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2014-01-14

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Nivedita Karki: Michigan M(an)Hacks

By Nivedita Karki, Columnist
Published January 13, 2014

MHacks, the biennial hackathon on campus, is an event where programmers and engineers intensively collaborate on software or hardware projects. Although the event attracted more than 1,200 students from more than 100 schools in its fall 2013 edition, the participants were almost completely male.

Hackathons are the most awaited and attended collegiate computer science events, and the gender imbalance is almost reflective of the demographics of the tech industry as a whole.

From a cool 37.1 percent in 1984, to less than 12 percent in 2011, the proportion of Computer Science bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in the United States has taken a nose dive. What shocked me was that things aren’t different here on campus. U of M is Ranked No. 7 in the Computer Science and Computer Science Engineering track in America. Yet, word is that you can count the number of female students in middle-level to upper-level Electrical Engineering and Computer Science classes on your fingers.

Since most of the students in computer science are male, male students are able to form a tight community of friends much faster. Outside of the classroom, they end up spending most of their time with each other, and some even decide to live together after leaving the dorms. For them, collaboration begins early on. Interactions don’t stop at classrooms and living spaces; they interact with like-minded peers — and potential colleagues — at hackathons, internships and even tech startups — all of which are male-dominated. They’re constantly networking, even unintentionally. Knowing the kind of people they’re going to work with makes it easier for them to find their place in the industry.

Why is the gender ratio dramatically skewed in the tech industry? Is it merely a matter of interest? Are men just naturally more skilled at coding? History suggests otherwise; in fact, in the mid-1980s the number of women majoring in CS and CSE was increasing.

Those days are gone, and women like Grace Hopper remain underappreciated. Now we hardly ever see female figures in computer science.

There’s the projected stereotype of a Computer Science major being a “gamer,” “geek” or “nerd.” Sadly, mainstream media doesn’t portray any of these as females.

The more pressing issue, however, is the lack of mentorship and role models available to female students.

According to a 2012 report on the Institutional Indicators of Diversity for faculty at the University of Michigan — referred to as the AY2012 report — 23 percent of all Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics faculty at the University were female. For Engineering, the figure stands at 16 percent. The dynamics are even more skewed at the highest rank for full professors in STEM, where only 17 percent were females.

Although I, too, can walk up to professors with questions regarding course selections, where to apply for internships, etc., my male counterparts usually have more people they can easily approach. I know that’s not a good excuse, but seeing someone similar to you makes them more approachable; it’s easier to have conversations with them. With so few female instructors in the introductory courses, female CS majors are deemed as different right from the beginning of their college careers. As a college campus with an amazing reputation for computer science, the University should have a more inclusive and diverse faculty.

There are definitely efforts being made by female students to make CS and CSE more inviting for undergraduate females. Student organizations such as Girls in EECS, Women in Science and Engineering and Society of Women Engineers, manage to receive funding and regularly hold events for students to interact with each other, as well as with potential employers. However, for whatever reasons, participation remains extremely low and their efforts largely remain unheard of.

Male students, on the other hand, can’t comprehend what stops women from being an active presence in the tech community on campus. When I attended one of the core meetings of Michigan Hackers at the start of fall 2013, I was the only female. “Yeah, right now we’re pretty much a boys club. I don’t understand why can’t girls just join Michigan Hackers,” said one of the social chairs of the organization when I asked what he thought of the gender dynamics in the room. When I inquired if they had made any efforts to contact gEECS or WISE, he said the team hadn’t thought of that. “I just focus on promotion of tech talks and other events that we host.” Michigan Hackers, along with MPowered, organizes MHacks.

For CSE junior Natasja Nielsen, an active member of MPowered Entrepreneurship, it has always been about taking action. “Being a woman in CS isn’t easy, but eventually you’ve got to ignore the sexist side of it and toughen up. There is no difference between female and male hackers, and that is why I decided not to join any gender-specific tech student orgs. I think it is necessary for every student to develop their own support system, and having both male and female friends in and outside of my major has helped me a lot.”

CS sophomore Anna Rode said it’s necessary for girls in CS classes to be able to regularly interact with their male counterparts. “Personally, it has always been easier for me to be friends with guys, so the gender imbalance didn’t personally bother me much. But if you want to be able to comfortably work in the tech industry, you have got to find those people who will be supportive and cut out those who treat you different.”

Both Neilson and Rode think that it is extremely important for girls to find support among male students, since they form the majority of their peers. However, the CS student organizations almost mirror the situation in classrooms — as if there is an almost invisible line separating girls from the good old boys club.

Not surprisingly, the decline in the numbers start right from high school. According to the College Board in 2013, a total of 5,485 girls and 24,070 boys took the AP Computer Science exams. Colleges need to encourage participation of females in tech-related concentrations. Ever since Carnegie Mellon University started hosting programs to bridge this gender gap in 1995, the number of female CS undergraduates rose from 7 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2004. These programs included reaching out to high school students and efforts towards changing the peer culture on campus.

Andrew DeOrio, a Computer Science Engineering professor said he wants all his students to feel supported. “Regardless of what social, cultural, or gender demographic a student fits in, they should feel supported, and I would definitely encourage any endeavor to make CS classrooms on campus more diverse.”

But the question remains: Who should be taking action? Should students take the initiative first, and work on programs like those at Carnegie Mellon themselves? Or is the administration responsible?

Right now, it almost seems as if the administration is blatantly ignoring this gender disparity. Even if they were making efforts, they aren’t doing a good job of making them known. It is essential that incoming freshman females be supported; acknowledgement by the administration shows that they are willing to put in work to bridge this gender gap.

I have only mentioned figures and opinions concerning the gender binary. Diversity as a whole in computer science is a story for another time. With the dependence on technology increasing by the hour and its influence on culture exponentially rising, dictation of terms in the tech industry by a single, like-minded majority isn’t, to say the least, fair. As MHacks looks to its winter 2014 iteration this weekend, it’s time the University administration and student body started making efforts to live up to their reputation in the tech community.

Nivedita Karki can be reached at nivkarki@umich.edu.


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