Stanford, Berkeley boost female computing grads

Monica Anuforo, a computer science undergraduate student at Stanford University, listens to her teacher during a computer and network security class on April 5, 2018. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
Monica Anuforo, a computer science undergraduate student at Stanford University, listens to her teacher during a computer and network security class on April 5, 2018. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

More and more women are getting computer science and electrical engineering degrees from the Bay Area’s two elite universities, a goal U.S. colleges have been pursuing for decades. But in the midst of the #MeToo era’s focus on sexual misconduct, harassment and gender discrimination in tech, some of these young women say they’re worried about what their future workplace holds.

“Even though it’s not very apparent at Stanford, I think we all know that it’s a problem within the industry,” said Monica Anuforo, a junior pursuing a computer science degree. “I’m not very intimidating. I’m pretty small. It’s super easy for me to be ignored or for things I say to be written off, and I’m worried about that happening.

“I’m worried about it, but not enough to deter me,” said Anuforo, who became interested in computer science after taking a high school computing class “on a whim” because she was good at math and logic.

Since 2010, Stanford has steadily driven up the proportion of undergraduate women receiving degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from 11 percent to a record 31 percent in 2017, according to university data. UC Berkeley has doubled the percentage of women receiving those degrees during the same period, from 11 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2017, school data shows. That runs counter to a national trend, in which the proportion of women receiving degrees in computer and information sciences has dropped from a high of 37 percent in 1984 to about 18 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Stanford and Berkeley’s long-sought gains have come in the midst of a growing and heated debate over technology’s male-dominated culture. Ever since electrical engineer, lawyer and Harvard MBA Ellen Pao in 2012 launched an unsuccessful lawsuit alleging gender discrimination by VC firm Kleiner Perkins, claims and admissions of male misconduct in the region’s tech industry have followed one after another — from engineer Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment allegations against Uber to tech investor Dave McLure’s “I’m a creep. I’m sorry” apology for making inappropriate advances to women. Meanwhile, Google faces a lawsuit and federal investigation over whether it has paid women less than men and Uber last month agreed to settle a discrimination suit brought by hundreds of women and minority software engineers.

The issues haven’t escaped the attention of female students at Berkeley aiming for careers in computer science or electrical engineering, said computer science professor John DeNero.

“It comes up even on the first day of class,” he said. “The students are very keen to talk about it, understand it. They really want to know, ‘Are all companies the same? Is this something I’m going to see everywhere?’ ”

Those worries are exacerbated by some of the news from Silicon Valley, like the highly publicized memo written by former Google software engineer James Damore, who argued that women may be less biologically suited for tech jobs than men, said Tammy Nguyen, a senior computer science major at UC Berkeley.

Universities across the United States have been working for years to solve the industry’s “pipeline problem,” trying to both attract and graduate more female students to computer science and engineering. It’s a problem that begins early.

Google, in a 2014 research paper, reported that for girls and young women, most decision-making about whether to seek a computer science degree occurs before college. Last year, only 23 percent of U.S. high school students taking the advanced-placement test for computer science were female, according to The National Center for Women & IT.

To solve that, Berkeley and Stanford took a number of different steps and one similar approach: They changed their introductory computer science classes to attract students with varying experience levels.

Berkeley added introductory data science and computer science courses specifically aimed at students with no prior programming experience.

At Stanford, the university also created different introductory computer science courses for students with different levels of computing experience, according to computer science professor and former Google research scientist Mehran Sahami. Word of the changes got around.

To send a message that computing skills have applications beyond traditional tech jobs, and to broaden students’ career opportunities, Stanford created 10 study tracks for computer science majors, with choices including computational biology, he said.