Despite rapidly growing interest in Computer Science (CS), CS has the second lowest participation rate for women of all science and engineering degrees, according to a recent report by the US National Science Board . The reasons for women's underrepresentation and their experiences may differ from university to university. Universities are very different in terms of types of students, student profiles, students' socio-economic status, race, number of students, admission requirements, and resources. For example, some universities can create gender balance in introductory courses through selective admission. However, typically, admission practices in large public universities are not able to achieve gender balance for CS majors. As a result, there are lower percentages of women in the CS major in large public universities than in selective schools. In addition, large public universities tend to have a larger number of CS students when compared to private universities. To understand women students' experiences and struggles in computer science at a large public university in the United States and to find ways to intervene in favor of gender equity in computer science, we conducted in-depth interviews with women students in introductory programming courses. In this article, we present women students' experiences, struggles, expectations and offer potential interventions based on the findings to encourage women to consider CS as their major and stay in the CS major. Our interview data shows there is a persistent effect of lack of prior programming experience and gender bias that leads to a negative experience for women students in introductory CS courses. This article presents the challenges faced by women in CS and provides their recommendations for attracting and retaining women students in CS at large public universities.
Computer Science (CS) has an impact on society that goes beyond the disciplinary boundaries we see in higher education and therefore the field benefits from a rich and diverse community of CS professionals working together. Women, along with other minority groups, continue to be marginalized in CS education and computing careers [7,21,23]. In this article we focus on the issues in attracting and retaining women, while recognizing that addressing these issues will have a positive impact on inclusivity for students with other identities. According to a recent National Center for Education Statistics report, 21% of computer science bachelor's degree recipients were women . For years, researchers and practitioners have worked to increase the representation of women in CS. Many publications point to the factors that contribute to women expressing a lack of interest in CS or to women losing interest in CS: an unattractive/hostile culture, misperceptions of the discipline, lack of role models and/or mentoring support, and lack of experience and confidence [5,7,11,17,21,22]. Other studies suggest that women are discouraged from the field by the stereotype of computer science as boring and asocial, the irrelevance of material to non-majors, and an intimidating, uninviting culture [6,7]. These issues are well known. However, the reasons that lead to the underrepresentation of women and the experiences of being a woman in CS differ at each university. The types of students, student profiles, socioeconomic level, race, enrollment, admission standards, resources, and other factors vary from university to university. Public universities differ from private universities and liberal arts colleges in selecting students for admission, students' socioeconomic status, diversity, cost, financial support, available funds, etc. [26,27]. Scott et al. showed that public schools show higher returns to most of their resources and with equivalent resources and student populations, public schools would graduate a slightly larger percentage of students than private institutions . Additionally, larger institutions have more students with bigger class sizes. Increasing the critical mass of women was found to increase women's persistence in the computer science major [11,21]. Thus, public universities with a large and diverse student body can play a critical role in increasing diversity in CS majors by attracting more women and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds because public universities are less expensive.
Understanding what attracts women to computing majors in a large public university like ours can aid the development of recruitment and retention strategies. Understanding the struggles of women students in CS at large universities can help devise interventions to improve the learning environment and the culture. In this article, we present the findings from interviews with women students to learn about the experience of undergraduate women in CS and their perception of the CS1 course at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a national large public university in the United States with over 2600 undergraduate CS major students. For the last ten years, even though the number of students in CS has been increasing rapidly, the percentage of women remains the same (approximately 16%) among undergraduate students (Figures 1 and 2). We conducted in-depth interviews with women students in introductory programming courses to better understand their experience in computer science to find ways for our university to intervene at the undergraduate level in favor of gender equity in computer science. Our findings include specific and personal motivations and experiences of women students in a large CS program, along with their expectations and suggestions for improving their experience in CS. We present recommendations based on their comments for creating a gender balanced and inclusive CS community at our university based on the students' perspectives. Our recommendations and interventions are relevant for other large public universities.
• Differences Between Public vs Private Universities
Public universities are different from private universities and liberal arts colleges in selecting students for admission, students' socio-economic status, diversity, cost, financial support, available funds etc. [26,27]. Women were shown to persist in computer science majors more often when there was a larger percentage of female students [11,21,24]. Public colleges played a major role in providing opportunities to people from less economically advantaged backgrounds, with tax revenues offsetting tuition costs. Scott et al. showed that much of the gap between the average graduation rates of public and private institutions can be explained by the different characteristics of their students . They also showed that at the margin, the public institutions do at least as good a job with their population of students than the privates would if they were to enroll a similar student body. Another key finding of their work is that at the margin, public schools show higher returns to most of their resources. This finding reflects well on public institutions: were public schools to have increased resources, more academically prepared students, and a more traditional student body, the models suggest that the graduation rates at public institutions would be slightly higher than at the private institutions, all else being equal . Tuition prices continued to have a significant negative effect on persistence. The amount of debt carried by private college students and their families has a significant and negative impact on within-year persistence . Also, private college students are more sensitive to the effects of debt load than public college students . Public universities are more demographically diverse due to the lower cost of tuition . Given the size of CS programs, addressing the experiences and struggles of women students in public universities can have a major impact on diversity in the CS field.
• Women Underrepresentation in CS
The stereotypes about CS students are unflattering. They are perceived to be intelligent but deficient in interpersonal skills [4,5,6]. Previous work has found that these stereotypes can cause adversity in women's computer science experiences [1,3,10,13,14,25] and play a role in women's decisions to leave the CS major . These perceptions of CS majors conflict more with the gender roles of females than of males, because women have a stronger interpersonal orientation than men [11,23]. Along with this, women want to use computers in real world applications that will benefit people; they tend to be less interested in computing for their own benefit . Studies have found that women perceive the intellectual characteristics of individuals in CS more stereotype-consistent than do men, and women also perceive themselves as less similar to these stereotypes than men do . Moreover, research has revealed that many women lack a sense of belonging in computer science . Not surprisingly, women tend to be more strongly affected by performance and have less confidence than men and this influences their decision to continue with a CS major . In Unlocking the Clubhouse , Margolis and Fisher provide a number of recommendations for making computing curricula more widely accessible:
- paying close attention to the quality of the student experiences;
- accommodating a wide range of computing experiences among incoming students;
- creating a curriculum that reflects the many sides and impacts of computing; and
- establishing structures for under-represented students to come together for support.
While these findings and recommendations are not new, there is no universal solution for all universities. In this article, we consider and adapt the recommendations of Margolis and Fisher with a focus on the experience and the struggles of women students in large classes at a public university.
We designed a semi-structured interview study to collect in-depth qualitative data from women students in introductory CS courses in Fall 2021 and Spring 2022. We collected basic demographic data and organized our questions into categories based on previous research: reasons for taking the course and considering CS as a major, perceptions of our CS1 course content, experiences, and expectations in the CS1 course, classroom climate, gender discrimination, programming, support system, and connections in the CS community.
The distribution of participants is shown in Table 1. We interviewed 18 students: The participants were all women and over the age of 18. Eleven of the 18 participants had no prior programming experience. Four of the 11 students with no prior experience were CS majors, while seven were from other degree programs (Table 1).
• About Our CS1 Course
Our CS1 course, Introduction to Computer Science, is an introduction to Java programming and it is the first required course in the CS major. We teach multiple sections of the course, in a lecture/lab format. In Fall 2021 and Spring 2022, we taught nine sections of the course for over 650 students. The faculty teaching these sections meet regularly to synchronize content and learning materials. The faculty are encouraged to teach using a flipped classroom structure as an active learning pedagogy. For each learning module, students receive preparation materials and homework assignments. During the "lecture" periods, instructors give a short lecture and interact with the students while they do quizzes, exercises, and assignments. This course has a lab component where students work on small programming tasks with a partner. Instructors interpret the flipped classroom pedagogy based on their own experiences, resulting in some differences in course delivery.
Analysis and Results
We performed a thematic analysis on the qualitative data from the interviews. First, we familiarized ourselves with the transcribed interview data and then coded it using an inductive coding technique, per Clarke et al.  six-phase structure for thematic analysis. We generated initial codes to identify and provide a label for a feature of the data that is relevant to the goals of the study. The coding phase was an iterative process that continued until the coder was satisfied with the final codes as representative of the relationship between the data and the goals of the study. In the next phase, we reviewed the coded data to identify themes as broad topics or issues around which codes cluster. We then defined and named each theme to clearly state what is unique and specific about each theme. In the last phase of the analysis, we organized the themes under overarching themes that consist of multiple sub-themes around the same broader topic. These overarching themes are described below.
Motivation and Experience of Women Students in CS: This overarching theme consists of four sub-themes derived from the interviews.
- "For me it was job security" - Reasons why women choose CS as their major: Participants shared that multiple factors influenced their decision to choose CS as their major or consider CS as their major (participants who were undecided about choosing a major or switching their majors). Most participants in the interviews said job prospects in the CS field (N=8) and family influence and support (N=8) as the reasons for choosing CS as their major. Regarding the motivation to choose CS as her major, P6 said, "There are so many jobs you can do in the tech industry in general, but especially with programming." On the same note, P11 said, "For me, it was more about job security." Forty-one percent of the undergraduate students at UNC Charlotte receive Pell grants which indicates that nearly half of the students come from a lower socio-economic background and that might be a reason students choose CS as their major for job prospects. Regarding family influence, P2 said, "My major motivation would probably be my mother. She is actually a data analyst." Early exposure to computing in middle/ high school (N=6) and interest in programming (N=6) were also reported frequently by the participants as the reason to consider CS as their major. In this context, P14 said, "I always really enjoyed coding and computer science in high school." In the same context, P12 said, "It probably started when I was in elementary school. … So I was like, computers are interesting. I might go into that when I go to college." Among other factors, remote workability (N=3) and social impact through computing (N=2) were mentioned. Regarding remote workability, P6 said, "So I feel like just productivity from home would be really awesome. You can get a remote job pretty easily there (CS field)."
- "Male TAs are condescending" - Gender bias and stereotypes among undergraduate CS students: None of the participants experienced direct gender discrimination or bias in the classroom (from the faculty). However, three students (one student decided to change her major away from CS) mentioned that male TAs are condescending and harsh. P11 said regarding this, "The TA doesn't really help either. He thinks that you should know it and he kind of gives you an attitude about it." P9 offered that "The TA is like, what do you need? You don't know how to do this? And it just came off as really condescending." Most students (N=13) use online resources when they need help and don't go to the TAs when they need help. Among the other five participants who go to the TAs for assistance, two participants mentioned that they only go to the female TAs. For example, P9 said, "First, I ask my peers and if they don't know, then I ask the TAs, I usually email one TA… She is the only woman who is one of the TAs and the other two are guys." Four students said they are intimidated by male students/so many guys in the classroom. According to P14, "When we do group work, it'll be a group of all men, even if they're not doing anything wrong, I still feel kind of intimidated by that." P18 said, "I feel good, but I am nervous about it. It is a male-dominated program right now." Six students mentioned that CS majors, especially guys, are nerdy/less social. P5 stated, "I think we [CS] have more anti-social people than other majors." On the same note, P13 said, "I don't wanna be rude, but they're all kinda nerdy and kind of science geeks. … It's a little more isolating." Many participants also mentioned how men and women students do not mix very well. Regarding this, P9 said, "I notice that some of the groups are only guys all together. Some of the groups are mostly guys and then few girls and I notice like the girls would be sectioned off. Like my group is sectioned off and guys sit up here, and the girls are like all the way back there. I noticed that the same thing with the other groups, girls sitting in the front and guys sitting in the back."
We reviewed the coded data to identify themes as broad topics or issues around which codes cluster. We then defined and named each theme to clearly state what is unique and specific about each theme. In the last phase of the analysis, we organized the themes under overarching themes that consist of multiple sub-themes around the same broader topic.
- "Instructors encourage students with prior programming knowledge" - Prior programming experience influences CS1 experience: The interviews indicate a difference between the CS1 experience of students with previous programming experience and those without previous programming experience. Students with previous experience are more confident regarding the assignments and contents taught in the classroom. Most students without previous experience and non-majors (N=8) think that CS1 is designed for students with previous programming experience. Instructors encourage students who already know about programming and engage in conversations with them in the classroom. This behavior is also introduced in by Margolis  in the book Stuck in the Shallow End. These incidents led the other students without any prior programming experience to think of this course as an advanced course, not an introductory course, as it claims. In this context, P15 explained, "It was very often where male students would engage in very closeted conversations with the professor and the professor would entertain them for a long time. And it would kind of feel like you don't understand when all the guys in the class do understand, so it could be something like they could be talking about a very advanced subject and while the rest of us are very obviously beginners." Some students reported an imbalance in the class in terms of prior programming experience, as many students have prior experience with programming and others do not. Furthermore, there is no measure to approach the needs of two different types of students in the class. P17 said, "I do recognize that there are some students that are at that more experienced level, that it seems a little strange that they are in this introductory class, but then there's also some that you can tell they've never seen any computer language class at all. So, it's interesting to me to see that this intro class has such a range of skills and experiences." Regarding the same context, P4 mentioned that the number of students without any prior programming experience consists of half of the total number of students in the class.
- "Many People don't even know what Computer Science is" - It is hard to know what CS is about: Some students (N=4) mentioned that it is hard to discover and understand the opportunities in computing in a large university. Many students who have not yet decided on a major don't know what computer science is about and therefore lack critical information when assessing opportunities and whether to consider it as their major. In this context, P18 said, "I think explaining what computer science is would be helpful, because I feel like a lot of people don't even know what it is, or they don't know the opportunities that can come from it or like what you can do with it. A lot of my friends don't even know what that major is about." P1 mentioned that many undecided students do not know about computer science and there should be ways to introduce them to CS. Some students also mentioned that advisors sometimes ask students to consider easier majors. They mentioned that advisors should help students to discover and consider CS as their major. In this context, P15 said, "Because I've had two different advisors and I mean, not that it's their fault. … But I always felt like they were encouraging me to take whatever the easiest route was and computer science, obviously nobody viewed it as the easiest route." Discovering majors that students are not familiar with might be difficult in a large university with a lot of majors.
Students' Expectations from CS1 Course: This overarching theme consists of sub-themes regarding student expectations from the CS1 course. In the following sections, we describe the themes.
- Make the CS1 course for novices: Additionally, students mentioned (N=6) that the course should be an entry-level course without requiring any previous experience and it should teach students about the background of CS, and different tracks in CS before jumping into programming. Regarding this, P16 said, "I feel like it could be more basic really. Like I, and I'm pretty sure this is like an introductory level thing. It feels like we skipped the intro we jump right in." Participants emphasized making CS1 more like an introduction to computer science rather than an introduction to java programming. P2 said, "Students thought the course is the general basis of whole computer science and what it is, what things that you can do, what jobs you can find within it and sort of like the intro, not a certain language that you just picked." In the same regard, P15 said, "There wasn't background and context. They just jumped directly into programming, like turtle coding." Additionally, participants suggested the importance of presenting the course as an entry level course so that more women students will be confident and less scared to take CS1. In this regard, P14 suggested to make it clear that CS1 is an entry level course and said, "So I think if it was just made clearer that an entry level course is still an entry level course, and that you don't have to have been on like the robotics team In high school, … more women will be willing to do it." Participants (N=4) emphasized improving the description of the course on the catalog. P14 said, "I think if it was just made clearer that an entry level course is still an entry level course, and that you do"t have to have been on the robotics team in high school and taking multiple courses and got into coding competitions, more women will be willing to do it."
- Class sections based on prior programming experience: Participants (N=7) mentioned that class sections based on previous experience would help them feel more comfortable and gain a sense of belonging. In this context, P18 said, "I think if we had a, maybe like a better way to figure out, like maybe a placement test, I'm not sure if that's possible, but a way to make it to where like the people who already know Java don't have to do the intro class. I'm not sure if that's already a thing or not, but, and then also it would kind of help to like, make it so that the people who don't know don't feel like they should know if that makes sense." Regarding the distribution of students with and without prior programming language and to emphasize the importance of separate sections, P9 said, "I feel like there's the equal amount of students who have background knowledge and the equal amount of students who don't have any background knowledge like myself."
- More in-class hands-on exercises: Students (N=7) want more in-class hands-on exercises, activities, and discussion on hard topics. Students think that lectures might not be the best choice for CS1. P14 indicated that active learning is the best choice for CS1 by stating, "It is very difficult to learn through lectures. Even though the professor is very good…I just think that is a pretty hard way to learn." Regarding more hands-on exercises in the class, P8 said, "I think in class it would be nice if we could have practice coding in the class itself and not just in the lab." Another participant, P10, emphasized the usefulness of discussing the preparation materials in the class and said, "If we just lightly discussed what we learned about just having just a quick conversation to make sure everyone understood what we just learned to spend a couple, like spend some good quality time just doing the prep work." Among other expectations and suggestions were more time spent on discussion, demos on prep works and exercises that are not in the book or prep materials, relevant and contextual assignments and smaller class size.
- Increase collaboration and interaction among peers: We found that 10 out of 18 students did not make any friends in the class. There was relatively little collaboration and interaction in the online classroom. Participants mentioned the lack of collaboration and interaction among the peers during online classes for the COVID pandemic. P16 said, "No one really talks to each other. I don't even see groups, friends talking to each other, there's literally no one speaking. Maybe they do it outside of class, but not inside the classroom. Like it it's dead silent." Six students mentioned that increasing collaboration and interaction among peers in the classroom will be helpful. P9 said, "I think I would prefer more collaboration just because I've been watching videos." Additionally, P12 said, "I think there should be groups who can discuss, like, there should be a period where people can get together and discuss what they've learned during that class or help each other with coding or program such things like that." While it is challenging to create student to student interaction in online classes, it should be a priority for CS introductory courses.
Based on our interview findings and themes, we are working on specific recommendations or interventions suitable for our institution and possibly other large public universities.
Students Suggestions to bring more women in CS: This overarching theme consists of sub-themes regarding student suggestions to attract more women in CS.
- Introduce women only groups and clubs: We asked the participants about their suggestions to bring more women in CS. The most frequent (N=8) suggestion was introducing more groups/clubs for women students in CS and increasing discoverability of these groups/clubs. In this context, P6 said, "And I really like female groups where you're talking about this field. And I feel like it attracts women when it's just women and they're talking about this thing. So if there were more groups that were female focused, and if more girls knew about them, then I think they would join them." P13 said, "Maybe there could be more clubs … campus interest meetings for like women in stem computer science and basically show the top prospects of computer science." While our university does have women only student organizations, this is not being communicated well to the students in the introductory courses.
- Introduce programming to middle/high school students: Many of our students come from low-income neighborhoods with schools that do not have the resources to teach CS AP courses. Participants (N=5) mentioned the need for introducing programming and computing to middle or high school students/ sending CS students to high schools/middle schools for more exposure. P8 said, "I feel like visiting students of that age, like having presentations at local high schools will definitely give students an opportunity to sort of dip their toes in the water and figure out what it's like. And even having a summer program for high schoolers to come to the college and experience the department could be a great way." P11 said, "If college students want to go to high school or like to do programs or do something like information on, Hey, this is what CSI is all about. It would be helpful."
- Seminars, workshops, and demos about CS for more exposure: Four participants mentioned that more seminars, workshops, and demos about CS are needed to expose women to CS. P16 said, "It would be smart to have a girl like seminar or something during the summer where there is a career fair. So, it's females in those careers kind of introducing what they've experienced. I feel like a big help with the women hearing from other women in the career rather than like women getting taught by men over and over again from a male perspective." P9 said, "We went to a workshop together and my friends came. And they're not majoring in computer science, but all of them really liked the workshop because they thought it was fun."
Based on our interview findings and themes, we are working on specific recommendations or interventions, presented here, suitable for our institution and possibly other large public universities.
1. REDESIGNING THE INTRO SEQUENCE:
According to our findings, there is a difference in the experience of students with prior programming skills and those without. Students with previous programming experience are more comfortable learning java programming. However, students without any programming experience tend to struggle with learning and understanding java. P12 said, "I don't think the experience of students with experience and without experience in the class is the same." This quote supports that the current design of CS1 is well designed for students with experience and there is a need for a course ultimately designed for students with no experience, as diving into the technical part of computing in the very beginning can be intimidating. We are redesigning the intro sequence to address the struggles of students by making the CS1 course for students that do not have programming experience. Currently, the CS1 course is designed to introduce Java rather than introduce Computer Science. We plan to change the learning objectives of the CS1 course to include an understanding of computer science as well as programming knowledge and experience. We plan to increase the time spent on contextual and relevant hands-on exercises. We will prioritize interaction and collaboration among peers to build a strong community using in-person flipped classrooms. Flipped classroom pedagogy has been shown to improve the retention of women and provide a positive learning experience in CS introductory courses [18,19]. Students with strong prior programming experience and skill will be able to directly enroll for CS2, where students learn advanced topics of Java programming. This plan aligns with similar practices in private universities to broaden women participation by creating sections based on prior programming experience .
2. CHANGE THE CULTURE:
Improving the culture in the CS community is essential to bring more women into the major. We are improving the culture in the College of Computing and Informatics at our university by introducing new practices that will help to make a more diverse and inclusive environment. The new practices that we plan to administer can be used as recommendations for other large universities.
- Faculty Development: We are continuing to develop several strategies for Faculty Development to support a more inclusive experience for women students along with students with no prior programming experience in our CS major. This includes extending the influence of our Canvas courses for continuous online faculty development, support, and training; running inclusive teaching workshops; establishing an award for inclusive teaching; maintaining community of practice guidelines for faculty teaching the same course in different sections; and encouraging faculty to participate in professional development related to equitable teaching practices.
- TA Appointment Policy: We are deploying a new TA appointment policy that includes recruiting, interviewing, training, and evaluating TAs. We are currently working on developing the TA policies to recruit and train TAs specifically to create a gender bias free community. We will train the TAs to be empathetic, patient, helpful and responsible to help all the students regardless of their programming knowledge, gender and any other demographics. We also plan to focus on creating a diverse and gender balanced TA community for the introductory programming courses.
- Introducing more women only clubs: The interview data shows that most women students think that women-only clubs are effective tools to bring more women and prevent women students from leaving CS. Women only clubs can effectively build a strong network among women students in CS where they can support each other, work as mentors to others, share each other's struggles, etc. For example, P3 said, "Women only clubs can be really useful to find other women students who are in the same boat, for example, students who do not have any computing experience. It will also help make friends." While we currently have such clubs, we are planning to make these clubs more visible to students in CS1 and to introduce more women only clubs for students in CS.
3. MAKE IT EASY TO DISCOVER COMPUTING
Another strategy for recruiting more women is to make CS major easy to discover and understand. The literature says, half the women students that end up majoring in computer science had no idea they would be interested until they learned more about the field . By advertising, advising, and introducing the CS majors and courses, new and undeclared major students will be familiar with the nature of Computer Science. Our interview study revealed that women students are discouraged from taking CS as their major because of the stereotypical perception of CS by family, friends, teachers, and even faculty advisors as it is introduced to them as too difficult or designed for men. Many women students have the wrong mental model about CS and never even consider CS as their potential major. We can improve the stereotypical mental models by organizing free workshops and seminars and bringing women role models for young students. Also, encouraging the advisors to show the students different options they would like and not focus on an easy major. A focus on inclusivity and a gender-balanced community is more conducive to attracting and retaining women students.
To increase the representation of women in CS, universities should understand target-specific student experiences to identify issues and struggles of women students. Based on the student experience, interventions can be developed that are suitable for the particular type of the university. Universities have differences based on student demography, class size, cost of tuition and fees, class size, and other factors. Therefore, not every intervention will work for every university. This article presents the results of an interview study with women students in CS1 at a large public university to understand their experience and struggles in order to broaden women student participation in CS. The findings from the interviews include student experiences, struggles, expectations, and suggestions. The most frequent student suggestions are creating sections based on programming experience, introducing women clubs/workshops, and ensuring that CS1 is an entry-level course, including an introduction to the field of computer science. The findings from the study will be helpful for other large public universities that want to increase the percentage of women in their CS community. Our findings and recommendations can be used as initial guidelines for creating a gender-balanced CS student population and an inclusive and diverse CS community.
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University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd, Charlotte, NC 28223
Mary Lou Maher
University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd, Charlotte, NC 28223
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