Nova Scotia

Dalhousie aims to double female computer science students in 2018

Women currently make up less than 25 per cent of students in the faculty of computer science.

Women currently make of up less than 25 per cent of students in the faculty of computer science

Rebecca Ansems, a fourth-year computer science student at Dalhousie University, says it can be intimidating to be one of the only women in the program. (Rebecca Ansems)

Dalhousie University's faculty of computer science is aiming to double the number of female students entering its undergraduate programs by 2018.

The faculty's dean said women currently make up 16 to 25 per cent of the computer science students, depending on the program, and they want to change that.

"[It's] really important that computer scientists, the people who are literally designing the world that we're moving into, represent the diversity of our society in terms of values and perspective history and gender," said Andrew Rau-Chaplin.

In order to attract more women to the programs, Rau-Chaplin said the faculty has a goal of raising $700,000 in scholarships for female students, will offer enhanced co-op opportunities and is establishing a mentorship program with women in the industry.

He also said the faculty has done a major revision of its first-year curriculum to make is more accessible to a broader reach of people. For instance, no coding experience is needed.

"If you look at your curriculum through this lens, it not only improves it for one group, it improves it overall," Rau-Chaplin said. "The major changes that are coming in 2018 are a recognition that people will come to computer science with perhaps very different levels of expertise."

Female students currently make up between 16 and 25 per cent of the students in computer science programs at Dalhousie. (Dalhousie University)

The faculty's commitment to more female students is welcome news to fourth-year bachelor of computer science student Rebecca Ansems.

While there were between 10 and 15 women in a class of 80 to 100 during the first year of her degree, she said those numbers started to shrink as time went on. Suddenly, she was one of only three women in a class of 60 or 70.

"It can be intimidating," she said. "When you're in a class and you're so distinctly the minority, it can be a bit difficult to not only make friends, but to find people to do homework with or get help from."

While Rau-Chaplin said the faculty want to increase gender diversity across all computer science programs and all years, the particular focus is 2018 undergraduate students.

"There's almost a little bit of defeatism. People recognize that this isn't a Dal challenge, this is a global, societal challenge and so they say, 'What difference is this going to make?'" he said.

"But I think by focusing in on a single cohort we can make a significant difference in our corner of the world. And when you do that, you produce role models for tomorrow."

Dalhousie's faculty of computer science hopes to see the number of female students double by 2018. (Dalhousie University)

While searching for industry partners for the project, Rau-Chaplin said he's spoken with people working in tech who recognize the lack of women in the field. He gave one example where a chief information officer of a major Canadian corporation told him: "'This is our problem, as well as yours.'"

"His first response was, 'How much is it going to cost and how can I help?' I was kind of like, 'Wow, that's not the usual reaction I get when I'm out there looking for people's support,'" Rau-Chaplin said.

Ansems said when she did her co-op placements she was the only female engineer at the company she worked for. But, she said, one of the perks is she already has a job lined up for when she graduates.

"Besides the fact it's a very interesting field and it's very fun, it's one of the best-paid industries that you can get into now. And it's one of the very few that's still hiring people on a very regular basis," she said

"I have a job when I graduate, but I'm not the only one of my friends that do — which is not something I can say for a lot of my other friends that are in other faculties."