I started my own research (sub) group in a STEM field some months ago at an EU university (bachelor/master/PhD system). Every student has to do a bachelor's thesis (6 weeks), research internships (total of 6 weeks), and a master's thesis (6 months). Since I believe that introducing students to actual research early is beneficial, I use these to let students work on part of my own research. This also allows me to care more about their work.

However, almost no female students show interest in doing their research projects in my group. I don't think it's because of me as person, since in the past almost 75% of students I supervised were women, most of them approaching me with the desire to work with me. However, I switched from an experimental research focus to a theoretical one and I require students to have some basic understanding of programming, since it's necessary for the research I'm doing now. I strongly suspect that this is the factor that leads to this problem.

Given the short time of many of those internships I don't see it as an option to teach these skills in that time in addition to the other necessary skills I have to convey. The university has coding courses and even special courses only for women, however, they don't seem to be very popular.

Any good ideas how I could motivate female students to pick up a basic knowledge in programming (either in the university provided courses or "on their own") and not being scared off by this requirement?

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    It might be interesting to find out how your male students learned programming. – Patricia Shanahan Jul 26 '20 at 0:24
  • @PatriciaShanahan most of them were interested in it and learned it through online courses in self-study (most of them are also very interested in related topics like PC hardware, video games, machine learning,...). Some learned it in non-mandatory courses at high school or even went to specialized IT high schools. – user64845 Jul 26 '20 at 1:35
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    What languages are you using? – Patricia Shanahan Jul 26 '20 at 3:57
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    Does this answer your question? Writing ads to attract female PhD candidates – Allure Jul 26 '20 at 4:56
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    You've noticed lack of female students and you blame it on their supposed lack of programming skills. IMHO It's unwise to act on this conjecture, you need to prove it first. Your research might be genuinely incompatible with their future goals just as well. – Agent_L Jul 28 '20 at 6:20
  • Teach computation throughout the undergraduate curriculum. All your students need to know it anyway. Examples: https://www.compadre.org/PICUP/webdocs/About.cfm
  • Ensure all students know why your research is worthwhile. If the cause of your problem is stereotypes, relating the work to students' values is a way to overcome that.
  • Educate your students about bias.
  • Inform your students about minority role models. Don't know any? Here's one https://research.seas.ucla.edu/carter/.
  • Develop a reputation for being a good mentor.

There are no magic instantaneous fixes.

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    This. If it is genuninely the case that you need some programming skills, and the female students arn't making the earlier choices that prepares them, then that is what needs to change. We run a biological computing module that students can take as an alternative to their dissertation - instead of 12 weeks of lab work, they get 8 weeks of programming tuition, followed by a 4 week research project. It is chosen more or less equally be male and female presenting students. – Ian Sudbery Jul 26 '20 at 12:13

You may simply need to remove the programming requirement. If you believe that’s what the deterrent is then by removing it, and assuming you are correct, you will see more female applicants. Now, simply because you remove it to encourage applicants does not mean you have to hire them if all you’re concerned about is getting their applications. You can directly test your hypothesis by removing it from the application and if someone comes along with experience, you can safely hire them. But, assuming you’re interested in having women in your lab, it might require additional effort on your part to get them introduced to programming. Is it more laborious on your end? Yes. But you can also be up front that if they don’t have that experience, you will expect them to put in more time to learn via YouTube, StackOverflow, etc to get caught up to speed.


I find this idea of applying for theses somewhat unusual. In my experience, they're typically student-generate projects, which would keep interest higher.

With regard to the specifics of this post, there's some argument that women tend to apply less often to jobs they aren't 100% qualified to, compared to men.

If "rudimentary" programming skills are all that are needed, I'd make sure that's what the listing actually says, instead of listing "two years of experience with Python" that would be nice for you as the mentor, and not the student.

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