While the gender divide in majors is a point of concern, it’s indicative of greater issues: the perception surrounding certain majors and the lack of resources for underrepresented groups.
Inclusivity starts with banishing old stereotypes, said Kevin Jeffay, chairperson of the computer science department. He said his department is 20 to 25 percent female.
“What’s emerging are a set of complex societal trends that tended to have made computer science less appealing to women than it is to men,” he said.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, women and men were equally involved in computer science. But from the personal computer revolution in the ‘80s onward, computers were aggressively marketed toward men, featuring two dominant stereotypes: the high-powered executive and the guy hacking from his parents’ basement, Jeffay said.
“The percentage of women that were studying computer science slowly went down throughout the ‘90s, and this problem was recognized in the early 2000s, and since then there’s been a concerted effort to try and change the perception of computer science and try to make it more appealing to everybody: people of all genders, all races, everyone,” he said.
Jeffay said it’s important to shift away from computing’s geeky perception and focus more on its enabling aspects.
“So to emphasize to people that you have some vision of how you’d like to impact the world, you can realize that vision through computer science and through programming,” Jeffay said.
Sheila Kannappan, the associate chairperson for diversity in the department of physics and astronomy, said her department has had more trouble attracting and retaining underrepresented minorities — like African-American, Hispanic-American and Native American students — compared to female students.
Kannappan traces the problem to a lack of resources in high school.
“If you look at physics in particular, it is not offered by the majority of North Carolina high schools, and it’s definitely not required,” she said. “There’s a built-in advantage for students who come from well-known public schools.”
These public schools are more likely to be part of affluent communities, suggesting a strong income bias against underprivileged communities and students, she said. For this reason, Kannappan’s department has found that initiatives like the UNC Science Expo and the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program coupled with faculty outreach to secondary schools are especially effective for providing students with resources and connections.
At the university level, it’s important that faculty composition is similar to the composition of the student body to encourage diversity within departments, said Jeffrey Johnson, chairperson of the department of chemistry. Johnson said 43 percent of chemistry undergraduates who complete their degrees are women.
“Having the types of professors in the classroom that better reflect the student body is going to be a really big factor in providing role models that help us get to where we want to be,” Johnson said.
To achieve the goal of representation, Johnson said it’s important to conduct equitable searches for faculty and be aware of implicit biases throughout the hiring process.
“It’s not a snap-your-fingers kind of problem, but it’s one that is sort of squarely in our line of sight, or line of fire, and one we want to make some progress on,” he said.
Professors across departments have identified introductory classes as being helpful in attracting students to majors.
In the department of computer science, new lecturers and new ways of teaching the material means students are more interested in Intro to Programming than ever before. Jeffay said lecturer Kris Jordan has helped attract students to the department.
“He has single-handedly raised enrollment in intro programming by about a factor of three,” Jeffay said. “His offering of intro programming is far more appealing to women and other members of underrepresented groups.”
Silvia Tomášková, chairperson of the department of women’s and gender studies, said while the majority of majors in her department are female, male enrollment and major declaration has changed dramatically over the past five years, a fact which she credits to Women’s Studies 101.
“It draws on a much larger student body, and we have had over the years a steady growth in male students in the class,” Tomášková said.
She said male or male-identifying students make up 25 percent of the 300-student 101 class.
Tomášková said the increase in diversifying the department can be credited to rebranding.
“Until 2012 we were the department of women’s studies, so we changed our name to indicate that this is about more than just women, and I think that in our intro classes we do quite a bit of recruitment in terms of ‘this topic is pertinent to all of you,’” she said.
“We very consciously work on addressing these topics on our classroom. All students truly do not feel excluded.”
Sophomore Bea Roland, a mathematics major and recent transfer from Wingate University, said her classes are pretty diverse in terms of race and gender. The gender composition of her math classes is mostly even, but women are the majority in her classes outside of the STEM field.
“My last school was like, majority white, Christian, conservative people,” she said. “It’s definitely a lot more diverse here.”