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Canada University of Waterloo program aims to reverse women’s flight from computer science

Computer science professor Joanne Atlee is pictured inside one of the University of Waterloo's server rooms on April 16, 2018. Dr. Atlee is also the director of the university’s women in computer science program.

The Globe and Mail

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?’”

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.

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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.

But what has become clear to Dr. Atlee is that universities cannot redress the issue alone. If girls in high school do not consider computer-science careers, their interest in signing up in university will continue to stagnate. So the university has expanded its efforts to reaching girls as early as possible.

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.

“The students go from knowing nothing, to building an app that does something for their community,” Dr. Atlee explained.

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The grant is part of a larger $2.1-million initiative from Google Canada, including $1.5-million for Actua, Canada’s STEM-outreach organization, and a dedicated space for community groups at Google’s Kitchener-Waterloo office.

Waterloo “is a community that is heavily entrepreneurial and has one of the highest density startup areas in the entire world,” said Steve Woods, Google Waterloo’s site lead. “It’s important to be involved in your own community, and it gives us a chance to try things and continue thinking about how we can scale them up.”

The goal of the grant is to train students not just to program, but more importantly to learn computational thinking.

“Coding is like writing software. Computational thinking is training you to think in the way that is necessary to be successful as a coder,” said Melissa Dominguez, a Google engineer who leads the Canadian chapter of Google Women Engineers from her Waterloo office. “It is teaching you how to break down problems into procedural steps and how to be very logical in how you approach problems. It can be done without having to buy a computer,” she said.

Focusing on the problems tech can solve rather than coding is likely to draw more women into the discipline and to build their confidence, Dr. Atlee said.

“It takes the first year for female students to realize [the men] are not that far ahead of them.”

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Monica Xu knows that feeling first-hand.

“I had imposter syndrome coming into university because I had no programming experience,” said Ms. Xu, who is the chair of Waterloo’s student chapter of women in computer science. Being part of the program – which holds study parties, tech talks and offers mentorship – connected her with other women. She discovered other women also felt overwhelmed, but did not want to share those feelings with male students who were more likely to talk about their accomplishments, she said.

“It really helped empower me in a way, just hearing their stories.”

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