women in math graph

(Information courtesy of UO)

As technology advances, more opportunities appear for college students who are in the computer science and mathematics fields.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in computer and information technology are projected to grow 13 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than the average rate for any occupation.

But nationwide, universities aren’t seeing as many women earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science. According to research done by the National Girls Collaborative Project, women are receiving half of the degrees in biological sciences but only 17.9 percent of the computer science degrees and 43.1 percent of all mathematics degrees.

In 2015–2016, UO’s Department of Computer and Information Science awarded 14 percent of its bachelor’s degrees to women. In 2016–17 and 2017–2018, respectively, 19 and 16 percent of graduates receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer science were women.

In UO’s mathematics department, 13 percent of its bachelor’s degrees in 2015–16 went to women. In 2016–17 and 2017–18, respectively, 35 and 30 percent of the department’s bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women.

Computer science undergraduate studies director Kathleen Freeman said there is a lot of support for students in the major to make sure they succeed, including the Women in Computer Science organization, their most active student group.  

“It’s making sure people are getting the support they need in the major,” Freeman said. “So people who are thinking, ‘Oh I need help, I’m not really sure, I’ve never done this before,’ they can always get help and have support.”

Sophomore computer science major and head of recruiting for WiCS Stephanie Schofield said part of the reason that women and minorities are struggling to continue in the major is because of the relationships between the more inexperienced students and the professors.  

“Because the majority of students are coming in with a lot of experience, the professors are catering to them,” Schofield said. “It’s not focusing on the little guy, which a majority of the time happens to be these women that come to our meetings, and they’re complaining and saying, ‘I feel so dumb,’ and they end up giving up.”

WiCS was founded in 1985, and in the past has provided scholarships, K-12 outreach and tutoring and mentoring for women and currently has around 20 members.  

WiCS member Sierra Battan majors in both computer science and mathematics and said that at the beginning of every term, she counts how many females are in her classes, and counts again before the first midterm. She said that by that time, a considerable amount of her original count have withdrawn from the class.

“As a society, we stigmatize math and make it seem like only nerds or people who have no friends can be good at it,” Battan said.

Freeman says that the numbers could be better, but there are good things happening in the computer science department for both men and women who might not have as many skills as they think they need.

“A number of studies show that women tend to underestimate their skills and strengths, so people with the exact same skill set could think that they’re in a different place,” Freeman said. “Plenty of men come into the department not knowing anything either. But there is so much to learn that it can be a heavy lift in those early terms, and everyone is looking around feeling like, ‘Everybody here knows more than I do.’”

When Battan tells people that she enjoys math and majors in both math and computer science, she said she often gets told, “Oh, you must really hate yourself,” and is treated differently because of the stereotype of people who are in these majors.

Battan also says that she’s not convinced that there’s anything the university can do to improve the number of women in STEM courses.

“The sad fact is that women who choose these majors have already accepted this disparity and are willing to deal with it because they truly love the subject,” Battan said. “Sure, we can offer more support for these students, and we could attempt to build up a team of educators that includes more females, but this only helps those that made it that far.”

News Reporter

Erin Carey is a news reporter for the Daily Emerald. She enjoys coffee, hockey and the Oregon Zoo. You can reach her at [email protected]

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