Making Computer Science More Inviting: A Look at What Works

When Sonja Khan started college, she’d never thought of studying computer science. But when she heard from friends that the intro class was good, she decided to give it a try — and then ended up majoring in it.

Four years later, she has just graduated with a computer science degree, is pursuing a master’s degree and is headed to a summer internship at Facebook.

“I didn’t even know anything about the field before; I had never considered it,” she said. “I signed up for it pretty much on a whim and really enjoyed it.”

Ms. Khan’s story reads like a dream for universities and technology companies — where only about 15 percent of computer science graduates and technical workers are women. The industry has been under pressure to recruit more. The difficult question, though, is how to encourage more women on paths like Ms. Khan’s.

Some colleges have made significant strides, including the University of Washington, where Ms. Khan is a student. Their methods offer lessons for other colleges and companies hoping to increase the number of women in fields where they remain underrepresented.

Behind the scenes of many of these colleges’ efforts is an organization called the National Center for Women & Information Technology. It provides consultants to college faculties on how to change their programs to recruit and retain women. On Thursday, the center is giving the University of Washington its first award, sponsored by Google, for colleges that have succeeded in this effort. The center hopes to give the award annually.

Thirty percent of University of Washington bachelor’s degrees in computer science last year went to women. Ed Lazowska, chairman in computer science and engineering at the university, called that share “not great.” Still, it is twice the national average and up from 20 percent in 2010 and 15 percent in 2005.

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