Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
More than seven out of every ten Swarthmore graduates in Computer Science, Physics, Engineering, and Philosophy are men, Swarthmore institutional research finds.
Beginning in 2001, Swarthmore recorded the gender breakdown of majors and minors graduating in each class. Sahiba Gill ’12, Managing Editor of The Gazette, tabulated the majors from the classes of 2001 through 2011, excluding those majors with fewer than four graduates in any year. The study demonstrated that over three quarters of the students majoring in Physics, Philosophy, and Computer Science were men, and over three quarters of the students majoring in Modern Languages, Art History, and Art were women. The preponderance of men in many of the most quantitative disciplines, such as Mathematics, Engineering, and Computer Science, was one of the most striking results of the study. The most egalitarian major was History, a department with effective gender parity in its majors over the past ten years. However, the gender polarization in major selection among Swarthmore students seems to be caused by broader gender norms, not by institutional practices.
The findings at Swarthmore mirror national undergraduate trends: 12 percent of computer science majors nationally are women, 20 percent of engineering majors nationally are women, and 25 percent of Physics majors nationally are women. Swarthmore’s Computer Science major is the most polarized, despite the one half of the Department’s tenure-track faculty who are women and the Department’s aggressive efforts to recruit and retain female students.
The female faculty host a monthly “Women in Computer Science” luncheon, in order to develop a sense of community for women interested in Computer Science. They aggressively market their intro to Computer Science course to freshmen, in order to ensure that more women are exposed to the discipline early enough in their college careers that have the opportunity to pursue it as a major or minor. They have also changed the primary programming language used in the course to Python, which is more accessible for those new to the discipline.
However, Professor of Computer Science Lisa Meeden said, “The real problem is the lack of exposure high school students have to Computer Science.” This lack of exposure allows misperceptions about Computer Science to fester. Some of the most common misperceptions, that computer scientists are all “solitary, balding, pale men” who work in “basements without windows” deter women who typically neither identify “nor particularly want to hang out with” this stereotype. Tia Newhall, Associate Professor of Computer Science, said that women often prefer collaborative learning exercises, and pursue disciplines that they think will allow them to “help the world.” The image of the computer scientists writing code by himself just doesn’t have much appeal.
The professors noted that even many of their most successful female students decide not to pursue the discipline because they don’t identify as scientists. Meeden said, “One of our best graduates… kept telling us, ‘I just don’t see myself as a computer scientist,’ and we were begging her to continue with the program.” Professors face a Catch-22: because there are so few women pursuing computer science, the stereotype of a computer scientists is not female-friendly, and because the stereotype of computer scientists is not female-friendly, few women pursue computer science.
Nationally, computer science is becoming more unbalanced rather than less. The percentage of people majoring in Computer Science who are women has decreased by over half since 2000. It’s unclear whether Swarthmore’s Computer Science department will manage to buck the trend or not.
But Swarthmore is no academic utopia, and stereotypes inculcated in students before school continue to affect academic decisions.
“I hope some day we achieve gender parity,” Newhall said.