courses that include involvement in the local community at an early stage in the curriculum.

In a similar vein, a narrow view of computing is often taken to an extreme in societal stereotypes of computer scientists. Members of our field are often referred to as "geeks" or "nerds" because of their willingness to spend a large number of hours in front of a computer with no social interaction. This stereotype detracts many individuals, both males and females, from entering this field. However, this perception is more detrimental to females than it is to males. Females often express distaste with the idea of computers "becoming their life", whereas males can sometimes be comforted by the existence of others who share similar attitudes and desires.

Females tend to enter the field of computer science with far less experience and at a much later time in their life than do males. Willms and Corbett [15] reported that Canadian girls have somewhat less access to computers than boys, and that boys use computers in more diverse ways. Overall, the odds that a male teenager has access to a computer and the Internet in Canada is about 15% higher than it is for a female teenager. A study of over 7,000 high school students in Vancouver, B.C. indicates that female teenager's level of interest in computer science is low, compared with that of teenage boys [1]. Because of the lack of availability at home, a female's first experience with computers is often as late as high school. This late entry may be part of the reason females regard computers as a tool and do not consider its use in an extra-curricular or fun activity.

Although this difference in experience exists, it does not preclude the success of females once they do enter the program. Introductory computer science courses can be designed to provide different curricula based on experience, so as to bring the inexperienced up to speed. This method has been shown to be successful at other universities [5]. Carnegie Mellon University provides courses for students without computer experience and has a high success rate among female students.

4. Initiatives

The Focus on Women in Computer Science (FoWCS) committee, through various initiatives, seeks to address the gender imbalance in computer science. The UBC Computer Science Department had begun initiatives to increase female participation prior to the inception of FoWCS. The FoWCS activities therefore have not been initiated in isolation, but have built on the momentum already existing within the department. We begin with an overview of previous and current initiatives taken within the department external to FoWCS, and then introduce the initiatives undertaken by the committee itself.

4.1 Computer Science Department Initiatives


Supporting Women in Information Technology (SWIFT) was a five-year UBC research and action project initiated by Dr. Maria Klawe in her role as NSERC/IBM Chair that ran from September 1997 to August 2002. SWIFT's mandate was to encourage females to participate in information technology. SWIFT projects varied from developing educational tools to conducting surveys. For example, Virtual Family, a SWIFT project, was an educational tool developed by female computer science co-op students to teach Java programming in a way that would appeal to females. As part of that project, workshops were given to high school students by university co-op students [12]. This reflects one of the core strategies used within SWIFT: target females at all educational levels while encouraging mentoring and networking between the levels. As well as encouraging females to enter the information technology field, SWIFT sought to better understand the reasons behind the gender imbalance within computer science. For example, SWIFT developed and conducted a survey to better understand the career choices of high school students [1].


Alternative Routes to Computing (ARC), a joint industry-university program, was conceived of as an alternative path back into computer science for those with degrees from other disciplines. The first ARC class graduated in 1999, and in 2004 the ARC diploma is set to be transformed into a Bachelor of Computer Science - ARC degree. As a SWIFT initiative, ARC was expected to be attractive to females and has maintained an enrollment of over 50% females in all cohorts, and continues to attract a high number of female applicants [8].

Computer Science Learning Centre

The Computer Science Learning Centre (CSLC) began operating in January, 2004. The CSLC was a concrete outcome of one of the FoWCS activities. During that activity, one participant suggested that a learning centre for computer science, similar to the learning centres operating in the Math and English departments, would enhance the learning environment for computer science students. Two instructors for the introductory computer science courses CPSC 111 and 121 spearheaded the opening of the CSLC, and it is currently attracting students who want extra help as well as study groups who want a place to meet. The CSLC operates in the atrium of the main computer science building, Monday to Thursday from noon to 6:00pm, and Friday from noon to 4:00pm. During these hours there is a TA available to answer any questions from students in their first year of computer science.

The CSLC is a relatively new program that is currently in developmental stages. Preliminary results from focus groups and informal feedback from the teaching assistants at the learning centre revealed several difficulties with this approach. Some of the students reported that they were unable to distinguish the teaching assistant from the students and therefore could not identify who to approach for questions. Some of the female students also reported that they were intimidated by the large number of male students being helped and felt discouraged from requesting help. Female students also reported a preference for female teaching assistants, of which there was only one. In future operations of the learning centre, these issues are to be addressed. Despite these few issues, the feedback from the students about the learning centre was largely positive. Both male and female students reported that they used the learning centre frequently and that it was an integral part of their first-year learning experience.

Interdisciplinary Research and Combined Majors

The UBC Computer Science Department is particularly supportive of interdisciplinary research, such as HCI and bioinformatics, and offers a wide range of degree major and honours options. The options for a combined majors with computer science include any one of the following: microbiology and immunology, biology, or statistics. There is an option for a generic combined major or combined honours program in computer science and any of the other sciences. UBC also has an interdisciplinary cognitive systems program, which spans the Departments of Computer Science, Linguistics, Philosophy, and Psychology. During the short introductory information sessions that advertised the availability of the combined major program to introductory computer science classes, roughly 70% of the questions asked were raised by women. HCI has traditionally attracted a higher number of women than other areas of computer science, and the interdisciplinary atmosphere in the UBC Computer Science Department may foster an environment that is more appealing to women.

An Alternative Computer Science Introductory Course

An alternative introductory computer science course was developed at UBC and offered for the first time in the Fall of 2001. The design of this course drew on the assumption that women would be more attracted to an interdisciplinary approach to computer science. The course emphasizes the connections between computer science and other disciplines, such as biology, psychology, and the arts. The important contributions of computer science are discussed within their historical and cultural context. This course is cross listed with the Department of Women's Studies.

4.2 FoWCS Initiatives

Information Gathering

Several FoWCS initiatives focus on developing a better understanding of why females are not equally represented within our Computer Science department and in information technology in general. The FoWCS committee keeps track of a range of statistics in the UBC CS Department, from course enrollment at the introductory level to faculty appointments, and makes these statistics available on the FoWCS web site [6].

FoWCS has requested and obtained grant money from The Science Centre for Learning and Teaching in the Faculty of Science at UBC to determine the factors that influence females in their decisions to enroll in introductory computer science courses and programs. The funding also covers the development and implementation of appropriate curricular and extra-curricular components that will encourage and support women in computer science programs. The rationale for the project is that while over 50% of UBC Science students are women, currently only approximately 40% of students in the introductory CS programming course (CPSC111) are women and only 16% of students who enrolled in the CS major in 2003 are women. Females from two courses, CPCS 111 and 121, participated in a series of focus groups. A survey, developed from an analysis of transcripts from those focus groups, was designed and was completed by some of the students in those two courses in April of 2004. The results from the focus groups and survey are currently in the analysis phase and will be used in developing and implementing changes to the introductory computer science curriculum.

A separate survey is being developed that will focus on determining the motivating factors for male and female students in their decision to enroll in computer science courses at UBC, with particular attention to the student's perception of computer science. This survey will be distributed to both computer science and non-computer science students. The results will be compared with those from similar studies done in the UK, US, Australia, and Hong Kong. From this survey, we hope to determine how to approach high-school students in a way that would encourage females to pursue an education and career in computer science. With this information we intend to modify our existing high school outreach program (described below) to have a greater impact on female enrollment.

Information Sharing

The FoWCS committee disseminates the information gathered through its web site [6] by writing and publishing papers and by posting an annual report, available on the web site, that delineates the committee's initiatives and activities from the preceding year.

Support and Networking

The Tri-Mentoring Program began in 2002 as a pilot program and, due to its success, expanded in 2003 to include 134 students, faculty members, and people from industry. Although open to both male and female participants, the program draws a high percentage (47%) of females at all three tiers. The structure of the Tri-Mentoring Program requires three different types of involvement from participants, depending on where they are in their academic or professional lives. The top tier is made up of faculty and people who work in industry. This top tier mentors the middle tier, made up of third and fourth year computer science students. The middle tier in turn mentors the bottom tier, made up of second year students. In late September, a party is held where the triplets of mentors/mentees first meet and socialize. At that point, the mentor/mentee matches have been arranged, and a commitment to the program of at least one academic term has been made by all participants. Throughout the year, the commitment from each participant is to connect with their mentor and/or mentee at least three additional times during a term, with at least one of those meetings being face-to-face. Near the end of the academic term (late March), a final party for all members of the program is held.

The spin-off benefits from the Tri-Mentoring Program include a separate ARC Tri-Mentoring program that began in January 2003 (later integrated into the main program), and the recruitment of tri-mentoring participants as volunteers. These volunteers have given talks to the grade 11 and 12 computer science classes in their old high schools, and act as informal mentors to those students interested in applying to computer science.

Networking between students at different levels is also encouraged at the annual Undergrad Meeting Grads social event. This event has occurred twice, most recently in the Fall of 2003. This event is an informal gathering of about 100 people, with half the attendees being graduate students and half undergraduate students. A number of faculty members also attend this event. The purpose of these gatherings is to offer undergraduate students an opportunity to direct questions about graduate school to those students currently enrolled in the program. Feedback from this event suggests that an informal gathering is a perfect forum for interested undergraduates to gain a broad perspective on graduate life and academic research as the format allows them to mingle and chat with a number of graduate students with varying research interests and perspectives. Although this event is not targeted exclusively at females, female students are well represented at the event.

Together with IBM, the FoWCS committee sponsored a one time event in 2003 called the Getting to Know You Dinner and Panel. This event brought together female students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, this time including those students from the Computer Engineering Department, as well as those in the Computer Science Department. The event featured a panel in which former students described their experiences as undergraduates and in industry, followed by a discussion to get input from all present on their experiences in the department. It was during this event that the idea of the Computer Science Learning Centre was suggested and discussed as a way for students in the first year classes to get help with their class and lab work. The evening ended informally with attendees eating pizza and mingling.

Social Activities

The FoWCS committee hosted a departmental wide coffee house for the first time in January 2003 for graduate students, with faculty and staff welcome to attend. About 50 people gathered for coffee, tea, hot chocolate, goodies, and entertainment was provided by talented members of the Computer Science department. Candlelight, crayons, and a warm atmosphere succeeded in warming up the winter evening. Although FoWCS did not host the event again, a group of graduate students took on the responsibility and a successful event was held again in late January 2004. We hope that this tradition will continue, and the coffee house will become an annual event sponsored by the Computer Science Graduate Society.

A female faculty member hosts an annual dinner for all the female faculty and graduate students in the Computer Science Department. This annual event occurs early in the fall and is a great way for new members of the community to connect and meet the other women in the department. The last dinner was held in September 2003 and was attended by over 20 graduate students and by all the female faculty members in the department.


The FoWCS committee has two initiatives directed at high school students. FoWCS members, with the help of other members of the Computer Science Department, gave three presentations to high schools in 2003. These presentations were given to grades 11 and 12 students at a local high school, and were each attended by 20-30 students. These presentations were fundamentally recruitment talks, and as such, the FoWCS members were not convinced this was the best strategy for FoWCS to take, given that the audience was largely made up of students who would not make the entrance requirements set by the UBC Faculty of Science. Several IT and Science teachers approached the presenters with requests for suggestions and resources to improve their curricula, and although time and resource restrictions at that time meant that no follow up on the requests occurred, it did suggest a possible area for future direction. This program is currently under development as we are attempting to determine both the appropriate audience and the appropriate material to present in order to encourage larger female enthusiasm.

Together with IBM, FoWCS is currently planning on offering workshops to female students in grades 5, 6, and 7. These workshops, IT Workshops for Girls, are intended to provide girls with female role models in computer science, as well as expose them to a hands-on computer activity. In total, five workshops are planned.

5. Future Directions

Both the Computer Science Department and the FoWCS committee are continually evaluating the effect of the various initiatives that we have undergone. In the near future, we expect to collect and analyze feedback from first year undergraduate students, both in computer science and in other disciplines. With this data, we expect to better understand the impact of the work we have been doing and to improve our efforts so that they might have a larger impact in the future. The number of active members in the FoWCS committee has recently grown to approximately 18, most of whom participate solely on a volunteer basis. With this increased participation we hope that the current initiatives will gain support and that new initiatives may become possible.

6. Conclusion

While the enrollment of females in computer science courses is far below that of males, it is clear that when institutions address the disparity through a variety of initiatives this imbalance can be improved. At UBC we hope to attain 50% female participation, and so our effort is far from over. We believe that through a better understanding of the causes of gender imbalance in computer science, and continued actions such as those initiated by the FoWCS committee and the Computer Science Department in general, that we will eventually achieve gender equity.


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Mark S. Hancock, Rhian Davies, Joanna McGrenere
Department of Computer Science
University of British Columbia
2366 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4
{mhancock,davies, joanna}
Phone: 604 822-4231
Fax: 604 822-5485