Cassidy Lamm, who grew up loving Disney movies like The Lion King, hopes to help create the next generation of animated films. When she checked into the credentials of current special-effects artists at Disney, she learned that many had majored in computer science.
Now in her sophomore year at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Ms. Lamm is among an increasingly rare breed—women majoring in computer science. Nationwide, women earned only 18 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science in 2010, according to the National Science Foundation. That's less than half the proportion in 1985, when 37 percent of those degrees went to women.
Despite attending a high school where her computing class taught her only how to use Microsoft Word, Ms. Lamm persevered through her first year of college-level programming courses, in which she estimates that men outnumbered women nearly tenfold. She even found time for an independent research project, creating a mobile-phone app to help autistic students better understand the emotions of other people.
"When girls think of computer science, they think of the gamers and sitting in a cubicle to program," Ms. Lamm says. "But I've found that you can do so much more with it."
The lack of interest among women in computer science is nothing new—government agencies, universities, and technology companies have plowed tens of millions of dollars into trying to raise the numbers for almost a decade, to little effect.
And it's not simply that women are just making up a smaller proportional piece of a growing pie. The number of computer-science graduates stayed relatively flat from 1985 to 2010, at more than 39,000, while the number of women earning degrees in the field plummeted, from 14,431 to 7,306.
The continuing dearth of women is especially puzzling given the way women have embraced new technologies like smartphones and tablets, and social networks like Facebook. Jeff Gray, an associate professor of computer science at Alabama, says about half the kids at his weeklong summer camps for middle-school students are girls. But in his summer camps for high-school students, only 15 to 20 percent are girls. "Something weird is happening early in high school," he says. "Stereotypes are being formed about gender roles and career goals."
Experts on the gender gap in computer science have increasingly come to believe that a multipronged strategy is needed to close it. The tactics would include the following:
- More-diverse programming activities, to seize the interest of middle-school girls, in the same way that role-playing video games are embraced by boys.
- A revamped introductory course, whether taken in college or as an Advanced Placement course in high school, to provide a broad overview of the real-world applications of computer science.
- Early exposure to research projects during the first year of college. (Ms. Lamm was paired with her mentor, Mr. Gray, during her first month at Alabama.)
- Opportunities for undergraduates to interact with women who have enjoyed successful careers in technology.
Efforts to increase the number of women remain disjointed, however, even after a decade of attention to the issue. "The biggest challenge is that everyone is doing their own thing, and no one is connecting," says Rane Johnson-Stempson, who leads Microsoft's efforts to get more women interested in computer science and research. The company is providing grants of $10,000 to $35,000 to colleges that develop collaborations with local nonprofit groups, community colleges, and schools.
Girls are less likely to play video games, hence less likely to tinker with the inner workings of computers at a young age, says Barbara Ericson, who heads the Georgia Institute of Technology's efforts to get more young girls interested in computer science. Women earned only 8 percent of computer-science degrees awarded by Georgia Tech in 2012.
Ms. Ericson holds summer camps for girls and workshops for Girl Scouts that allow them to create animations, stories, and games through easy-to-use programming languages like Alice and Scratch. Leah Buechley, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meanwhile, has created a kit that allows girls to program "wearable computers" that can be sewn into clothes and made to produce sound and light with microchips. "There's no one silver bullet for getting girls interested," Ms. Ericson says.
The colleges that have had the most success have remodeled their first-year courses in computer science, or added new versions, to create a better experience for women.
Harvey Mudd College has tripled its proportion of women in computer science—about 38 percent of the majors now—since redesigning its introductory course six years ago. The new class offers a variety of ways for students to explore course content. They can "computationally interact" with images, sounds, or biological data, says Zachary Dodds, an associate professor of computer science.
"If you're a student who loves math, or physics, or biology, or media, there's something for you," he says.
The National Science Foundation and the College Board are leading an effort to create an Advanced Placement course that will provide a broad overview of computer science, with only a small dose of writing code. The current AP course in computer science teaches programming in the Java language, which can be difficult for beginners. Just under 20 percent of students who take the AP exam in computer science are women—among the lowest percentages of all AP courses.
The NSF spends $15-million per year to modernize computing education, and much of it helps train math and science teachers so that they can gain skills needed to teach the new AP course. The agency's goal is to have 10,000 teachers prepared to teach it by 2016.
"Something weird is happening early in high school," he says. "Stereotypes are being formed about gender roles and career goals."
In a trial version of the AP course in 25 public schools in Los Angeles, 41 percent of the 2,000 students were women.
The push to revamp is also affecting introductory courses at colleges. At the University of California at Berkeley, where 20 percent of computer-science majors are women, a new course for nonmajors, "Beauty and Joy of Computing," emphasizes computer science's potential to change the world. It features guest lectures by an executive at Pandora, the music-streaming company, and experts on artificial intelligence. An AP version—one of several pilot versions of the new course under development—is expected to be offered at the high-school level.
About 45 percent of the students taking the Berkeley course are women, up from 30 percent before the revamp, says Dan Garcia, the senior lecturer who created the course. Women are also doing better, earning an average grade of B-plus, compared with a B for the men.
"You don't need a dad who was a programmer to succeed in this course," Mr. Garcia says.
Some computer-science departments are venturing elsewhere on their campuses to make a pitch for their major. At Indiana University at Bloomington, for example, the nursing program is so popular that even students with strong grades sometimes don't gain admission.
The university's School of Informatics and Computing encourages those women to consider majoring in informatics, or "the application of information technology to the arts, sciences, and professions." Informatics majors can choose to earn the equivalent of a minor in health, setting them up for a quick path to a nursing degree after graduation, should they choose. "We're always looking for strategic ways to interest people in coming into the program," says Maureen Biggers, assistant dean for diversity and education. The number of women majoring in informatics at Indiana has doubled within two years, to 150 students, or 18 percent of all the majors.
Another plus for computer-science recruiting: At a time when the economy remains shaky, new computer-science graduates are the most likely among all majors to have received a job offer, and their median starting salary, $56,000, is second only to that of engineering graduates.
Experts say that the economic benefits of majoring in computer science rarely resonate with young women, but that older, returning students are more receptive to the message. Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, in North Carolina, won a $200,000 grant from the NSF in September to recruit more women into its computing programs. Women currently account for 9 to 17 percent of enrollment in the programs.
Pamela Silvers, chair of the department of business-computer technologies, thinks she can boost those proportions to 45 percent or better within a few years by traveling to Asheville's many outdoor festivals and promoting the financial benefits that a career in computing can provide. She believes the programs will prove popular among single mothers.
"These are careers in which you can get a job and pay your bills," Ms. Silvers says.
At the University of Texas at Austin, the computer-science department's free, weeklong summer camp for high-school girls entering their junior or senior year also serves as a recruiting tool. All 60 attendees are offered $1,000 scholarships for the first year if they choose to enroll and study computer science at the university.
In 2011, 11 of the former campers accepted the offer, and this fall another seven did. The proportion of female majors in the freshman class is now 19 percent, compared with 16 percent among all computer-science majors.
Texas also provides expenses-paid trips for 20 women to attend the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, held this year in Baltimore in early October. The university, like many other institutions, receives corporate support to cover the cost of the trips.
Harvey Mudd, too, sends a large group of women to the conference. The idea is that they will be more likely to persevere and earn a degree if they see the successful careers of an earlier generation of women.
But for spurring interest in the major, nothing beats a pitch from someone close to your own age.
Jonecia Keels did well at programming at her high school in Timber Pines, Fla., but planned to major in psychology when she arrived at Spelman College. "In my high-school class, I was the only female and the only minority," she says. "Bill Gates, Steve Jobs—all the influential people in the field didn't look like me."
During her first month at Spelman, she saw a presentation by the SpelBots, the college's women's robotics team. That hooked her on computer science. She and a friend joined the team and spent so much time programming the robots—the team won international awards for its efforts to get them to dance or play soccer—that they began calling the computing lab their "dorm room."
Ms. Keels earned a degree in computer engineering from Columbia University last May, after completing a dual-degree program offered through Spelman. She started at Apple in August, as a computer engineer working on iOS, the company's mobile operating system. She owes it all, she says, to her first glimpse of those SpelBots back in 2007.
"I'm super grateful," she says. "If I hadn't seen that, I wouldn't have considered computer science as a major."