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UNC Comp Sci department works to close gender gap

Students review for the Comp401 midterm in class on Tuesday, March 6. 

Students review for the Comp401 midterm in class on Tuesday, March 6. 

According to the nonprofit organization Girls Who Code, just 24 percent of computer scientists today are women, and only 4 percent of female first-year students are enrolled in computing courses. 

At UNC, women make up nearly 30 percent of the computer science major, up from 15 percent when the Department of Computer Science began addressing the gender gap about four years ago. One of the department’s most successful efforts is the outreach done by the COMP 110 team to increase gender representation among teaching assistants. 

Gabi Stein, co-lead teaching assistant for COMP 110, said since joining the team, Kris Jordan, the teaching professor for the course, prioritized making COMP 110 diverse and inclusive because of the number of students that take the course. 

“If we have any chance of making (female students) fall in love with CS like we did, we have to have an inclusive team that’s going to make it seem like, ‘Oh yeah, if that person can do CS and they look like me, so can I,’” Stein said. “It shouldn’t just be a bunch of white males teaching white males CS, and so we really try hard to recruit people that show the diversity of North Carolina.” 

While no preference is given to women that apply to be on the COMP110 team, Stein said giving top women and minority students the confidence to apply makes selecting a more diverse group of teaching assistants possible. 

Sophomore Kimia Pourali, co-president of Women in Computer Science at UNC, said the gender balance on the COMP 110 TA team encourages women to continue enrolling in the higher computing courses.

“I think it’s working because I’ve definitely come across girls who were freshmen and came to WiCS and they were in 401 by the second semester, and they said what got them to keep going into 401 was that they had a women TA or LA,” she said. 

In addition to the outreach efforts by the COMP110 team, the department also started an Emerging Scholars program to offer exposure to computer science for students without prior experience. The department also partners with the Girls Who Code club at UNC, offers various labs to develop computing skills and hosts diversity panels each semester. 

Kevin Jeffay, department chairperson, said the aim is to put programs in place that will attract and retain women and members of underrepresented groups. Jeffay said the department is also slowly evolving the curriculum to be more empowering and welcoming to eventually reflect the diversity of the University. 

“The field is never really going to progress if it doesn’t include everyone. Women need to be fully participating,” he said. “There’s all sorts of studies that show that the more diverse the team is, the better the product that they make, the better the ideas they come up with. To have more homogeneous groups, say of all males, it’s not good for the field and its not good for the economy.” 

According to Girls Who Code, technology jobs are one of the fastest growing industries in the country; however, women are being left behind with the biggest drop off in interest occurring between ages 13 to 17. Jeffay said this is why the department must increase outreach to women on campus and continue creating programs that make clear pathways from courses to industry. 

“If (UNC's) graduates are say, only 20 or 30 percent female, that means the companies also have a hard time achieving parity, at least on a gender basis,” Jeffay said. “So a lot of what we’re doing is we’re partnering with local industry to help address this problem, and it’s important to note that local industry is very much engaged in the problem, and in the solutions we’re developing here at UNC.” 

Diane Pozefsky, director of undergraduate studies for the department, said she is pleased with the progress made, but stressed that diversity must be part of the system in order to truly make a difference. 

“If you don’t make it part of your DNA, it’ll backslide,” Pozefsky said. “I don’t want people to think we’ve had the program, we’ve improved to a good enough point and we’re done.” 

When the COMP 110 team began its outreach efforts in Fall 2015, 25 percent of the teaching assistants were women. In Fall 2017, female TAs made up 60 percent of the team – matching the gender demographics of the University. 

Stein said this progress shows how effectively a proactive plan can create change, and gender representation in every course is critical. 

“If you’re an intro-CS student reaching out, you should be able to reach out to someone who mirrors you in some way, and so we’re able to do that,” she said. “You should be able to do that as you continue to do that as you move through your career, and see people in power that look like you.”


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