It's no secret that computer science is a heavily male-dominated discipline. It's so male-dominated that some people have given up trying to attract more women. Yet Carnegie Mellon not only has close to 50% women in their undergraduate CS classes, they have lots of female faculty. Why?

I'm also interested in what any other institution that's been successful at achieving something resembling gender parity has done as well.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please note that further non-clarifying discussion may be deleted without notice. – eykanal Oct 19 at 14:15
  • "...they have lots of female faculty." I wanted to quantify lots but couldn't find much information about it. Short of going through the web presence of Carnegie Mellon very carefully I guess it's pretty hard to come up with a number there. – Trilarion Oct 22 at 14:23
  • It's a UK organisation, but the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) promotes the Athena SWAN charter for equality in higher education and their website includes some example of good practice: ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/… – arboviral Oct 22 at 15:47
  • I remember reading a thread on twitter a couple of months ago by a CMU faculty member where he described in detail what steps they took to do this. I can't remember who that was or locate it... – Bitwise Oct 22 at 19:04
up vote 76 down vote accepted

Carnegie Mellon gives an answer on their website:

The steady climb of women enrolling in these fields at Carnegie Mellon highlights a combination of factors: a strong commitment by leaders at the university, college and department levels; influential pipeline programs for middle- and high-school students; targeted recruitment; closer scrutiny of applications; support and mentorship programs; and attention to diversifying the faculty.

A second, speculative answer: Carnegie Mellon is wealthy. Computer science is where they invest the most. If they want to attract more women to their computer science department, they can use their money to do it. Many of the factors they list cost money. They may be decreasing the diversity of other universities.

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    If they are influencing middle school or earlier, they could equally be increasing the diversity at other universities with the same feed schools. (by supporting the 30% threshold past the age where biases tend to skew the balance) – Sean Houlihane Oct 19 at 11:45
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    @SeanHoulihane Their impacts could be wider, sure, but I doubt "equal": although I'm not familiar with Carnegie Mellon in particular, "pipeline" programs tend to be pretty strongly branded. Though they may do some general good for society, they are probably also reinforcing explicitly or implicitly "...and your next step is to come to Carnegie Mellon." I don't think it's a bad thing, I'm just skeptical you can estimate the broader impact by looking just at Carnegie. – Bryan Krause Oct 19 at 15:30
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    Agreed, partly why I said I don't think it's a bad thing. I doubt anyone is really losing out, in any case, I don't think diversity is a zero sum game. – Bryan Krause Oct 19 at 15:45
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    "closer scrutiny of applications" = "we get a lot more applications from males, but we get enough applications overall to be able to give priority to females". – NotThatGuy Oct 20 at 9:58
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    @NotThatGuy aka "We discriminate against men". – user14156 Oct 22 at 23:25

We are a smaller German University of Applied Science and most of our courses have a certain application field in addition to computer science (usually about 70% computer science, 30% application related). The application fields "media" and "medicine" seem to motivate many female students to start studying, even if they later decide to work in the automotive industry or somewhere else.

Furthermore, our university strongly invests in diversity actions, we are trying not to discriminate anyone, and we are trying to promote female students e.g. as student assistants / tutors (which is not hard, since we are usually looking for the best, and most times we are having more female top students than male ones). But for the younger female students it is good to see that others succeeded or are very successful.

Once you crossed the 30% mark, the feeling is that it's not "special" or "strange" if you are female.

One point where we have to improve is the number of female faculty members, but this takes time.

But still, motivating more students to study computer science is a high priority!

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    +1 for “Once you crossed the 30% mark, the feeling is that it's not "special" or "strange" if you are female.” —I suspect this is a huge factor. Theoretically, this is supported by work like Thomas Shelling’s “Micromotives and Macrobehavior” – Dawn Oct 19 at 11:51
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Oct 22 at 1:14

At the risk of sounding like a broken record:

I'm especially interested in answers from female computer scientists at CMU.

Well, go ask (some of) them directly - don't expect them to stumble onto this page...

The staff directory is available; you'll need to figure out which ones are women by the photos and the names though, and pick out a few people to contact. Or you could start by contacting the Dean or whatever CMU call the head of the School of Computer Science.

The School of Computer Science at CMU also has a dedicated Women @ SCS website, which you should check out, both for immediately-relevant material and for names of women faculty and management personnel which you could contact directly (i.e. put those at the top of your list of people to contact). Thanks to @user3067860 for noticing that site!

PS - As commenters suggest, you can't just start asking specific questions with long answers right away, you need to make sure whoever it is you contacted is willing to converse regarding these issues.

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    This has to be the best option for the OP... plus 1.. – Solar Mike Oct 19 at 9:00
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    Does this answer the question? It looks like a comment to me – craq Oct 19 at 18:29
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    i'm sure all the women in the department would LOVE to have some random interrogating them out of the blue about their experiences. – dn3s Oct 19 at 19:08
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    @einpoklum "It's what OP needs to do in order to get an answer" - so you agree that this "answer" is not an answer? If you feel that the question isn't answerable, a close vote and/or comment would be more appropriate. – NotThatGuy Oct 20 at 10:01
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    I'd agree with NotThatGuy. It's helpful advice for contacting someone who can answer the question - but it is not actually an answer to the question. It's appropriate as a comment on the question, not as an answer. – V2Blast Oct 21 at 1:08

The phenomenon you have observed, where some programs have great difficulty attracting female CS majors (and faculty) and others are approximately 50%, is a classic example of a "tipping point" phenomenon. Tipping point phenomena were modeled in economics by Nobel prizewinning theorist Thomas Shelling. They were popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.

The intuition is this: Everyone faces certain benefits and costs from pursuing a CS degree. The benefits include income, intellectual challenge etc. The costs include hard work, eye strain, etc. In addition, minority individuals face the cost of being an "outsider" in the environment. This "outsider cost" is typically modeled as increasing in the segregation of the field. So a field with 90% men would have a higher outsider cost to a woman than a field with 60% men.

The tipping point comes into play when looking at equilibria. One equilibrium is that there are very few CS women. This is because the outsider cost is so high that only women who highly value the benefits (income, challenge, etc.) have a net positive utility from the CS major. But, if you can nudge the system off this equilibrium and get even a few more women, then you can decrease the outside cost enough that a few additional women find CS net positive. And then these women's presence decreases the costs further, and so on. You progressively tip the scales of cost/benefit such that you reach the second equilibrium of 50/50.

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    Agreed. How do you nudge the system, however? – Buffy Oct 19 at 17:29
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    @Buffy I think that some of those other answers are covering those factors. I am trying to complement those answers, not provide a fully comprehensive alternative. One thing I haven’t seen addressed is scholarship money (unless this is what was meant by “targeted recruitment”). Basically paying women for bearing the “outsider cost.” – Dawn Oct 19 at 17:45
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    It is the same idea in reverse.... eventually the men start having a coat from being in a female industry. A few drop out, then the cost increases, then more drop out, etc. I believe it is called “overshooting” but that might not be right. – Dawn Oct 20 at 2:35
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    Ehm... Do you have any strong empirical evidence that this is a case of a "tipping-point" phenomenon? As far as I can see, this answer is just a bald assertion. I can think of many other possibilities that may explain this phenomenon. In fact it is outright admitted by many universities, this one included, that they "prioritize" female applications or they put "closer scrutiny on applications." Indeed, there is evidence that there is discrimination in favor of female applications given otherwise identical applications (e.g Williams & Ceci (2015)). – Eff Oct 22 at 8:18
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    @Eff The evidence says that women perceive this as a cost, which is all that is required for the tipping point phenomenon to occur. In this case, perception is reality, you don't have to show that the perception is accurate or impervious to bias. The fact that the number of women influences perception is not relevant. Similarly, it is not necessary to control for these other factors like people-thing orientation. – Dawn Oct 22 at 18:13

If you want to attract some contingent of students to your institution, then provide an attractive work environment for them. It is really as simple (complex) as that. It doesn't have to be just the male/female breakdown here, but it applies there of course.

First, consider the answer here of user Dawn who suggests a tipping point. But how do you get to the tipping point. Others have suggested money, but I'm pretty sure that is insufficient, though it may be necessary.

First, how many women do you have on the faculty? Is it enough? Why not. Is it harder for them to get tenure? Why is it harder to get tenure? Women (in the US, at least) often have societal demands put on them that they can't avoid and that makes a rapid advance to tenure impossible. In a related case, I had a brilliant female colleague who had to delay her career to take care of an ailing mother. Men almost never have that problem as someone else (a woman) will do that instead. Women also need to have accommodation made for childbirth as no one else will take over that burden. Men don't have to delay family or choose between career and family. Single parents are usually (not always) women. Do you pay young women enough that, especially if they are single parents, they can afford proper childcare without sacrificing their research? Rigid rules around tenure and salary work against you here. Tailor the system so that it is consistent with your overall goals and flexible enough to accommodate special situations.

So, work to build up (and tenure) your female (or other "minority") faculty.

Next is the question of how welcoming the environment is for students. Look not only to universities with a better balance, but look also to small women's colleges (and Historically Black colleges). Why do students want to go there? The faculty has a lot of women, of course, but not all. However, the environment has a lot of people who "look like me." (Tipping point again). But, beyond that, those places also seem to me to be better at mentoring young students. In many of them the faculty and students are on first name basis with one another. The professor becomes a role model, not just a teacher.

So, make sure mentoring happens. This can work for everyone, not just women.

Next, is the actual work schedule sane or insane? Do you require long hours in the lab that may be possible for men (who have external support for the daily tasks of living) and not so much for women (who often are left with those tasks. Does your environment lead to burn out for some? That is unhealthy for everyone and leads to extreme stress. Some questions on this site suggest that it is more common than it should be. Some of the techniques for reducing stress, by the way, require additional time and effort. That may be harder for those with outside responsibilities. On a related note, is your work schedule so intense and competitive that backstabbing among students (or even with professors) happens? Do you have a way to make that stop? A number of questions on this site indicate that it happens more than it should. Even people "stealing" the research product of others.

So, assure that the work schedule is sane and not overly stress inducing.

Next, how are women treated day to day by both faculty and other students. Is there some low level of sexual harassment that is tolerated? Are you sure? There are faculty who prey on students, of course. Are you sure that you have a way to both recognize that and to force it to stop? Do you have formal standards of conduct that apply to both faculty and students. Note that mentoring (of both males and females) can help here. A quiet word from a mentor can change behavior when needed.

So, make sure that no one needs to deal with the "ick factor".

Next, who's questions and opinions are valued? Is it only extroverts who get a chance to say anything or to represent a working group? Does your faculty have sufficient training to assure that every student's ideas are valued? Fairly simple, but required, teaching seminars can improve the classroom/lab environment. They will probably be resented by some, but you have to ask, what is important? If you only value high pressure ego driven research progress, you will attract only people who are comfortable in that environment.

So, consider your values and find ways to operationalize them, not just talk about them.

And note that you don't have to sacrifice research quality or output to do these things. Take CMU, for example.

For what it is worth, I never had a situation in which I thought a female colleague was less able than her peers, including myself. I have a pretty big ego, of course.


And yes, I realize that I answered a slightly different question.

To your question of other institutions getting gender parity: Until visa and exchange rates started making things harder, Australian universities had a lot of Iranian postgraduate students. I noticed that the proportion of women in this cohort was very high, and when I asked some of those (female) students about this they told me that computer science is a popular subject of study for women in Iran, and that they felt very accepted in the field. Articles such as this one from Forbes seem to bear this out. I hesitate to draw any conclusions from this, but it's an interesting example of a place where computer science in not assumed to be a male-oriented field.

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