How to increase the percentage of female students on computer science courses


At UCL Computer Science Department we are currently working hard on our Athena Swan submission. Athena Swan is a charter for women in science. It recognises a commitment to advancing women’s careers in STEMM – Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Medicine.

As part of this we have been looking at what other universities are doing to address the issue of gender under-representation at university and as part of that we have looked at a book written some time ago now called “Unlocking the Clubhouse” by Margolis and Fisher about their experience of increasing the number of females studying computer science at Carnegie Mellon University from 7% to 42% on five years. What a remarkable achievement. Below is a precis of my notes from the book. 


Unlocking the Clubhouse – main points

A telling quote:

“Our interviews reveal lifelong influences by parents, teachers and peers that cast computing in a male mold. They explain how this leads to a narrowing of girls’ and womens’ options, and often to the extinction of their nascent interest. They show that many women who might pursue computing careers end up alienated by a culture that was not made for them.”

Recommended measures:

  1. Student experience – early courses often use a “weedout”approach, this disproportionately affects women as they will conclude that they are not bright or committed enough
  2. Accommodate wide range of experience on entry – this enables many disadvantaged populations to enter
  3. Develop awareness of many facets and impacts of learning – role models, contextualising, seeing work in practice, helps them picture themselves as professionals in the discipline. There are many ways to be a successful computer scientist. 
  4. Build communication and support structures – women tend to feel less discouraged by difficulties if they find that others share them. 

Critical Sucess Factors:

  1. A Champion – With responsibilty to push until results are achieved. They must be in a position of appropriate authority to cause the needed changes. 
  2. Reform efforts must suit the environment. Prioritize interventions that focus in the most important local issues. 


 What do you think? Are you preparing an Athena Swan submission? Have you implemented any of these measures? If so what has been your experience?

I’m so delighted to be working with a great team in Computer Science at UCL, hardworking and passionate, every meeting is so exciting and interesting as we look through our data and work out what we are going to do to address the issues that we want to concentrate on.

Our report will be submitted to Athena Swan at the end of November.



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