Computer Sciences implements plan to recruit and retain more women in undergraduate major

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In a time when career opportunities in computer science are plentiful, women are underrepresented nationally in computer science programs, limiting the pipeline of graduates who could fill these jobs and enjoy rewarding careers.

According to figures from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), while 57% of those earning a bachelor’s degree in any field in 2015 were women, that figure shrinks to only 18% when looking specifically at computer science majors. Three decades ago, in 1985, the proportion of female computer science graduates was significantly higher, at 37%.

To address issues of gender disparity within computer science, the UW-Madison Department of Computer Sciences has joined forces with NCWIT to create and begin implementing a strategic plan to recruit and retain more undergraduate women in computer science (CS).

After NCWIT approached the department in 2015 to gauge its interest in such an effort, the department readily accepted the opportunity, appointing a committee to work with NCWIT extension services consultant Dr. Angela Arndt. In addition to a consultant, NCWIT provided seed funding for new initiatives designed to meet program goals.

The department committee consisted of Prof. Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau, Prof. Michael Swift, undergraduate advisor Nikki Lemmon, and graduate coordinator Angela Thorp.

Says Swift, who is also the department’s associate chair, “Opportunities in computer science are abundant, yet unfortunately women are not fully represented in our major. And as the economy develops, computer science skills are useful in nearly every career. As a department, we’re committed to finding ways to support diversity, and our partnership with NCWIT is a step in the right direction.”

Recruiting and retention strategies implemented so far at UW-Madison have included:

  • Offering introductory programming workshops to give students a taste of basic principles in a fun, low-stress environment, led by peers who encourage them to enroll in a CS class.
  • Participating in First Year Interest Groups sponsored by other departments.
  • Working to add three CS courses to UW-Madison’s Digital Studies Certificate.
  • Having CS’ undergraduate advisor present to over 40 other campus advisors to help them better guide students on relevant CS courses and opportunities in the field in general.
  • Restructuring course projects for a popular undergraduate course so that smaller pieces are due earlier, making it easier for students to get help. As a result, the drop rate for the course (among both women and men) fell by 8%.
  • Continuing to fund student attendance at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.

Lucy Sanders, NCWIT’s CEO and co-founder, says, “Encouraging young women’s interest in technology careers is critical: our workforce needs their creativity and their innovation. The goal of this launch is to immediately increase the visibility and raw numbers of women in these programs.”

About NCWIT: The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) is a non-profit change leader network of more than 900 universities, companies, non-profits, and government organizations nationwide working to increase women’s meaningful participation in computing. NCWIT equips change leaders with resources and platforms for taking action in recruiting, retaining, and advancing women from K–12 and higher education through industry and entrepreneurial careers. Find out more at