The 2023-24 ACM Chronicle: Women’s Journey in Computer Science

By Cigdem Sengul

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s crucial to reflect on the strides made and the journeys ahead in achieving gender equality in computing. This year, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) shines a spotlight on the groundbreaking accomplishments of women in computing, celebrating women’s contributions through a selection of past People of ACM interviews, ByteCast episodes, TechTalks sessions, and more. So stay tuned into ACM’s social media accounts. 

The landscape of computer science, traditionally seen as a male-dominated field, is gradually transforming, thanks in part to the relentless efforts of countless women who break barriers every day and pave the way for future generations.  To better understand women’s current journeys of perseverance in computer science, in this article, we selected five research papers that appeared in ACM publications in 2023-24. Join us as we explore these insights.

We need to create supportive cultures for women to thrive in computing 

The issue is not just about opening doors for women in computing; it’s about ensuring they feel welcome, valued, and empowered to contribute their fullest potential.

Women may lack early exposure to Computer Science – “Many People don’t even know what Computer Science is.”

Source: Jeba Rezwana and Mary Lou Maher. 2023. Increasing Women’s Participation in CS at Large Public Universities: Issues and Insights. ACM Inroads 14, 2 (June 2023), 18–25.

Rezwana and Maher study women students’ experiences and struggles in computer science at a large public university in the US and show that lack of prior programming experience and gender bias leads to a negative experience for women students in introductory CS courses. Their study participants were led to the CS field due to the positive prospects in the CS field, family influence and support, and early exposures in high school. However, they wished for more positive learning environments. Their negative experiences stemmed from strained interactions with male teaching assistants, who lacked training, and being the only woman in all-male groups. 

The study also highlighted that most students without previous experience think the introductory CS course is designed for students with previous programming experience when “many people don’t even know what Computer Science is.”  So, they suggest being taught an introduction to computer science instead of an introduction to Java (or any other programming language). They also prefer more active learning opportunities with people at their level – which was one of the innovations that turned the tide in Harvey Mudd College (Source: Alvarado, C., Dodds, Z., and Libeskind-Hadas, R., Increasing women’s participation in computing at Harvey Mudd College. ACM Inroads, 3, 4 (2012): 55-64.)

Access, agency, and achievement are elements of women’s empowerment

Source: Nova Ahmed, Tamanna Motahar, Silvia Ahmed, Tamanna Urmi, Mahbuba Tasnim, and Lamia Iftekhar. 2023. Opportunities for Women in Computing: Perspective of Bangladesh. In Proceedings of the 2022 International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD ’22). ACM, New York, NY, USA, Article 2, 1–4.

All the authors in this study are actively working on improving the footprint of women in STEM from Bangladesh. We interviewed one of the authors, Nova Ahmed, in our Above and Beyond Scholarship series, a former ACM-W scholarship recipient. The study reports on eight years of research work, which shed light on the participation and performance of Bangladesh’s women in the Computing field. After many surveys, interviews, and focus groups, the authors identify that women need:

  • A non-judgmental facility where one would not have to worry about what others might think.
  • More female instructors,  along with male instructors, trained for gender sensitivity.
  • Relatable examples of role models and their pathways

Experiences confirm and increase gender biases

Source: Valentina Fietta, Nicolò Navarin, Merylin Monaro, and Ombretta Gaggi. 2023. Women and Gender Disparities in Computer Science: A Case Study at the University of Padua. In Proceedings of the 2023 ACM Conference on Information Technology for Social Good (GoodIT ’23). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 82–91.

The authors studied 167 students from the University of Padua, Italy. According to the latest data by ISTAT (Italian National Statistics Institute) from 2021, in Italy, 24% of young adults (25-34 years old) with a university degree have obtained a degree in STEM. However, there is a gender gap: the percentage rises to 33.7% among men and drops to 17.6% among women.  

Authors importantly highlight that women perceive a higher degree of disadvantage than men’s perception of gender bias. While CS students perceive that the bias “CS is for men” is more prevalent among the older population, female students still state experiencing unpleasant situations “in a predominantly male environment that is often unreceptive and has not been able to recognise this discomfort.” These female students feel undervalued, misunderstood, and alone in a predominantly male university environment. We all need to understand reducing gender inequality in CS requires joint commitment and collaboration from all, “including women and men, academic institutions, companies, and society.”

Embracing Intersectionality is a Key to Unlocking Full Inclusion in Computing

Intersectionality considers identities like race, gender, class, and similar categories as socially constructed and best understood together rather than in isolation. Despite ongoing efforts to diversify computing, Black women remain severely underrepresented in the field, making up only 0.5% of CS degree awardees. The final two papers, to this end, study specifically Black women’s experience in computing.

Black women do not always identify as Computer Scientists

Source: Krystal L. Williams, Edward Dillon, Shanice Carter, Janelle Jones, and Shelly Melchior. 2023. CS=Me: Exploring Factors that Shape Black Women’s CS Identity at the Intersections of Race and Gender. ACM Trans. Comput. Educ. Just Accepted (December 2023).

The authors study key aspects of what it means to be a Computer Scientist for Black women, study new and mature undergrads, as well as professionals, seeking to answer:

  • How do Black women describe what it means to be a Computer Scientist? 
  • How do those definitions map onto how they see themselves within the field?
  • What factors help Black women to build stronger connections and CS identity?

Black women in this study described computer science in humanizing ways, focusing not on solving abstract problems but on helping people and making broader contributions to society. 

Being a Computer Scientist is primarily about problem-solving.

Anonymous Study Participant

However, some participants did not identify as Computer scientists. For some, this was linked to the breadth of the field and the lack of experience in all aspects of computer science, which is constantly changing. On the other hand, for some, this breadth was positive. 

… understanding that there’s a lot that goes into computer science, like, I can choose my own path within computer science.

Anonymous Study Participant

“Invisibility” also shaped Black women’s identification and connections with CS. The participants, especially recent graduates, often described CS environments that rendered them invisible or unseen. 

The article also highlights the importance of community and mentorship, which is one of our discussion topics in the Celebrating Technology Leaders Webinar in Empowered by Support: Communities, Connections & Careers. You can watch the full video here.

Tailored approaches are necessary to address the unique barriers Black women face in computing

Source: Susan R. Fisk, Brittany Watts, Courtney Dress, Charlotte Lee, Audrey Rorrer, Tom McKlin, Tiffany Barnes, and Jamie Payton. 2023. Retaining Black Women in Computing: A Comparative Analysis of Interventions for Computing Persistence. ACM Trans. Comput. Educ. Just Accepted (December 2023).

The authors use a decade of student survey responses from an NSF-funded Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) alliance to examine the connection between different types of interventions and Black women’s intentions to persist in computing and how this compares to other students (specifically, Black men, white women, and white men). They found that career awareness and faculty mentorship are the two interventions with a statistically significant, positive correlation with Black women’s intentions to persist in computing. The authors note that this analysis explores Black women who have already expressed an interest in computing, and different interventions are likely needed to attract Black women to the field. 

Women in Computer Science Are Making Some Strides, but Support Networks are a Must

Source: Esther Shein. 2023. Women in Computer Science Are Making Strides. Commun. ACM 66, 5 (May 2023), 15–17.

This article is not a narrative of despair. Challenges do exist, but we are aware of them. Yes, while some universities started enjoying an even gender split, like Vanderbilt University and Harvey Mudd College,  “Computer science is still not a level playing field for those women who majored in it and choose to pursue it as a career, “ as Bettina Bair, previous co-chair of the ACM-W, so aptly puts it. 

Dreschler, a senior majoring in Computer Science at Vanderbilt University, advises building a strong network, with women in particular, and joining groups that serve as support systems for women in STEM. So, see if there is an ACM-W chapter in your university or close to you. If there isn’t one, why don’t you create one? 

By fostering inclusive environments, encouraging mentorship, and championing diversity, we can ensure that the field of computing benefits from women’s talents and the richness of perspectives they bring. Together, we can forge a path toward a more equitable and innovative future in computing.

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