September 12, 2006

The Orange County Register

Shattering stereotypes

By Colin Stewart

Dean of UCI's Bren School aims to make computer science as appealing to women as to men.

photo:: dean debra j. richardson

Debra J.

Katy Nguyen, 23, of Westminster hopes to land a job as a software engineer after she graduates from UCI, perhaps at the Lake Forest offices of automation software company Invensys.

Della Halim, 22, of Arcadia might work in database management, in software engineering, or perhaps start her own business.

The aspirations of these two UCI computer science majors are success stories for Debra Richardson, dean of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences.

One of her primary goals as dean is to make computer sciences more attractive to women, in part by destroying the stereotype that the world of computers is dominated by nerdy, solitary males with pocket protectors.

"It's not so much an issue of fairness as of economic competitiveness," Richardson says. "To develop the best systems in the world, you need all perspectives."

Richardson cites two examples of male-designed technologies that are female-unfriendly:

- Cars too large for a small woman's feet to reach the pedals, with air bags that explode with force that can kill a small person sitting close to the wheel - and, on top of that, nowhere to put a purse.

- More subtly, finding a contact number on some cell phones requires scrolling instead of quickly typing the first letters of the name. "I can tell the interface was designed by a guy," Richardson says.

Richardson sees the goal of attracting women to computer sciences as part of a larger objective.

"Varied peoples of all life experiences - men, women, ethnic minorities and the handicapped - all experience the world differently," she says. "Talent powers innovation, and diversity attracts talent."

In pursuing that vision, Richardson herself has been innovative, and has a success or two to show for her efforts.


Female undergraduates account for 14.9 percent of this fall's freshman enrollment at the School of Information and Computer Sciences, up from 13.6 percent last year and 11.3 percent in 2004.

Those modest gains still leave UCI close to national averages, but they're more impressive than they seem. That's because, in a sense, Richardson is swimming against the tide.

Nationwide and at UCI, enrollment in computer sciences has plunged since the end of the dot-com boom, and even more so among women. The Bren School's total undergraduate enrollment is barely half what it was in the boom years.

The percentage of women among computer science graduates nationwide dropped from 17 percent in 2003-2004 to 14.7 percent last year, according to a survey by the Computing Research Association.

At UCI, the percentage of women among computer science undergraduates dropped from 21.5 percent six years ago to 16.2 percent in 2003 and 12.7 percent last year. Against that backdrop, the higher percentage of women in this fall's freshman class is noteworthy.


Even though fears about loss of software jobs overseas are overblown, they affect enrollment, Richardson says.

"Those are low-level jobs," she says. "The design teams are staying in the United States. ... We're training students to be real designers."

"Still, if women feel there's not much opportunity for jobs, they are less likely to pursue that career."

A further problem: Many boys, but few girls, arrive at college with a feeling that they've learned the basics of computer programming through game-playing.

"Girls use computers for MySpace, e-mail, chat, not for programming. They see the computer as a tool, but not as something they want to tinker with."

Also alienating for girls: "Computer science seems to be a very isolated type of work." But Richardson says: "It's totally not true. Anything that gets done in the real world is done collaboratively, working with users as a team."


Requiring students to work collaboratively is one innovation that Richardson has introduced to make computer science more appealing to women. Among the others:

Adding context. Instead of assigning students to program a computer to write, "Hello, World" for no particular reason, the assignment would refer to a real-world use of computer analysis in genetics, drug research or homeland security.

Changing the classroom climate. In addition to having students work together, professors try to avoid male-oriented examples of computer applications, such as war games.

Hiring female faculty. About one-fourth of the school's 62 faculty members are women. The nationwide average is 12 percent.

Supporting female students. Richardson is the adviser and a strong supporter of UCI's Women in Computer Sciences club.

Appealing to young girls. "We have outreach workshops with organizations such as Girl Scouts and Girls Inc. of Orange County," Nguyen says, one of the club's officers. "We make computer science fun through interactive workshops such as learning how to use Photoshop."

Still, with 24 women in this year's freshman class of 161, Richardson is far from achieving her goal of appealing equally to women and men.

It's a shortfall that will hit women in the pocketbook, she says.

"There will be 1.5 million jobs in computer science in a decade," Richardson says. "Computer science is a very lucrative field to get into."
Shattering stereotypes

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