Women Comprise 40 Percent of Computer Science Majors Among Carnegie Mellon’s Incoming First-Year Class

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - by Byron Spice

Herbert A. Simon University Professor Manuela Veloso works with a group of women students at an OurCS workshop.

PITTSBURGH—Women, who historically have been under-represented among computer science majors nationwide, will make up 40 percent of the incoming class of undergraduates this fall in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science (SCS).

The school has been a leader in efforts to increase the number of women in the discipline of computer science and its female enrollment has long exceeded national averages. The number of women in this fall’s first-year class nevertheless sets a new benchmark for the school.

“Like many programs, we’re seeing unprecedented interest from students in computer science,” said Randal E. Bryant, SCS dean and University Professor of Computer Science. “We’re gratified to see that women increasingly are choosing computer science as a discipline and that they are choosing Carnegie Mellon as the place where they can get their strongest start.”

According to the most recent Taulbee Survey compiled by the Computer Research Association, just 14 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science in 2012-13 nationwide were conferred on women. That compares to 22 percent that academic year at Carnegie Mellon, consistent with the percentage of women — 21 percent — who entered the program in 2008.

The last time that a class of first-year computer science majors came close to including 40 percent women was in 2000 during the first dot com boom, after CMU had expanded its admissions criteria and launched an outreach program to high schools to encourage more female applicants. But that increase was short-lived, in part because the dot com bust caused all applications to computer science programs to drop nationwide.                

Lenore Blum, professor of computer science, who joined the faculty in 1999, launched the Women@SCS program, instilling a new SCS philosophy based on providing women with the same opportunities for professional advancement as men, rather than catering to supposed differences in the interests of men and women.                

“Women need the same things that have always been available to men – mentors, networks and role models, as well as friends who are also computer science majors,” said Blum, whose research and work to increase the participation of girls and women in computer science and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields began in the early 1970s. “What we have shown is that making these opportunities explicit for the minority in a population ends up working to the advantage of everybody. We see that women and men exhibit similar spectra of interests, ranging from coding to designing computer systems to developing applications of computer science.”                

SCS has developed this inclusive culture while maintaining rigorous admission standards for all students. Enrollment of women has been steadily increasing, representing 29 percent and 34 percent of the 2012 and 2013 first-year classes, respectively.

“We don’t do anything ‘pink,’” said Carol Frieze, Women@SCS director. “We try to make sure that women don’t miss out on opportunities. We provide leadership, networking and professional programs to build a dynamic community on campus.” Many of these programs include men and women working together, such as in outreach activities to the wider community. 

“Women here are not simply part of the culture,” Frieze said, “they are helping to build the culture in which both men and women can succeed.”                            

“I think the message for undergraduates coming in is clear — that SCS and CMU value diversity,” said Tom Cortina, assistant dean for undergraduate education. Women may remain a minority for now, but their presence throughout the school is obvious to and remarked upon by prospective students and their parents, he noted.

Cortina said one reason for the increase in women enrollees may relate to the increased popularity of computer science, a discipline in high demand by employers and that is now inextricable with most fields, including science, economics, engineering and the arts.

“Students and teachers now understand that if I’m interested in any subject today — say I want to be a biologist — I need to understand something about computing,” he added.

CMU received a record number of applicants — almost 6,200 — for the computer science undergraduate program and anticipates having 142 students enter this fall. 

“Along with increased attention to diversity in computing from industry and at the policy level tons of grassroots efforts are underway to make more young students and their teachers aware of STEM careers,” Frieze said. “We may be seeing those efforts finally paying off.”

The School of Computer Science, now celebrating its 25th year, once again has received the highest possible score in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of Ph.D. programs in computer science. Follow the school on Twitter @SCSatCMU.

For more information, Contact:
Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice@cs.cmu.edu