Two decades ago, many academic and industry professionals had given little thought to the gender or racial composition of their classrooms or offices. In the early 2000s, that perspective shifted dramatically. The dotcom bubble burst and, with that, the computing field seemed to lose its luster with prospective students and employees. Some, however, recognized that computer science and engineering would remain critical to our nation's economy and would, in fact, grow in importance. They also recognized that a lack of diversity in the field is not only an equity problem, it is problematic for innovation and workforce development. These forward-thinking individuals and entities focused on the need for women to be a much greater part of the equation as the field moved into its next phase.
Among the many groups working on issues of diversity in the computer science discipline, three organizations have been instrumental in shifting the conversation and the composition of the technology workforce around the nation and the world—the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM-W), and the Anita Borg Institute (ABI).
NCWIT. Founded in 2004 by Lucy Sanders, Bobby Schnabel, and Telle Whitney, the National Center for Women & Information Technology works to develop and support change leaders in organizations across the computing talent pipeline, including faculty and administrators at our nation's colleges and universities. NCWIT has a number of programs and initiatives to empower change leaders in the post-secondary arena including, but not limited to, the Academic Alliance, Pacesetters, Extension Services for Undergraduate Programs, the Aspirations Collegiate award and community, the Data Tracking Tool, and most recently, the EngageCSEdu platform.
ACM-W. As the numbers of computing degrees awarded to women began to decline in the early 1990s, ACM reacted by forming the ACM Committee on the Status of Women in Computing in 1993. In 2009, this committee was re-established as the ACM Council on Women in Computing. In its early days, the committee launched several effective projects that changed the landscape of computing. A pioneer member of the Council, Paula Gabbert, consulted the literature on gender issues in computing and found research supporting female role models, mentoring, and community building as promising practices for increasing female computing degrees. Accordingly, Dr. Gabbert designed ACM-W Student Chapters, following the well-established ACM Student Chapter model but dedicated to recruitment, retention, support, and celebration of women in computing.
ABI. Since 1987, the Anita Borg Institute has been working on providing support for women in computing and technology. Dr. Anita Borg envisioned that we would reach "50/50 by 2020," that is, a 50/50 ratio of women and men in the tech industry by the year 2020. ABI tackles this problem with various programs to support women through community and engagement and help companies understand and improve their recruiting, retention, and advancement of women technologists. ABI also contributes to the industry by providing a leadership index for companies who are working hard internally on representation, programs, and policies to provide a positive workplace experience.
The Numbers Paint a Now Familiar Picture
Of significance to reform advocates like these were—and are—the statistics on girls' and women's participation in computing fields. It should be noted that despite temporary highs in the mid-1980s when the field was establishing itself, women's participation has never yet been on par with men's, even as the nation sees more women earning baccalaureate degrees than ever before.
In Figure 1, we see that since before the "Tech Bubble" until the present, women's computer and information sciences (CIS) degrees declined and then remained stagnant (top part of Figure 1). This pattern is not completely dissimilar from that in other STEM disciplines, but some STEM disciplines other than CIS and engineering remain closer to parity. In the bottom part of the Figure 1, we see that these same disciplines have all been fairly consistent in the percentage of the female undergraduate student population earning degrees in these fields.
However, we may be on the brink of a positive change. More women completed CIS degrees in 2014 than in any preceding year since 2005, when the raw numbers really started dipping (2014: 7577; 2005: 9372). In 2015, we saw the highest percentage (3.8%) of first-year college students who said they intend to major in computer science. About one quarter of those were women, the highest proportion of female students since the mid-1980s, but as Figure 2 indicates, the proportion of males intending a CS major has increased at a much higher rate.
Increasing interest in computer science is likely to continue into the future. Record numbers of students took the Advanced Placement CS exam in 2015—10,778 girls and 38,216 boys—raising the percentage of girls from 20% to 22% compared to the previous year. While this is the highest percentage ever, it falls significantly short of the rate at which girls take AP exams overall (57%).
It is good to be seeing more CS interest by male and female students in the US because the field is continuing its decade-long growth in job opportunities. Indeed, job openings—due to new and replacement jobs—are still projected to be 1.1M by 2024. We will need those new female graduates in particular because the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2015 the percentage of women in computing and mathematical fields actually declined from 2014, 25% down from 26% .
As we have shown, the post-secondary job story is a mix of positive and cautionary statistics, suggesting that there is still work to be done in achieving parity. While we are once again beginning to produce more students with computing degrees at all post-secondary degree levels—associate, bachelor, master and doctoral—and more women are again completing CIS degrees, we are still not at the dotcom degree production levels, nor are we at equity in the gender and racial composition of those receiving today's CIS degrees.
These data show a picture that is neither as bleak nor as good as it once was, but there is a key difference. We are now at a new and unique crossroad—the need for a diverse student body in computing and a diverse technical workforce is being publicly discussed and accepted as a shared goal. But it is crucial that we continue the forward movement, taking decisive actions and continuing to raise awareness. All three organizations described—NCWIT, ACM-W and ABI—have made great impact on the issue in different ways. The rest of this paper will highlight some of our current approaches to tackling these complex issues.
NCWIT's Engagement Practices Framework: Good Teaching Practices to Help Retain All Students
One of the newest NCWIT programs focuses on the impact faculty can make in their role as teachers—the EngageCSEdu Platform . Its purpose is to broaden participation in computing by providing a platform for computer science instructors to find and share high quality, engaging course materials. It is based on the belief that we can broaden participation in computing, in part, through strategic curricular and pedagogical changes. It focuses on introductory courses out of a recognition that the first year experience is an important pivot point for retaining women in computing.
EngageCSEdu  is a three-part platform.
- The first is an "Engagement Practices Framework" that highlights teaching practices with the biggest impact on recruiting and retaining women in computing majors. On the EngageCSEdu site, users can explore the framework and connect seamlessly to relevant NCWIT resources and items in the collection that exemplify each practice.
- The second is a collection of over 1400 individual instructional materials created by faculty from across the country and peer-reviewed for quality and for alignment to at least one engagement practice in the Engagement Practices Framework.
- And the third is a community of faculty who use, submit, remix, rate, and review items in the collection.
The Engagement Practices Framework is organized by three research-based principles for retaining women. Each principle has several associated promising practices (Figure 3).
Principle 1: Make It Matter by
- using assignments and examples that are relevant and meaningful to students' lives
- making explicit connections to other disciplines
- addressing misconceptions about the field of computing
- allowing students to pursue their own interests, when possible
An example of a faculty member making it matter: Elizabeth Boese of the University of Colorado—and winner of a 2016 NCWIT Engagement Excellence Award—has students analyze human DNA as a way to teach loops, file input, writing user-defined functions, among other things. This highly creative project helps students make interdisciplinary connections and see the meaningful contributions that computing makes to real world problems .
NCWIT resources that can help: Help students understand the diversity of fields and work settings that computer scientists are employed in by sharing this new NCWIT resource: Computing: Get the Most Out of Your College Degree .
Principle 2: Grow positive student community by
- creating welcoming physical spaces
- encouraging professional behavior
- discouraging gender, racial, and other social stereotypes;
- employing well-structured collaborative learning
- grouping students by level of experience in computing
An example of a faculty member positively impacting student community: Clif Kussmaul of Muhlenberg College uses Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) in his CS1 course. For example, on the first day of class he creates teams of three to four students who work together to identify and evaluate strategies (i.e., algorithms) to solve a Hi-Lo number guessing game. They learn key computing concepts, such as the tradeoffs between difficulty and efficiency, while learning that computing is collaborative, involves designing and evaluating solutions to problems, and is not just about learning language syntax .
NCWIT resources that can help: How Can Encouragement Increase Persistence in Computing? (Set of 3 case studies)  and How Do You Retain Women through Collaborative Learning? (Set of 2 case studies) .
Principle 3: Build student confidence and professional identity by
- promoting a "growth mindset"
- providing feedback that helps students improve their performance
- creating opportunities for students to interact with faculty inside and outside the classroom
- mitigating stereotype threat by avoiding stereotypes and providing positive role models
Examples of faculty members building student confidence: Many of the student-facing materials in the EngageCSE-du collection are distinctive in the way they provide encouragement from a "growth mindset" perspective (i.e., it's about working hard and practicing), and in how they give feedback to students. For great examples, check out materials in the collection by Sarah Diesburg and Ben Schafer of Northern Iowa University (2015 Engagement Excellence awardees) and by Andy van Dam of Brown University.
EngageCSEdu is just one way that NCWIT supports organizational "change leaders"—in this case, faculty members teaching pivotal introductory courses—to recruit and retain more women in computing. For information on our other programs and initiatives for colleges and universities, and for those working in the K12 space and in the workplace, visit ncwit.org.
ACM-W Chapter benefits: With ACM-W Chapters available, women no longer need to feel isolated in computing classes, where they might be the only female student—or one of two or three women. Instead, when these small groups of women from individual classes come together, they form a community with critical mass. Attendees meet several role models at ACM-W events—students who are slightly older as well as female faculty members who sponsor the chapters or attend its events. The role models can also serve as mentors, and many chapters create formal mentoring programs. The community-like structure that ACM-W chapters afford can accomplish many of the promising practices that are highlighted by the literature on gender issues in computing.
Resources for chapter activities: As the ACM-W Chapters project approaches its twentieth anniversary, examples of the many kinds of activities and events that chapters host appear in the ACM-W Chapters Facebook page, in the Chapters' website, and in applications for "Best Chapter Activity" submitted each spring for ACM's annual contest. Examples include outreach projects for local schools, Girl Scout troops, and public libraries; participation in Day of Code events; workshops for learning new technologies; study tables; hosting young alumna; visiting local industries; and offering events designed solely for entertainment and bonding.
Requirements for new ACM-W Chapters: To charter a new ACM-W Chapter, each school selects a faculty sponsor, who is an ACM member, and nine additional members (students and/or faculty members). In addition, the Chapter's chair and vice-chair must be ACM student members. The cost for student membership is nominal.
With ACM-W chapters available, women no longer need to feel isolated in computing classes ... [and] instead, when these small groups of women from individual classes come together, they form a community with critical mass.
Chapter categories: A rich array of ACM-W Chapter models exists. Besides the standard college and university model, high schools can charter Chapters. A regional Chapter model parallels the ACM Celebration concept by allowing small schools with fewer than ten ACM-W members to band together to form one Chapter, with some shared activities and separate smaller events at each school. One such regional Chapter recently split into separate Chapters as each school's membership expanded. Professional Chapters designed to nurture community among industry professionals are now also gaining traction.
Dramatic growth pattern during the last three years: Sponsors and students chartered new chapters (mostly in the United States) through the first decade of Chapters' existence. By the end of 2012, 45 Chapters flourished around the world. Coincidentally, December 2012 marked the conclusion of a rapid growth period for ACM's Celebration project with the introduction of twelve new Celebrations in three years. Celebrations are small, regionally-based conferences for women in computing, which feature student posters, technical talks, student presentations, advice from role models, keynotes, and an industry fair, among other events. From the beginning of 2013 to today, the number of chapters has almost quadrupled from 45 to 170.
The preceding information about ACM Celebrations hints at one of the reasons why Chapters now flourish. Women who attend Celebrations wish to sustain the energy and benefits that they feel from attending a Celebration. Women can maintain the sense of community that Celebrations engender by forming ACM-W Chapters on their home campuses. Over and over the project leader for ACM-W Chapters observes new Chapters springing up in the areas where Celebrations occur. The reciprocal relationship between Chapters and Celebrations is one of the unforeseen benefits for the women in computing community—an advantage that spontaneously appeared when ACM-W activated two independent projects at approximately the same time.
The growth rate for Chapters also reflects an increase in international ACM-W Chapters. In 2000, almost all of the ACM-W Chapters were located in the United States. Today there are 51 international chapters. The international span of ACM accounts for much of the growth in ACM-W Chapters outside of the United States, but again the influence of Celebrations connects with the global transition of ACM-W. India, for example, hosted several regional Celebrations and one all-India Celebration, and now there are 23 ACM-W Chapters in India.
The increase in female faculty members in computer science departments, the willingness of Celebrations' program committee members to sponsor Chapters (after witnessing the power of community building at the Celebration level), and the general consciousness of the importance of broadening participation in computing may also account for the commitment of faculty members to sponsor new ACM-W Chapters, leading to the overall growth of chapters.
Finally, the last twenty years witnessed increased partnering among organizations whose chief mission is to broaden participation in computing, leading to shared benefits. For example, NCWIT secured a large grant from Google to expand, strengthen, and network the "women in computing" community. NCWIT, in discussions with ACM-W's chair, chose ACM-W Chapters as the main infrastructure for the expanded community, which will include a national network that will connect chapters. As the project matures, ACM-W looks forward to increased capacity through awards to universities for Chapter start-up funds, support to strengthen existing Chapters, and new Chapter tools and resources.
Looking back at the years from 2000 to 2016 through the lens of ACM-W Chapters highlights the dramatic growth and maturation of an ACM-W project that broadens participation in computing. For more information on ACM-W Chapters, see Table 1.
Diversity and Inclusion Through Innovative Programming
The Anita Borg Institute has developed a number of different programs and activities that support women in computing and technology.
Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing
The Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing (GHC) was created to spotlight women's contributions in computing and technology. It has broadened its mission to provide a platform for women technologists to connect with other women in the field; to be inspired by technology, innovation and career opportunities; and to walk away with a sense of belonging and confidence in the field. Students, industry professionals, academics, and government all participate in the GHC. Convening these sectors in one conference to support the mission of retaining women in computing provides attendees an opportunity to learn together about the various aspects of the tech industry and the latest research in computing, and to network within and across sectors.
GHC has grown significantly over the years ( Figure 4) and has expanded to include programming that fosters an innovative and learning environment. This includes, for example, speed mentoring, which was introduced at GHC 2014. The speed mentoring session gave attendees (students, academics, entrepreneurs, etc.) an opportunity to gain quick insights into computing careers in industry, government, academic venues, and entrepreneurial ventures. Attendees were encouraged to ask questions about career opportunities, culture, and promotions. There were no obligations for either the mentors or attendees/mentees to follow up, but we hoped that access to tech professionals for a short period of time might make a long lasting impact for those entering or struggling or challenged in the field. Many who attend GHC are in the job market, so speed mentoring was also a helpful networking opportunity. Read the most recent GHC Impact report for more details .
The use of GHC as a site for employee recruitment has increased considerably for companies and organizations that are committed to gender inclusion and women's advancement.
ABI.Local is designed to expand ABI's mission to local cities around the world and identify prospective cities that may already have a lot of women in established tech groups and organizations.
Many students attending GHCs have landed jobs and internships on the spot, while others have learned about the wide array of jobs available, different career tracks, or spoken to engineers or technical professionals about their own work experiences and educational paths. For those attendees who want to pursue academic and research careers, GHCs include an academic presence. Students attending GHCs learn about great computing graduate programs and funding opportunities through formal programs and casual conversations with faculty and current graduate student attendees. Many of our academic sponsors are also part of the BRAID initiative (Building, Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity) . The academic community supports our goals for diversity in tech by ensuring that those obtaining advanced degrees in computing complete their degree programs and have the support of community.
Systers Grass Roots Efforts
In 1987, Dr. Borg started Systers , a network to support women in computing throughout their career. This community has grown into a global network with more than 6,400 women in computing professions from more than 65 countries. In our 29th year, we've increased our reach across the globe to places like Papua New Guinea, Mauritius, and cities in South America, Africa and Australia. Just being connected to other women in the region has an amazing impact on getting more women into computing as well as retaining them. This is especially important in remote villages with limited infrastructure where women technologists feel even more isolated and in need additional support.
Systers also recently introduced two new communities with particular focus on culture and breaking stereotypes. Systers Spain and Systers Community College were both launched in late 2015. Systers Spain was created to support women who are from Spain either living and working in Spain, or working internationally—this community communicates in Spanish and supports the efforts of women in computing. Systers Community College was created when one of attendees shared her experience at GHC as a community college student, We're Not Second Class Students . One particular quote from the article, "Closing off internships to community college students disproportionately affects students of color, lower-income students, and students who are supporting families," shows we still have work to do to break down stereotypes and support diversity. As the Anita Borg Institute  champions, "We envision a future where the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies they build it for."
ABI.LOCAL: Making Large Impact At Local Level
ABI's newest program, ABI.Local , is an important step toward broadening ABI's impact on a global scale through locally organized communities. For years, women attended GHC for three days and were inspired to continue in their field, help other women and join ABI's mission. To sustain the momentum and excitement of GHC, ABI launched ABI. Local in 2014 in New York City. This community has hosted various events to target women in the New York metropolitan area. ABI.NY leaders hosted the first-ever GHC/1, a one-day event modeled after the much larger GHC. ABI.Local is designed to expand ABI's mission to local cities around the world and identify prospective cities that may already have a lot of women in established tech groups and organizations. ABI.Local is not meant to replace these groups, but aims to add value to the work that many groups have already been doing on gender diversity.
In 2015, ABI launched an ABI.Local in each of six cities (Austin, Boston, Houston, London, Los Angeles and Washington, DC). All of these cities have unique communities of women technologists with a wide range of tech focuses. For instance, Houston community leaders wanted to showcase the innovation that happens in sectors like energy/oil and gas. The goal of ABI.HOU is to communicate the value of the Houston tech scene rather than compete with other cities with larger tech presence. This year, ABI will launch ABI. Local in six additional cities (Amsterdam, Atlanta, Nairobi, Portland, Seattle, and Tokyo). Each of these cities has a large technology presence in industry, government, and academia and there is a clear demand from women in technology in these cities for more local support. A perfect example would be the most recent ABI.NY Women Entrepreneurship & Innovation Summit.
Two additional, non-city-based ABI.Local communities have launched—ABI.Silicon Valley and ABI.Africa (the naming convention reflects the community landscape in both areas). ABI.Silicon Valley hosts a large number of our Systers' community members and tech companies and expands to include the various cities identified as part of Silicon Valley. The community in ABI.Africa wants to be identified as one Africa and not subject to the boundaries and categorization that's historically defined where women's voices have not been traditionally included. Recognizing the various cultural differences and identities from each country, ABI.Africa was created to support women from all of the countries in Africa. The first community launch in Africa will be ABI.Nairobi, but African women in computing and technology work on the mission together thus ABI.Africa lays the foundation for this type of support. And ABI is also learning from each community of technical women as it moves into a variety of markets.
Agents of Change
For years, ABI has been driving change as an advocate for gender diversity and inclusion. As ABI learns more about local communities, particularly those of underrepresented minority groups, the organization adjusts its programming to address community-specific needs and continue being innovative with program offerings. In 2015, ABI developed a department dedicated to Organization Transformation, which tackles the diversity gap within companies and helps to create a more inclusive environment through programs like Top Company Leadership Index  and Technical Executive Forum at GHC . 2020 is close and although Dr. Borg made that call to action years ago, it's clear that there is still much more work to do. ABI continues to extend its reach, customize programming to meet community needs and partner with other organizations to close the gender gap in the technology industry.
Together, NCWIT, ACM-W and ABI seek to shift the status quo to reach gender parity in computing/engineering education and in the tech industry. To do this, the organizations provide resources to empower women in technology, and to change leaders—both men and women—who work to make their organizations' structures and culture more inclusive. This includes the work that faculty do as teachers; as mentors and advisors; as leaders in their departments, colleges, and professions; and as researchers. If you are not already involved in NCWIT, ACM-W, or ABI initiatives, we encourage you to get involved with our various programs and to promote student participation. Let's make a difference together.
1. The American Freshman: National Norms (1998-2015), Cooperative Institutional Research Program; http://www.heri.ucla.edu/tfsPublications.php. Accessed 2016 September 29.
2. Anita Borg Institute; http://anitaborg.org/ Accessed 2016 October 1.
3. Anita Borg Institute, "ABI.Local," (October 2015); http://local.anitaborg.org/. Accessed 2016 May 3.
4. Anita Borg Institute, "BRAID: Building, Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity," (March 2015); http://anitaborg.org/braid-building-recruiting-and-inclusion-for-diversity/. Accessed 2016 May 3.
5. Anita Borg Institute, "GHC 2015 Impact Report," (February 2016); http://ghc.anitaborg.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/01/2015-ghc-impact-report.pdf. Accessed 2016 May 3.
6. Anita Borg Institute, "Systers," (September 2013); http://systers.org/. Accessed 2016 May 3.
7. Anita Borg Institute, "Technical Executive Forum at GHC," (October 2015); http://ghc.anitaborg.org/technical-executive-forum/. Accessed 2016 May 6.
8. Anita Borg Institute, "Top Company Leadership Index," (September 2015); http://anitaborg.org/awards-grants/top-companies-for-women-technologists/. Accessed 2016 May 6.
9. Boese, E. "Using Programming to Analyze Real Human DNA files," In EngageCSEdu (2016); https://www.engage-csedu.org/find-resources/using-programming-analyze-real-human-dna-files. Accessed 2016 June 2.
10. EngageCSEdu; https://www.engage-csedu.org/. Accessed 2016 June 2.
11. EngageCSEdu, "EngageCSEdu Engagement Practices Framework;" https://www.engage-csedu.org/engagement/make-it-matter. Accessed 2016 June 2.
12. Kussmaul, C. "Searching in Hi-Lo - CS1 First Day on Algorithm Design & Analysis," In EngageCSEdu (2016); https://www.engage-csedu.org/find-resources/searching-hi-lo-cs1-first-day-algorithm-design-analysis. Accessed 2016 June 2.
13. National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System; http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/. Accessed 2016 May 2.
14. National Center for Women & Information Technology, "By the Numbers;" www.ncwit.org/bythenumbers. Accessed 2016 August 3.
15. National Center for Women & Information Technology, "Computing: Get the Most Out of Your College Degree;" www.ncwit.org/csqualityoflife. Accessed 2016 August 3.
16. National Center for Women & Information Technology, "How Can Encouragement Increase Persistence in Computing?"; www.ncwit.org/academicencouragement. Accessed 2016 June 2.
17. National Center for Women & Information Technology, "How Do You Retain Women through Collaborative Learning?"; www.ncwit.org/pltl. Accessed 2016 June 2.
18. National Center for Women & Information Technology, "NCWIT Tips: 8 Ways to Give Students More Effective Feedback Using a Growth Mindset;" www.ncwit.org/feedbackstudent. Accessed 2016 June 2.
19. National Center for Women & Information Technology, "Talk with Faculty Colleagues About Stereotype Threat;" https://www.ncwit.org/resources/talk-faculty-colleagues-about-stereotype-threat/talk-faculty-colleagues-about-stereotype. Accessed 2016 June 2.
20. Sweet, K. "We're Not Second Class Students." (December 2015); https://medium.com/perspectives-from-abi/guest-post-community-college-we-re-not-second-class-students-798f9eeeba48#.x1dgfwyvi. Accessed 2016 May 6.
Wendy M. DuBow
National Center for Women & IT
University of Colorado at Boulder, CB 417
Boulder, CO 80309
Beth A. Quinn
National Center for Women & IT
University of Colorado at Boulder, CB 417
Boulder, CO 80309
Gloria Childress Townsend
602 S. College Ave., Greencastle, IN 46135
1501 Page Mill Road
Anita Borg Institute, Palo Alto, CA 94304
807 Union Street, Schenectady, NY 12308
©2016 ACM 2153-2184/16/12 $15.00
Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and full citation on the first page. Copyright for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or fee.
The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.Contents available in PDF
View Full Citation and Bibliometrics in the ACM DL.
To comment you must create or log in with your ACM account.