No Women In CS? Well, Not For Long

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“Dude, I think that girl sitting in front of us is a CS major.”

“Nah, look at that glittery shit in her hair.”

Bonnie McLindon, a junior computer science major at Stanford University, fumes as she works in CS 103, her hardest class at Stanford, office hours. The two guys sitting behind her are referring to the tinsel in her hair, a tradition of Stanford’s Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. Despite serving as section leader and interning at Apple, McLindon struggles with the stereotype that girls, especially sorority girls, don’t major in computer science.

At Stanford, just under 21 percent of undergraduate CS majors, the school’s most popular major, are women.

The school is situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is starved for talented engineers; companies aggressively recruit Stanford undergrads with coding skills for high paying internships and full time jobs.

“Getting more girls involved in CS is probably the most impactful thing we can do to address the talent shortage,” Sequoia Capital’s Jim Goetz tells me.

**

In 2009, the Stanford CS department revamped its undergraduate curriculum, broadening the program so students could focus on tracks in areas that most interested them. Stanford Professor Mehran Sahami says the addition of multi-disciplinary tracks, such as collaboration with psychology, product design, and others, helped to cast a broader net for potential CS majors.

The department has seen growth across the board since the 2009 revisions, Sahami says, with female enrollment increasing faster on a relative basis. Since 2009, the number of female undergraduates majoring in CS at Stanford has increased 9.5 percentage points.

The introductory course, CS 106A, has exploded in popularity and has reached a near celebrity status. Around 600 students (10 percent of the entire undergraduate population) take the class every quarter and over 90 percent of undergraduates will take at least one CS class, usually 106A, before they graduate. This past fall, so many students enrolled in the class that they were sitting on the floor and in the corridors of the packed auditorium.

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 10.41.02 PM

Mark Zuckerberg, here with Sahami, guest lectures every year in 106A, adding to the wildly popular course’s fame. (Courtesy of Jacob Chen/The Dish Daily)

Perhaps most impressively, the course has reached gender parity.

Many students continue from 106A to further develop their skills in CS 106B. But those who want to major in computer science must continue from 106B to the daunting 107, often considered a “weeding” class to separate the wheat from the chaff before students can take upper-level courses.

Women do just as well as men in CS 106A and 106B but continue on to 107 in far fewer numbers. While many students, regardless of gender, drop the class, several students say that stereotypes, misconceptions, and lack of confidence cause women to drop the class in large numbers. The often anti-social, male-dominated culture is characterized by 107’s unofficial mantra of “dump your girlfriend before this class.”

Further broadening the gap is the fact that, on average, women at Stanford take their first CS class later than their male counterparts, often because they come to Stanford with less CS experience from their secondary schooling.

Sophia Westwood is a senior CS major who has worked at Google and Palantir, led CS sections, and is very active in recruiting more women to the major. She says her roommate took 106A the winter of sophomore year, loved it, and would have majored in it had she taken it earlier in her undergraduate career.

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Despite taking programming classes in high school, Westwood didn’t consider CS as a major when she came to Stanford, fearing that she would be typing away in a cubicle all day and that all of her classmates would be stereotypes from The Social Network.

Her first professor in 106B recognized her ability and told her to consider the CS major, answering her questions about CS and its applications. When she realized she could use the degree for social good—she raves about Palantir’s work helping relief agencies prepare for Hurricane Sandy—Westwood was sold.

In the fall of 2011, Westwood organized a group of CS 106A section leaders to identify the best female freshmen and sophomores in each of their sections and invited them to meet one-on-one to answer their questions and encourage them to consider CS as a major. The department also sponsors small dinners where faculty and CS majors can mix with first- and second-year undergrads in an informal setting. They now hold two dinners every quarter in response to high demand. Westwood estimates 50-70 people attend each dinner, and recent graduates who work in the industry return and share their experiences, both at Stanford and in the field.

“We didn’t know most of the girls in CS,” senior section leader Molly Mackinlay says. “Suddenly you recognized faces in your classes.”

Bonnie McLindon went to the first dinner in the fall of 2011 and talked to senior and junior CS majors, learning more about their work in the classroom and at internships before declaring. She says the dinners helped change her notions of being unable to handle the major or not being a good fit.

“I think people are really starting to break that down and say, ‘I can be a sorority girl and a CS major. I can be an athlete and a CS major,’” McLindon tells me. “The idea of ‘you have to fit a certain mold’ is evaporating.”

Westwood says that from these meetings with students, the section leaders have collected a ton of informal, anecdotal data about the kinds of things that almost a hundred female undergrads who are considering CS are thinking. She says the two biggest factors have been a lack of confidence — especially not having a sense of belonging in the department and field — and not understanding what CS is really about and its applications.

The students at these meetings have been selected by their section leaders as some of the most skilled in the entry-level classes, yet Westwood says students’ low confidence often makes it feel like they’re talking to the bottom of the class.

“It’s a delicate subject with the chats,” junior CS major and section leader JJ Liu says. “We don’t want to push females into CS because that’s definitely not good for anyone. It’s not a numbers game.”

Facebook director of engineering Jocelyn Goldfein has attended the dinners before and argues that universities need to stop being so reserved about encouraging undergrads to take one major over another. She believes departments need to be less shy about telling students that it’s better for them and better for the country if they major in CS.

“I don’t think it should be frowned upon for a CS major to recruit women,” she tells me. “My industry needs a lot more CS majors. A lot more.”

**

Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni describe themselves as “good girls gone geeks.” Agarwal came to Stanford with an intention to be pre-vet while Israni intended to study psychology; the two juniors now study Symbolic Systems and CS, respectively.

“I think a major reason we have so few female engineers is the lack of concrete role models–that is, the lack of individuals we can point to and say, ‘Look, if you pursue technology, you could be her someday,’ Israni tells me.

The duo founded she++ in January 2012 as a Stanford community for women in tech, hoping to inspire more women to go geek. Unlike Westwood and the section leaders’ dinners, Agarwal and Israni look to make an impact beyond Stanford.

“We would like to see a self-sustaining community of female technologists in the Bay Area working to collaborate with and inspire each other to make technology a field as welcoming to women as it is to men, and to have this community be a model for similar microcosms throughout the nation and the world,” Israni says.

She++ held its inaugural conference last April, and will have another on the Stanford campus on April 20, 2013.

194199_336179809807248_344451773_oA panel at the she++ conference in April (Courtesy of she++)

Goldfein, who was a she++ panelist in April, said she was “blown away” by the quality of the speakers, especially the students, at the conference. She says she is particularly passionate about helping Stanford improve its gender balance, as it is her alma matter.

In January, she++ will release a documentary that follows the stories of some of the industry’s top entrepreneurs. Israni and Agarwal say they hope the film, which will be screened at Bay Area high schools, colleges, and companies, will spread awareness about the opportunities available to women in tech.

The organization has collected a database of collegiate role models, nominated by professors and friends, from around the country to feature on their website; they’ve all volunteered to mentor young girls interested in tech, connected by she++ to chat on email, phone, even meeting in person to share their experiences.

She++ is also developing its own distance-learning, open source Android curriculum to allow first-time coders to program an Android app.

“It is going to take a collective effort from parents, high schools, universities and industry to come together to help girls realize that there are exciting careers to be had in the tech field,” LinkedIn’s Head of Global Campus Recruiting Tey Scott asserts. “By bringing industry leaders, academia and students together to facilitate the opportunity for students to learn from and be mentored by successful women in technology fields, she++ is helping to build these important relationships and networks that will yield returns for all of us in the future.”

Israni and Agarwal say that Sequoia Capital is their primary partner, as it is has given the most resources to the organization, including supporting the costs for the documentary. She++ is also sponsored by Andreessen Horowitz, Box, Palantir, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, Square, Getco, and the Stanford Computer Science Department.

**

The Stanford undergrads that I spoke to for this story have interned at some of the largest companies in the industry: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Palantir, and others. Nearly everyone spoke about being in a significant minority or even the only female both on their project teams and in the company as a whole. However, they were quick to add that this alone did not make them feel unwelcome, and they praised the companies’ work to attract more female employees.

McLindon says she sometimes worries that she will get interviews or offers just because she is a woman.

“Don’t make it easy,” she says. “Treat us the same as everyone else. If you wouldn’t have given a guy the offer, don’t give the girl the offer, because that just belittles what we’re trying to do.”

“I’ve definitely benefitted from being a girl in CS from getting interviews, getting job offers,” Mackinley says, adding that she wants to “know that I deserve the job I’m getting offered.”

Westwood says that Palantir emphasized mentorship and making a tangible difference, rather than a culture of “beer and video games” and made it clear that they wanted to hear if there was something she thought Palantir could be doing better.

“Everything that they’re doing to make it a better place for women—its about making it a better place for everyone,” she says.

While these Silicon Valley companies are working to improve the demographics at the collegiate level, none will discuss their own internal gender demographics.

Goldfein, Facebook’s director of engineering, says none of the big companies give public data, adding that Facebook specifically doesn’t comment because it doesn’t want to contribute to the stereotype threat that women don’t have a place in major tech companies.

“I don’t think there’s any number that couldn’t be better,” she tells me, regarding the industry-wide gender breakdown.

“We are looking to hire more engineers, and would love for some or all of them to be female—we only make decisions on the basis of talent and ability,” Palantir Senior Software Engineer Ari Gesher says. “We do, however, take concrete steps to specially seek out female engineers by funding scholarship programs (both at the university and in non-traditional schools like NYC’s Hacker School), promoting on campus activities through female-oriented professional organizations like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) or WiCS (Women in CS) and have been a consistent sponsor of the Grace Hopper Conference for Women in Computer Science.”

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The most surprising part of this narrative is that by increasing the number of female engineers, everyone wins. Big.

Sahami says the Stanford CS department is constantly having conversations with executives at major tech companies and venture capitalists because they need more engineers and want more Stanford candidates. He adds that by not attracting as many women to major in CS, “we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.” And yet, we still haven’t bridged the gender gap.

“An increase in the overall applicant pool of graduates in CS allows us to put that many more people to work and would relieve the pressure on companies pitted against each other for the same top talent,” Scott tells me. “More graduates in CS would also put the U.S. in a much stronger competitive position, compared to countries with double or triple the amount of CS grads each year.

“Additionally, building great products is often tied to the engineers’ and product managers’ ability to understand the user,” Scott continues. “Having engineers that are representative of the users’ thinking, habits and behaviors leads to better products.”

Goetz explains that an increase in female programmers has a “huge potential impact” on Sequoia’s portfolio. Based on empirical data that Sequoia collects internally, Goetz says startups with a high balance of women have great company cultures, largely due to a good diversity of thought among employees.

Goldfein believes there is considerable room to increase female CS enrollment 10 to 20 percent in U.S. colleges, mostly through encouragement and outreach. She explains that it will be “the work of decades” to change larger cultural influences that skew the balance from 50-50, but says doubling female engineers from around 15 percent to 30 percent will have a huge ripple effect on the industry and the economy.

Goldfein references Ben Horowitz’s well-known TechCrunch piece, “Lead Bullets,” explaining that no silver bullet will solve the gender disparity; rather, we need many lead bullets.

She praises Westwood’s section leader dinners, which she attends, as a great “lead bullet” and hopes the university can be a driving force in helping to bridge the gender gap around the world.

She explains that if Stanford can equalize its numbers as a large, non-technical school with a broad array of students, it will put pressure on other schools to ramp up their efforts.

“If Stanford can do this, anyone can do this,” Goldfein says. “Stanford should be the leader in this. It can do this. It should do this. It will do this.”

Stanford’s CS department has a very bright future, as a wide array of people work to improve the gender gap; nevertheless, the road from 21 percent women to 50 percent is a long one.

“We still have a long way to go,” Sahami cautions.

Update: A previous version of this story attributed a quote to Palantir’s Billijo Jensen that should have been attributed to Palantir’s Ari Gesher. A couple of minor factual errors were corrected as well. Apologies for the errors.