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How Computer Science at CMU Is Attracting and Retaining Women

By Carol Frieze, Jeria L. Quesenberry

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 62 No. 2, Pages 23-26

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The persistent underrepresentation of women in computing has gained the attention of employers, educators, and researchers for many years. In spite of numerous studies, reports, and recommendations we have seen little change in the representation of women in computer science (CS)—consider that only 17.9% of bachelor's degrees in computer science were awarded to women in 2016 according to the annual Taulbee Survey.15 At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) we do not believe the situation is an intractable problem.

By paying close attention to culture and environment, and taking a cultural approach rather than a gender difference approach, our efforts continue to pay off. The percentage of women enrolling and graduating in CS at CMU has exceeded national averages for many years (see the accompanying figure and table). Indeed, the school gained attention when 48% (of the total 166 students), 49+% women (of the total 205 students), and just shy of 50% when 105 women (out of 211 students) entered the CS major in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively.a But CMU is not alone—other institutions have also had success in addressing the gender gap. Harvey Mudd College, for example, went from 10% women in CS in 2006, the year Maria Klawe took over as college president, to 40% women in CS by 2012.2 These institutions, and the many others who are investing in change to improve gender balance, are proof that—as CMU CS Professor Lenore Blum says—"it's not rocket science!"


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