Breaking the code

Women are vastly underrepresented in the high-tech industry, and many never even consider such work to be a viable option. But despite the obstacles, Professor Ellen Spertus and several alumnae show that women’s careers in computer science are attainable, exciting, and rewarding. Plus: a new professorship brings computer industry professionals into the classroom.

No comments

How women can find success in the computer industry—and why they should.

By Lisa Harrington

Ellen Spertus is an evangelist for the cause of women in technology. A triple-degree holder from MIT, she has written extensively on gender and technology, spoken at numerous conferences for women in the sciences, and serves as a senior research scientist at Google. As a professor at Mills, she is busy training and mentoring the next generation of women computer scientists. 

It’s a training that she was fortunate to begin at home. As a child, Spertus learned from her MIT-trained father how to use a computer and was tutored by her mathprodigy brother. She grew confident in her intellectual talents and attended one of the first computer camps in the country at age 12. When she herself enrolled at MIT to study computer science, the lack of female classmates was both conspicuous and puzzling. 

Ellen Spertus (Photo by Teresa Tam)

She decided to investigate and found women throughout academia and industry who shared stories of not being recognized or welcomed in the field—and even told outright that they “didn’t belong.” Their stories transformed Spertus “from a male-identified misogynist to a feminist” and, as she examined pernicious stereotypes of women in the hard sciences, Spertus realized for the first time how filtered her view had been. Her 1991 report based on this research, “Why are there so few female computer scientists?” was widely distributed in computer science circles and became required reading at campuses across the country. 

Today, Spertus says, despite an array of good reasons to study computer science, women still tend to shy away from the field, even though, as technology is increasingly integrated into our daily lives, all users benefit from having the best minds involved in developing products and services. The US Department of Labor predicts more than 1.4 million new jobs in computing by the end of the decade and, of course, women in technical jobs earn quite respectable salaries. “It’s not unusual for a computer science major to earn over $50,000 a year working on interesting problems in pleasant work environments just after graduating with a bachelor’s degree,” Spertus says. 

Why, then, has the number of women earning computer science degrees been falling for nearly 30 years?

Geek mythology 

According to the National Science Foundation, women earned 37 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees in 1984, the year the Apple Macintosh was introduced and “personal computing” became a household term. Since then, while women have made slow but steady gains in other science and engineering fields, their enrollment in computer science (CS) has declined significantly. Today, fewer than 12 percent of CS degrees go to women. From 2004 to 2011, female CS graduates lost ground both in terms of their percentage and actual number.

There aren’t any definitive answers to this problem, but research shows that many women never even consider pursuing computer science due to lack of exposure to the field, misunderstandings of the skills required, and lack of information about the career options available. More subtle discouragement comes from pervasive stereotypes in popular culture that paint computer engineers as boring, awkward, and just plain weird. 

“People think computer programmers just sit in front of a computer and never talk to each other,” says Spertus. On the contrary, she asserts, “Geeks are intelligent, enthusiastic people full of curiosity and passion. If geeks didn’t want to communicate with each other, they wouldn’t have invented the Internet.” 

But such misperceptions often dissuade women from even considering the field, and those who do pursue an interest in computing often face long-standing stereotypes. 

Consider Miya McClain ’06, a computer scientist at Microsoft. She’s lost count of the times she’s been told she doesn’t look like a computer engineer. “What do people think one looks like?” she asks. “A geeky guy with huge glasses?” 

Miya McClain ’06 (Photo by Jenn Ireland)

McClain is typical of women working in the high tech industry: smart, driven, energetic, and moving up in her company. A lead software design engineer, she heads a team of engineers that tests part of the Microsoft Office suite, trying to find bugs before users do and then fix them. 

McClain discovered her inner geek as a young teen, when her mother enrolled her at Seattle’s Technology Access Foundation (TAF). There, she had the chance to take a computer apart and put it back together again. She learned programming and began to recognize infinite possibilities to create new products. McClain was hooked. 

As Spertus says, “Computer science is like magic. You put words and symbols together and make things from your imagination come to life.”

Early exposure can set a girl on track to a rewarding technical career, but can be hard to come by. “In US high schools, computer science generally doesn’t count as a math or science course, and with the focus on testing, teachers can’t spend a lot of time on material that isn’t on the test,” says Spertus. 

“When schools do have computer programming classes—not just word processing—they’re elective,” she adds. “More boys than girls sign up, the girls see how few they are, some leave, and a vicious cycle develops.” 

For girls who stay in CS classes, things don’t necessarily get any easier. Spertus points to numerous studies that have shown how teachers, often unknowingly, show bias against female students. Girls are called on less often than male peers and can be subjected to harassment and ostracism. “Teachers need to be conscious of what’s going on in their classes; they can try to keep an eye on whether people are being heard,” says Spertus, who is currently developing software to make it easier for children to learn programming in middle school. 

McClain agrees that it’s time to redesign elementary, middle school, and high school curricula in order to reach girls earlier. “This has to start at a young age,” she says. “You have to show children that this sort of career is possible for them. 

“There’s a perception among young women and minorities that a technical career isn’t a viable choice,” adds McClain. “I didn’t think computer science was an option until I met [TAF founder] Trish Millines Dziko, another African American woman.” Recognizing how her own life’s course was altered, McClain often speaks with minority students about careers in technology. “I want other young women to know that it’s possible to go into a mostly male environment and not only succeed, but excel.” 

Can you hear me now? 

McClain learned HTML and JavaScript coding as well as Visual Basic and ASP.NET, a framework for building dynamic websites, while still in high school, gaining significant momentum and confidence as a programmer by the time she chose to attend Mills. She also had secured the offer of an internship from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who had seen her present her work during a fundraising event. She returned to Microsoft every summer during her undergraduate career and ultimately landed a permanent job there. 

But many women find that increased competition and lack of support at the college level can create a forbidding environment. “There tends to be a drop-off in the number of women in CS classes before it’s time to declare a major,” says Spertus, who adds that female students in co-ed programs tend to judge themselves more harshly than men. In her research, she found that “women were more likely to leave the major while earning B’s while men with C’s would stay in.” 

Some higher education institutions have found effective ways to improve this situation. In 2006, when computer scientist and mathematician Maria Klawe became president of Harvey Mudd College, a mere 10 percent of the college’s computer science degrees went to women. Only six years later, that number had more than tripled. 

The remarkable change may be due in part to a major revamping of their required introductory CS course: they developed two tracks, separating students with and without previous programming experience, and placed greater emphasis on computational problem solving— learning how to analyze problems and break them down into smaller parts, then finding the most efficient step-by-step solutions. 

At Mills, which became the first women’s college to offer a major in computer science in 1974, CS courses are mixed undergrad and grad, and even at the graduate level students are predominantly female. McClain chose Mills through a combination of her TAF mentor’s recommendation, the offer of a tuition scholarship, and personal attention in her recruitment. “Once I was at Mills,” she says, “teachers like Professor Spertus and the small class sizes really helped me succeed and keep going with computer science.” 

“Every student comes to our class feeling that she or he belongs there and that we’ll provide support,” Spertus says. “If you can get women to stay in a computer science course and get over that learning curve, they may discover they like it more than they thought they would.” 

Patricia Legaspi ’02 found that one of the most challenging aspects of her learning curve in classes outside of Mills was building the assertiveness to compete with more outspoken students. Growing up in East Oakland, she enjoyed playing video games and gravitated toward computer science classes in school. Her parents, immigrants from Mexico who hadn’t gone beyond the fourth grade, made education a high priority for their four children and worked hard to send them through Catholic schools. 

Patricia Legaspi ’02 (Photo by Teresa Tam)

Legaspi earned a Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend Holy Names College as a computer science major. She transferred to Mills as a junior, and Spertus urged her to do a summer computer course at UC Berkeley. Legaspi followed that advice and found that she was the only woman in a group of 20 male doctoral students. It was her first taste of the “boys club.” 

When she had to prepare a conference presentation, Legaspi did a dry run in front of the class. “They were shooting questions at me, and I felt intimidated and unprepared,” she recalls. “Afterwards, the professor said, ‘It isn’t you; they do that with guys too. Push back. Challenge them as much as they challenge you.’”

“It was really intimidating,” she says. “I had to learn to speak up or they were going to talk right over me. It was very competitive: Who can say the right answer first? Who has the best comment? It was a game of boys and if I didn’t jump in, I had no chance.” 

Legaspi rose to and passed that and similar challenges. Now, after working as lead tester for Google’s geographical apps, she heads the testing team for the operating system on Chromebooks, personal computers designed to use applications that reside on the Web and store data in the “cloud” accessed through the Internet. 

The social network 

While conferences and hackathons continue to emit a “no girls allowed” vibe, many in the tech community are starting to speak out against those attitudes. Spertus acknowledges that while larger companies have become more inclusive, certain technology sectors, such as the open source and online communities, remain more blatantly impenetrable to women. But smart companies know that diverse teams often come up with better, more elegant solutions to problems. “When designing a product, you want a broad group of people involved. Just as you need people who are multi-lingual or have diverse thinking styles and experiences, you also need women,” says Spertus. 

Karen May ’86, vice president of leadership and talent at Google and a member of the Mills Board of Trustees, points out that even with all the technical skill and professional savvy women can muster, the corporate culture that permeates the high-tech field can be particularly unwelcoming. “When you are a woman building a career in technology, you’re in the minority,” she says. “The norms for expected behavior may be more traditionally male. Women’s styles often don’t match those norms, so women can be seen as ‘different.’” Even relatively innocuous activities, like a round of pick-up basketball during lunch, can make it difficult for women to be part of the in crowd. 

There is no simple formula to level the playing field, according to May, but a combination of things can help. As Patricia Legaspi learned to handle tough questions from her male peers, women can benefit from learning to assert their own opinions and stand up to criticism. At the same time, May adds, men can make a priority of recognizing women in the room, teams can agree to simple changes like giving everyone three minutes to present a proposal, and organizations can support female employees by assigning them sponsors or mentors. 

McClain says she feels fortunate to have found such guidance at Microsoft, including a colleague who took time off to have a baby and then came back to work— a rare example in a field where family and personal life often take a back seat to long hours and demanding deadlines. 

“Balancing work and life is a week-to-week thing, but I have an amazing support system in my husband and mother,” says McClain, who is now a mother of two little girls. “We’ve had to be diligent about setting up rules, like weekends are truly family time. That is not to say that these rules don’t get broken sometimes, but at least I know what balance should look like.” 

Personal and professional support is a key ingredient to building the self-confidence needed to make it in the world of technology, says Spertus. “The stereotype is that women who succeed don’t want to help others, but that is totally not true in computer science.” Spertus says that online communities and professional organizations can be extremely helpful, and although most tech conferences still feature “booth babes” and t-shirts in men’s sizes only, there are antidotes such as the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which includes talks on technical topics, how to run workshops that interest girls, and how to balance family life with careers. 

A bit more than bytes 

Christine Halverson, MA ’89, worked for several years as an air traffic controller before beginning her master’s degree in interdisciplinary computer science at Mills in the mid-1980s. Her knowledge of air traffic control gave her added understanding when she later evaluated use of new control systems at NASA while working towards her PhD at UC San Diego. By the time she joined IBM, where she has spent 16 years as a research staff member, she’d developed the thick skin needed to stand up in the high-tech world. 

Christine Halverson, MA ’89 (Photo by Teresa Tam)

While IBM is still a man’s world in many ways, she says, she has been lucky to work mostly with teams that have a good gender mix. “My previous careers—debt collection and air traffic control—were even more dominated by men,” she says. “Growing up in the ’70s, I learned to get along.” 

Halverson specializes in cognitive aspects of computing, particularly human computer interaction, a field that blends computer science, behavioral sciences, psychology, design, and other fields to improve usability and satisfaction. As devices from gaming consoles to aircraft control panels become more complex, every aspect of design and function must be evaluated in order to make these tools as intuitive as possible for a wide range of users. She has also done work in computer supported cooperative work, examining the behaviors of teams working collaboratively, often from different worksites. 

“I remain intrigued by how we interact with and use technology,” she says. “At IBM, we’ve researched how people in groups make social inferences when interacting with computers.” 

Halverson’s ideas have been put to good use improving the way people work and use technical tools, showing the tremendous benefit and “multiplier effect” that is possible for women working in computer science. 

Spertus has shown this too through her creation of software at Google that has helped educate hundreds of thousands, and in her popular Mills class, Technology for a Better World, which teaches her students the immense potential of technology to do good. 

Smart phone apps, for example, can have a huge effect in places like Africa, where cell phone use is soaring. “Improving life in the developing world appeals to my students and motivates them,” says Spertus. Her students have imagined apps that could make it possible for rural storekeepers to order supplies online, for villagers to link to relatives in other countries, and to help locate water, firewood, and other necessary resources.

Such creativity and innovation has always been the cornerstone of the technology industry, and Spertus strongly believes that, despite the obstacles, women’s talent is vital and necessary to keep the field moving forward. “Women are users of technology and should play a part in its creation,” she says with conviction. “If you want to create things that can change people’s lives for the better, and to be part of something larger than yourself, computer science is the place to be.”  

Bridging education and employment 

The gap between classroom and corporation can seem considerable, but the new Annette Chan-Norris ’65 and Evan Norris MD Visiting Professorship at Mills seeks to bring these two worlds closer together. The first two holders of the professorship, both in the computer science department, combine academic credibility and professional experience to bring a uniquely practical perspective to their students. 

Ümit Yalçinalp, who will begin a one-year term in January, did her undergraduate computer science work at Middle Eastern Technical University in her home country, Turkey, and completed her PhD at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she remembers feeling surprised to be one of the few females in the computer science department. At Mills, she plans to make computer science careers both more attractive and more attainable for Mills students. 

“Helping women computer scientists and professionals is one of my passions,” says Yalçinalp, who has been active with organizations that promote opportunities for women in technology, such as the Anita Borg Institute and Girls in Tech. As a software architect at Adobe Systems,, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems, she has contributed to many cutting-edge technology standards in Java, XML, and cloud computing, and led product and research groups. In many of these positions, she has provided technical training as well as career mentoring in important skills such as honing a resume and learning to stand out in a group—skills that she will impart to Mills students as well. 

In addition to classroom teaching and hands-on lab work, Yalçinalp plans to prepare students by critiquing their resumes and applications, giving feedback on their online presence, and helping them clarify employment goals. 

She has already begun a plan of attack for increasing ties to employers, noting that some companies have well-established connections to campus. “The key is to find out which companies are missing,” she says, adding that each company is different in how they handle internships and when they interview for them. “I will use my own connections and social media to collect some of this data, as well as making institutions aware of our students,” she says. “I have already been approached by one software company in Oakland that is interested in providing internships for Mills students.” 

○ l ○ l ○ l ○ l ○ 

Dave Thau , who will hold the professorship in 2015, is currently working to develop Google’s Earth Engine project, which makes 40 years of satellite images of Earth available to track changes like deforestation and development.

“Being able to ask global questions is increasingly important, and these techniques for monitoring the environment are relatively new,” Thau says. 

A large portion of his current work entails teaching and presenting, and he has mentored graduate students at UC Davis, Google interns (many who were subsequently hired to full-time positions), and newer employees. 

Thau received a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from UCLA and, spurred by an interest in how computers can be programmed to recognize patterns the way humans do, continued on to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He co-founded an early web development company in 1993 and has extensive experience with database systems and online communities. He has also held positions at the California Academy of Sciences and as a liaison between the UC Davis computer science department and the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. 

Thau plans to set up an interview coaching series and to introduce students to people from a variety of institutions. “I work closely with many NGOs, nonprofits, and research institutions,” he says, “which gives me a broad network of people who have opportunities for interns.”

Annette Chan-Norris ’65 and her husband, Evan, are “very, very excited” about the gift they’re bringing to Mills College this spring—a new professorship that will bring a high-tech industry professional or academic to campus each year to teach, mentor, and provide practical career advice to students in the hard sciences: chemistry, physics, biology, math, and computer science. The Annette Chan-Norris ’65 and Evan Norris MD Endowed Visiting Professorship in Science and Technology is also intended to increase internships and other ties to employers. 

Annette Chan-Norris (in pink) with her husband, Evan Norris, and their son, Jesse, during a visit with President DeCoudreaux and faculty from the computer science department.

“We’re so pleased to have people from the industry help students network and give them a different perspective on the practical applications of what they learn in the classroom. This will help them plan for further education or joining the work force,” Chan-Norris says. 

Chan-Norris and her husband have a long history of scholarship gifts both to Mills College and to Norris’s alma mater, St. Lawrence University. As Chan-Norris explains, “both Evan and I are very committed to education when we’re thinking of gift giving. Education is the top of the list.” 

Having already established the Leonard and Mary Chan Endowed Scholarship in Computer Science at Mills in honor of Chan-Norris’s parents, they sought to provide “a different kind of enrichment to the students,” Norris says. “This is an opportunity to acquaint students with what goes on outside the Ivory Tower, to make connections and create opportunities.” 

“Mills has been wonderful to me,” says Chan-Norris, who came to Mills from Hong Kong and felt “very comfortable on my own at Mills. I had the chance to see student government at work; try different volunteer jobs, including working on the school newspaper; and take courses outside my comfort zone. I’m grateful to still have friends that were made when we first met at Mary Morse Hall. That’s a very special thing.” 

Chan-Norris, who lives in Chappaqua, New York, is an active member of the Mills College Club of New York, which this year held its 60th annual benefit to support students from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. One of her greatest goals is to keep Mills College and its alumnae strong. “All of us want the next generation to experience the same academic challenges we had in a beautiful environment at an all-women’s college.” —Valerie Sullivan