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Globe and Mail article: Reversing women’s flight from computer science

Monday, April 16, 2018

The following is excerpted from an article by Simona Chiose, published in the Globe and Mail on April 16, 2018

When Joanne Atlee was an undergraduate student in computer science, more than a third of her class was made up of women. In graduate school, those ranks began to thin out, a decline that has continued through much of her career as a professor at the University of Waterloo. 

“All of a sudden I am an instructor at Waterloo and 10 per cent of the class is female and it’s ‘Oh no, what happened?’”

photo of Professor Jo Atlee

The decline was country-wide. According to Statistics Canada, in the early 1990s, women made up about 30 per cent of students enrolled in computer-science and math programs. That number has slid steadily down since and is now stagnating at about 25 per cent — a drop that predated the 2002 dot-com bust — and which runs contrary to women’s rising enrollment in other STEM fields, including engineering. 

The market penetration of home computers and technology is the primary suspect, said Dr. Atlee, who is also the director of the university’s women in computer science program. 

The “prevailing theory is that it’s because of the advent of the PC,” she said. “When the PC came out, it was originally marketed to electronic hobbyists who were mostly men. A lot of the software was business or games, which was advertised to men to buy for their sons.” 

Boys’ early exposure to computers translates to confidence they can manage an academic program. For girls, the reverse is true. 

To counter those stereotypes, the University of Waterloo has multiple initiatives including mandatory computer-science courses for all math students to expose them to the discipline and one-day workshops for high-school girls. The university is now seeing an increase in women’s admission and graduation rates in the field.

Now, a grant of $400,000 will enable the women in computer science program to develop long-term programming for girls aged 10 to 18, and create a permanent space for Technovation, a global-entrepreneurship challenge for girls that runs over several months.