How Can We Encourage More Women to Become Involved in Computer Science?

How can we encourage more young women to become involved in computer science? originally appeared on Quora: the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Colleen van Lent, lecturer at the University of Michigan and an Instructor at Web Design for Everybody, on Quora:

I think that there have been great strides in encouraging women and minorities to consider studying computer science. I see increased interest and participation among women and minorities in my community and it is encouraging, however, I also recognize that I live in a pretty unique place. My sister often tells me that her town just doesn't offer the same programs. To combat this type of challenge, I think we need to continue to normalize the idea of females in Computer Science and also expand the programs outside of big cities and academic towns.

I don't know if society will ever glorify the "smart kids" as much as the athletes (not that they are mutually exclusive). As a result, I try to focus my efforts on showing students that programming is an incredible opportunity. My career day speeches do not focus on the minutia of being a scientist, but rather all of the opportunities that a career in science provides: good pay, flexible work schedule, etc. Combine that with the fact that you can be doing rewarding work that allows you to solve challenging problems and it becomes a very attractive option. I also highlight the need for people in CS who also have an interest in story-telling, art, games, nature, and/or biology (among others).

As a final note, I have decided to share with you all that I am nervous about writingabout this topic. I wish it wasn't the case, but I am. And the reason is because people can get angry that there are special programs to encourage women and minorities to go into CS. I myself was a recipient of a Fellowship to pursue my PhD and I have had people confront me about it and also tell me I don't belong here. I only mention this because I want other people to realize that there will be challenges, and it isn't all smooth sailing. Knowing this makes it easier to handle the uncommon, but unsettling, experiences.

I want to reference a Q & As that I did about What are the most common pitfalls that new programmers face? I know that I was particularly susceptible to all of them, but two stick out. Sometimes incredibly well-intentioned peers and mentors wanted to "help" me succeed by giving me the answer rather than talking through the process. It hindered my confidence and my growth. This happened to many of my female peers. So lets make sure our efforts don't actually undermine new programmers.

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