When you think of a programmer, what’s the first image that comes to mind?
Is it an isolated, elite hacker in the darkness of a basement? A Silicon Valley, startup mogul making billions from the latest social media app? How about a developer making the next greatest hit in the video game industry?
Did you imagine any of these people as a woman? Probably not.
The perception of computer science as a “boys club” was instilled since the industry’s inception. Women currently in the field of computer science, like Cynthia Howard, are speaking up on behalf of this misperception in order to create a better, well-rounded workforce.
“Our culture has this ‘nerdy,' guy programmer kind of idea, and girls see that and don’t want to be a part of it,” said Howard, an assistant professor of computer science at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill.
Now 51 years old, Howard is an active supporter of bringing more women into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and is an overall role model for young girls who have an interest in computer science, but do not know what they can do with it.
When she was growing up, Howard did not really care for science and math, but she realized she had a very analytical mind. She went into accounting in business for her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and landed a full-time position at Strong Capital Management – an investment banking firm later acquired by Wells Fargo.
“When I started working at Strong, the accounting people took care of the computers, and during my time, I really migrated from being in the accounting department to being a part of the Information Technology department,” she said.
She left before the company was bought out, and decided to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at Governor’s State University. Howard said when she thinks about it now, her interest in computers actually spawned during her undergraduate years due to the timing and a minor influence from her father.
“We’re talking about the early 1980s here,” she said. “My dad was an electrical engineer. We had a small computer, I did a bit of programming and was really intrigued by that.”
She does not remember why she was so timid about pursuing this field right away when she knew she enjoyed it, and she often remembers how supportive her father was. According to Howard, part of the work she does today in encouraging women is to make sure their confusion does not overstep what they really want.
In 2009, a few years after receiving her master’s degree and teaching at Governor’s State, she came to the University of Illinois at Chicago to obtain her Ph.D. in philosophy in computer science. Her dissertation discussed the idea of learning and knowledge acquisition between a person and artificial intelligence, known as intelligent tutoring systems. Just as people learn in a class environment with a teacher, Howard wanted to know how a program could learn from a human, and vice versa.
We see this kind of programming everywhere today in how our smartphones interact with us and recognize our voices. It was still a very difficult process only five years ago, and Howard was one of many who was tackling this topic, but even she needed support from people in her field.
“My dissertation adviser, Barbara Di Eugenio, was a good role model,” she said. “It was nice to see other women in these roles. In my Ph.D. course, being the only woman in a class was definitely noticeable, and at the time not a lot of women were actually in this field.”
Women in STEM initiatives did not actually garner much attention until the last couple of years, and when Howard joined Lewis University as an assistant professor in 2009, she wanted to change the way people perceived computer science.
“There’s no good reason why only 12 percent of our computer science undergraduates are women,” said Ray Klump, professor and chair of the computer science department at Lewis. “As a father of a 12-year-old girl, I don't want to see her turned off to it. There're so many opportunities that she needs to be aware of, and efforts like Dr. Howard’s work here are going to help expose students like my daughter to the opportunities before them.”
According to a study done by Computer Science Education Week and Code.org, software jobs outnumber students 3-to-1. The gap is one million jobs over 10 years. This projection expressed the severe need for people, especially women, and would only be the case if there was little to no promotion of the field.
“It’s encouraging that more women are entering the field, because it makes it more diverse and doesn’t have that whole staple of ‘you have to be male to do this,’” said Jesus Guzman, a senior computer science and game graphic design student at Lewis. “It’s slowly getting better, and I’m very optimistic.”
Klump said the women in STEM initiatives are overall positive programs because they are not trying to meet quotas that affirmative action regulations used to abide by for recruiting ethnic and minority groups into different fields.
“We have a hard time filling all the positions as it is now, and our country has a shortage of people with really strong technical, computing backgrounds,” Klump said. “There are primarily just males going into the field, and if we're going to try to address the shortage that we have in computer science knowledge, then women are going to have to start coming into the field.”
So the criticism of prioritizing women in computer science over men who may be better qualified has never been the issue. Howard said the need for more girls is more based on the input they can provide with their differing perspectives. “It's found that women actually use more apps than men, and play more casual games than men,” she said. “So having women developers is important.”
Guzman said he wished more girls were in the Lewis computer science and math program because it would give him an opportunity as a game developer to collaborate and receive perspectives from a group that often plays his games. “It would be great to work on projects with girls because I think they have good ideas that I just don’t know about,” he said.
According to a 2008 report by the Gifted Child Quarterly, published by Sage Journals, researchers studied a group of sixth graders in the upper-level gifted program in math and science and a group at the average level sixth graders. In both groups, girls underperformed in concept, interest and motivation, but the disparity was significantly higher in the gifted program in the interest and motivation categories.
In reality though, girls are not bad at these subject areas. Klump and Howard said they have both seen studies like this since the early 1980s, where girls in America from ages 10 to 12 generally lost interest in math and science, but mostly in math.
The women in STEM programs in facilities like Argonne National Laboratory, NASA, the Field Museum in Chicago and in almost every university in the United States realize that they need to prove to girls that they belong in these fields. Much of the work from these institutions comes from additional, extracurricular programs.
"We have a number of programs, including internships, for high school and undergraduate women interested in science," said Lora Nickels, the museum leadership giving officer and member of the Field Museum's Women in Science program. "We provide opportunities to meet men and women in the field, while making connections and contributing to hands-on research projects."
Nickels said most of the FMWIS members are employees, academics in local universities, and community members interested in STEM. According to FMWIS surveys of fields in life and biological science, only 15 percent of the workforce are women. This is higher than women in computer science, but not at the level that the museum wants to see.
Having support from faculty at other institutions helps make their program stronger and it is more than necessary, she said. Lewis University is still in its early stage in gathering support for its program.
“We will need additional institutional support, because we can't really do this on the backs of full-time faculty,” Klump said. “Dr. Howard has been amazingly giving of her time to be pursuing all of these things.”
In order for computer science to be a truly innovative field with total inclusion of all people, Klump said it is imperative that girls know they are capable, and for more programs like Howard’s Girls Create with Technology to be set in place.
“I think girls need a little bit of extra help staying with it, and seeing the opportunities,” Klump said. “They certainly have the academic capabilities and qualifications to be just as good as boys are. I don't know if it's social pressure or the old notion that this is ‘man's work,’ but those extra efforts need to be made to get them to be enthusiastic about the field.”