Study finds gender balance among computer science IAs despite unbalanced gender ratios in classes

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 - 12:28pm

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that women filled 56 percent of IA spots in EECS courses.

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that women filled 56 percent of IA spots in EECS courses. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

As a computer science major, LSA junior Armind Chahal often finds herself one of the only women in her upper-level CS courses. Chahal said though the uneven gender ratio in CS classes is significant, it is so commonplace that she has come to expect it and is usually able to ignore it.

“I went to a discussion, and there were 30 people in the class, and about four or five of us were women,” Chahal said. “I think it’s definitely noticeable once you get into the core classes for CS and even more noticeable once you get to the electives. You kind of just get used to it, I think, and it kind of seems like people get sick of hearing about it so you really just stop bringing it up after a certain point. You just ignore it and move on. That’s how I’ve coped with it.”

Currently, Chahal is taking Electrical Engineering and Computer Science 376, an upper level course introducing students to the theory of computation. Though her professor and most of her peers are male, she noted how having a female instructional aide reminds her of the importance of equal gender representation in fields like computer science. In EECS courses, IAs are the equivalent of undergraduate teaching assistants who aid students in course material and lead lab sections.

“I think it’s very important that there is that even balance because even though you don’t have an even balance of women and men, the people who are in those power positions should be a balance,” Chahal said. “I think that will get more people to either stay in the program or start the program.”

Last month, a study published by three University of Michigan professors found the group of instructional aides for computer science classes at the University is nearly equally split between men and women, even though EECS 280, an introductory course for CS majors, is only 25 percent female.

Similarly, a report by the College of Engineering showed that across bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs at the University, women comprised less than 30 percent of degree recipients in the 2016-2017 school year.

However, the professors’ study also shows that even though the applicant pool for IA positions averaged about 16.5 percent female, women tended to score about nine percent higher than men. As a result, women filled 56 percent of the IA spots.

According to James Juett, an author of the study and EECS lecturer, the professors did not take gender into account when hiring IAs for EECS courses. Juett said the department’s focus on alternative methods of evaluation, like interviews and video teaching demonstrations, was one factor that led to a more gender-balanced class of IAs.

“We found that the staff that we hired were much more balanced in terms of gender than if we had hired based on GPA or previous grades the student earned in the course,” Juett said. “If you hire based on those metrics, then you end up with a gender balance on your staff which is pretty much exactly the same as the balance in the overall student population. So through a process that is not just based on numbers on paper but is based on people actually coming in for in-person interviews, submitting teaching demonstrations, et cetera, this leads to a more gender diverse staff.”

Amir Kamil, chief author of the study and EECS lecturer, said seeing diversity and representation in his classes as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley made him feel more confident about pursuing computer science. He said although the University of Michigan professors involved in the hiring process did not intentionally create a cohort that was diverse in terms of race and gender, they naturally achieved a gender balance that may be beneficial for students who are wary of entering the field.

In the past few years, the University has taken steps to recruit more women to computer science in an effort to diversify the population of CS majors. In 2016, a team of doctoral students founded CS KickStart to introduce incoming freshman women to basic principles of CS. Beginning in fall 2018, the CS Department also ran a one-credit course, EECS 198: Discover Computer Science, aimed at freshman women with no formal experience in programming. Even with these programs, women remain a minority in almost all CS classes.

Nonetheless, Engineering senior Amy Baer, an instructional aide for EECS 183, said she rarely experiences sexism or issues with professors or students in her classes at the University. Instead, Baer said there is a general sense of fear and intimidation that goes along with majoring in a field that is male-dominated.

“The intimidation factor of women moving on is a huge part of it, when women are so aware that they’re among the minority and are thinking, ‘Oh, I’m abnormal, I’m not supposed to be here,’ makes them not want to continue,” Baer said. “It’s a circular reasoning type of thing, where there are not a lot of women in computer science so some of the women joining computer science see that, and then not join computer science. I think that’s the biggest problem, it’s intimidation and not seeing that there are other women.”

Similarly, Engineering sophomore Bella Gribov noted how imposter syndrome, or the feeling that you have not fully earned your success, is common among women in CS and is something she occasionally struggles with as a woman and a CS major. Gribov said the professors and IAs in lower level CS classes discuss imposter syndrome in some of their first lectures to reassure students that they can succeed.

“I think that a lot of the time, I would think I wasn’t good enough because I’m a girl and I didn’t see a lot of girls around me, and not because of things other people said or did,” Gribov said. “... A lot of girls do drop out of the major just because they feel like, ‘There aren’t a lot of girls around me, this isn’t for me,’ when that’s not true.”

Juett acknowledged that his study did not explicitly address why women performed better in the application process. However, Juett said it is possible there was some degree of self-selection among applicants, meaning only the most qualified women in CS sent in applications for IA positions.

“We know that women tend to experience some barriers in computer science because of the culture that men don’t,” Juett said. “Studies have found that that can lead to lower confidence. One possible explanation is that the women who applied were those that were exceptionally qualified. That’s both encouraging, because we do have several qualified women candidates, and it’s also discouraging because if that’s the explanation, then it means that there are people who aren’t applying who should be applying.”

Baer, who has some say in the application process due to her position as an IA, said the study revealed how women are equally qualified to occupy IA positions even though they remain a minority in CS classes at the University.

“We can hire an equal amount of men and women and hire the best people still,” Baer said. “I think there’s this misconception that if you’re hiring more women, it means that you’re hiring worse candidates. I think the study shows that this is not true.”