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I live in Western Europe and began a CS degree 1.5 years ago. I had no prior programming experiences but the degree was aimed for beginners.

The male-female student ratio was 100:1 (as also stated by the official statistics). I was expecting this but I didn't let myself feel discouraged. However, whenever we had obligatory pair or groups projects, I had to deal with many difficult situations.

Sometimes my partner would code out my part of the task before we met in person to discuss the assignment, and then demand a "favor" back, others acted out aggressive and told me women expect guys to do everything for them. Another time another partner removed my name out of our projects despite me having done my part (+ writing all the comments and tests) so that I had to clear things up with my professor. And inumerous times they tried to turn our meetings for the assignments into dates and/or accused me of leading them on when I rejected their advances. I did have two or three classmates whom I trusted, but our professors demand we switch partners for every assignment.

The reason we have pair and group projects is because our professors know it's difficult to solve the assigments on our own (plus, a big part of software develpment is discussing and exchanging ideas and solutions).

I couldn't deal with the hostile environment so I dropped out despite my interest in programming. I come from a culture where gender is often segregated so I didn't really know how to deal with such advances/comments. Whenever I made my professors aware of the situation I was dismissed and told I just had to be more resilient and be more firm in my opinions.

My questions are: if I do end up retaking CS in a college environment again, how can I best avoid this? Should I go for a non-traditional route instead?

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    – cag51
    Nov 21, 2022 at 1:35

6 Answers 6

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While the behaviour of your fellow students is not something I'd consider ubiquitous, it is sadly common enough to be matter of concern in computer science. My estimate is that you got unlucky in how much of this you encountered, and that would it be reasonable to expect much less of it if you try another university. But it seems difficult to predict well how a particular student cohort at a particular university will behave.

What you can do is to look for instituions where the faculty themselves are keen to have a welcoming environment for women in computer science. For example, in the UK departments can seek accredidation with the Athena Swan framework to demonstrate their strive for gender equality. You can check whether there is a "Women in CS" (or similar) group at a university you consider applying to.

At a well-run CS department, your complaints would have been taken very seriously.

Addendum: You mention that the gender ratio at your previous institution was 98:1. That is an extreme outlier that in itself would make me suspect that something is wrong. For comparison, in the UK about 13% of CS undergraduates are women. So on average, you could expect a gender ratio of around 10:1. Of course, that is still lopsided, but not nearly as bad.

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    Thanks for your comment! I've been checking out other universities, and I'll make sure to ask them about such groups. I'm hopeful that an environment change is the key.
    – maliebina
    Nov 19, 2022 at 15:19
  • @maliebina At my university there is an office that exists specifically to deal with harassment like what you suffered. When looking at future options, you might research or ask whether there are any provisions for dealing with such situations. Nov 20, 2022 at 3:23
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    The ratio at my university 10 years ago was 40:1 ; I wouldn't find 100:1 to be unusual if the program were larger. But this reported behavior does appear extreme, especially if it were truly pervasive.
    – Roddy
    Nov 20, 2022 at 5:15
  • I guess an indicator of how welcoming will faculty be is the M/F ratio between teachers themselves
    – Miguel
    Nov 20, 2022 at 20:25
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So it's worth stating here that you are probably right, the hostile environment is a side effect of sexism. Not necessarily overt "women are stupid" sexism, more like a misconception that they were doing you a favour by doing your work for you, and it was unreasonable of you not to be willing to "give them a chance". This kind of sexism isn't acceptable, and it's actually more challenging to handle because the perpetrators don't think they are being sexist.

My sample size isn't massive (4 institutes), but I will say that in my limited experience, this problem is particularly bad in CS compared to Physics. Also, exactly how bad does vary greatly between institutes. Arno's answer has already given you great advice about finding an institute that is better organised to tackle these problems, and has a better culture.

You also asked for some advice on handling it personally. Though I know all such advice is easier said than done, there are two things that I would advise.

Good boundaries make good friends.

Or at least, when you can't be good friends, good boundaries make good working relationships. The difficult bit is not responding to the guilt you feel when you enforce these boundaries.

When I need to tell someone "no" or "please stop doing X", even when I'm well prepared, I feel bad. I feel like they will like me less, I feel like I'm being antisocial, I feel like people will think I'm mean. And I'm not entirely wrong, people can be judgmental. But not saying "no" is normally worse, because then I will start to feel resentment. I will resent the person that I haven't told "stop" for not reading my mind and stopping anyway. They will sense that resentment and quite correctly decide my behaviour is unreasonable.

On the other hand, if I just say "please stop that" they are only annoyed for a day at most. However, they move on, and they feel more comfortable in the relationship, because they are clear about what is acceptable. The relationship feels more secure, because we understand each other better. They may perhaps realise that I don't want the kind of relationship they want to have, so they back off a bit, but that's ok, you don't need to be everyone's friend. You will still find it easier to work together.

As someone who was socialised as a woman (I am a trans man) saying "no" is one of the few social skills that women are really not taught well. It was something I learnt later in life. Being friends with people socialised as men has really helped me work on this. You may also find this is something you are able to get better at.

Student unions are normally very supportive.

This one is likely a bit UK specific, because while the other places I've worked sometimes have student societies, they don't exist in the same way.

Where you do have a large student union, they are excellent. Normally left leaning, and inclined to activism; yours is exactly the sort of cause they would be championing. They can be a source of sympathy, advocates to help you communicate well with the lecturers, and advice on navigating your universities internal grievance channels if it comes it it.

Perhaps even consider looking at universities that have a large student lead organisation in particular. It could be a really good counterpoint to any issues you encounter in the academic departments.

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I am so sorry for your situation. It makes me think that gender diversity is not at all the concern of the university, and the academic environment is full of prejudices towards women. However, I believe your situation is just an extreme outlier that is relevant only to the place you are living/studying.

As suggested in Arno's answer, you should consider institutions having a welcoming environment for women, probably in other countries. I think it is true for most large institutions where such issues are taken seriously. You should take into account gender diversity and culture of the university as well. M/F ratio is a good indication. You can also ask (female) alumnis of the programs you are interested in for their opinions (on LinkedIn).

Yet, even if you choose an environment where women are welcomed to pursue STEM degrees, there is no guarantee that you will not run into a situation like this (e.g. when you do a group project with some male students). Once you are in a better environment, you should ignore them and just do your best. You can do it.

Furthermore, I do not have official statistics, but from what I have observed, CS programs tend to have higher M/F ratio than that of IT programs. IT programs are professional programs. CS programs are more theoretical and mathematically heavy. This is just an oversimplification.

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Adding to the already existing excellent answers:

In Germany (and probably in other countries as well) there are some universities that offer CS studies only for women* for the exact reasons that made you drop out of the program (see examples here, here and here, 1 and 2 in German). I am pretty sure that programs like these might exist in othere countries as well.

If you can't find a program like this, it is always good to find allies: the (few) other women* and the (few) men* that do not behave the way you described. If you are sitting in the same boat, you can find strenght in numbers.

Another suggestion is to instead of asking to work alone (as proposed in other answers) is to ask to work with a fixed group of people that you know you can work with without facing unwanted advanced, sexism or other kind of unacceptable behaviour.

Student unions, equal opportunties officers, women*'s represetatives or other support groups exist to help you with such troubles.

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Assuming no institutional fixes solve the problem, you can pretty much do 2-person projects by yourself and it will be fine.

For grading I generally expected a 2-person project to be maybe 50% more effort than a solo. Communication and lack there-of is a big drain on "2 people = 2 times the work" idea. But then take two strangers, still learning computer programming, and with no project management training -- I don't have to even tell you, since you've experienced it -- there's so much time wasted on misunderstandings, egos, miscommunication that 1 person could easily do a better job. I'm actually somewhat horrified group projects are being assigned before the Software Engineering course (where they actually teach you how to do group projects).

Ask if you can do solo projects. If the class has an odd number of students, you're helping. And partners drop out of class and so on -- the instructor is already grading a few 1-person projects. If needed, mention why you want this, but don't bother mentioning partners taking your name off, or coding out the part they want in advance. All group "throw them in the water" projects have that sort of nonsense. Stick to how you're tired of being sexually harassed by partners. No instructor wants to deal with the blowback from that. An advisor may be able to help -- maybe even with a finding a more sympathetic instructor.

And then, you're still allowed to study with the students you actually get along with. When you're learning, ummmm, using functions as arguments(?), you can still go over the examples with those students.

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This will likely be an unpopular opinion, but - save yourself the money. Find a digital problem in your life, and solve it with the programming language of your choice. You'll learn what to do, but most importantly, what not to do. You will fail often. CS is one of those weird fields where you can learn absolutely anything and everything using free resources, and in my experience self-learners do better because they don't fall into the trap of always expecting to have a manual tell them how things work - they know how to figure things out with little resources.

I dropped out of college after a year because I felt they were teaching things not relevant to my career. 12 years later I'm a DevOps Engineer, and get paid about as much as you can reasonably get paid in this field. I learned programming (JavaScript, C++, few others), I learned Linux system administration (Ubuntu, CentOS), and my education didn't cost me a cent (aside from the wasted first year, of course).

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    I think the times where you could easily get a good IT job without having a degree are mostly over. You often hear stories like yours, but they are usually in the (distant) past. Times are changing and your recommended strategy is becoming more and more risky. You also need to be aware of survivorship bias. Furthermore, OP is a woman and IT is an extremly male-dominated profession. What still might have some decent chance for a man, will have a much lower chance for a woman.
    – Roland
    Nov 21, 2022 at 6:17
  • Yours is surely an unpopular advice. Nowadays there are highly technical "IT" jobs that require a research degree and many years of experience. There are also jobs that require no degree and not much work experience. However, for high-level jobs, I do believe preference will always be given to the candidates with a degree.
    – Neuchâtel
    Nov 21, 2022 at 8:56
  • @Roland I think it depends on the company and their cultural focus. Where I work currently, the percentage of woman in technical roles is around 40%, but I'll concede this is first company I've worked at with such a ratio. Previous jobs were indeed under 5%. Nov 21, 2022 at 21:28
  • @edelweiss I've managed to get 3 different jobs where the education requirements were very heavy. We're talking a list requiring a 4 year degree, ITIL qualifications, RHEL certification, and sometimes even more. I tell them straight up I'm confident in my abilities, and get the job. How that'll hold in future I guess we'll see Nov 21, 2022 at 21:37

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