At a time when the technology industry is struggling with gender equity in its workforce, the number of women in the University of Waterloo’s computer science program is showing a steady increase.

When the class of 2017 started their studies back in 2012, about 13 per cent of the students in the Faculty of Mathematics computer science programs were women. As that class graduates this week, there are 750 women in the programs who now make up more than 20 per cent of the computer science students. Also, more than 24 per cent, or 205 women, were admitted into the programs this academic year, a significant increase from about 10 per cent of admissions ten years ago.

“One of the reasons for the increasing representation of women in computer science is that we have made our first-year computing course accessible to students who have no background in computing,” said Professor Jo Atlee, Director of Women in Computer Science at Waterloo. “We have Math students, who may not have taken computer science in high school, who are forced to take CS as part of their first-year Math core, and who discover they enjoy it and are pretty good at it."

Attracting and retaining women in computer science is a complex issue that has taken on an urgency as numbers started to drop two decades ago.  In the early 1980s, 37 per cent of students in computer science in Canada and the United States were women. Today, that number hovers around 18 per cent.

Waterloo’s statistics also reveal a gradual increase in the number of women studying in another program that has traditionally been heavily dominated by male students. In software engineering, a cross-disciplinary program in Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics and Faculty of Engineering, the number of female students has grown from 11 per cent to 16 per cent.

Women in Computer Science celebrates 10th Anniversary

The good news comes as Waterloo’s Women in Computer Science (WICS) group, based in the Faculty of Mathematics, celebrates its 10th anniversary. WICS, the outcome of a Waterloo task force report on gender equity in computer science, has a mandate to ensure women entering university see computer science as an option. WICS also aims to build an environment in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science where women are supported in their work and studies.

The Faculty of Mathematics has begun a fundraising campaign with the hashtag #WeBelongInTech to support women in computer science. People can donate online here.

“The emphasis for WICS today is raising awareness of the gendered obstacles that women in computing face and providing students with the knowledge, vocabulary and strategies for mitigating these obstacles,” said Atlee. “WICS helps instill in each student the importance of building a network of like-minded technical women.”

WICS runs orientation events for incoming female students, technical interview prep sessions to prepare students for coop interviews, sexism response workshops, Big CSters mentoring events, technical talks and workshops, distinguished speakers, career panels and trips to women-in-computing conferences.

“A technical woman needs a network of technical girlfriends who can serve as a sounding board when she experiences setbacks and biases,” said Atlee. “Female peers can be realistic mirrors and critics who can fairly assess her abilities and achievements and encourage her and help her prepare for advanced positions.”

In May 2015, Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor, accepted an invitation from the UN Women’s HeForShe campaign for the University of Waterloo to participate in their IMPACT 10x10x10 framework that involves 10 Heads of State, 10 CEOs, and 10 University Presidents to advance gender equity. One of Waterloo’s HeForShe commitments includes boosting female student participation in STEM outreach experiences and academic careers to build the pipeline of future female leaders in traditionally male dominated disciplines.