By Colleen van Lent, Lecturer at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and instructor for the Web Design for Everybody Specialization on Coursera
International Women’s Day on March 8th celebrates social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women – and also encourages action to accelerate gender parity across the globe. Follow #WomenInTech throughout this week to see different perspectives on how to close the gender gap in technology from inspiring female professors who teach on Coursera.
I don’t think there is only one way to recruit and retain more women, because pursuing a career in computer science is such an individual choice. But I do know that there were two crucial influences in my decision to pursue this field: a supportive family and early exposure.
I come from a large family with seven children. My dad was a Physics professor and my mom was a nurse. I was unbelievably lucky to have access to a “fun” place to play – a lab. And while we didn’t have a lot of money, we did have a computer very early on. My path to programming started when I was around 9 or 10 years old. I learned how to write this program:
10 PRINT “COLLEEN IS THE BEST. EDDIE STINKS!!!!”
20 GOTO 10
And with that looping screen of sisterly love, I was officially a programmer. I now realize that this early exposure was defining. It never occurred to me there was anything unusual about me using a computer. Until, that is, I went to college.
I was one of only a handful of females in the department and often the only one in a class. In addition, there were no female faculty. That was a reason I chose to become a professor – so I could be a mentor for future generations of computer scientists (male and female). It was tough at times, but my family was always very supportive. And knowing that there were so many ways that I could get financial aid to continue my studies was VERY important.
Looking forward, what can I do to help make my reality a reality for others? I feel that it is very important for me to help other families realize that providing opportunities for children to experience and play with technology is important and financially feasible. We need to increase the number of free programming classes for kids (not just the number of expensive programming “camps”). During the spring, I usually spend one day a week for six weeks introducing elementary school students to Scratch programming during their recess break. I also coach a “Science Olympiad” team in computing, but I am frustrated that necessity limits the number of students who can partake.
It would be wonderful if everyone had a “lab” to play in. Luckily more and more cities are creating free Makerspaces. As a mentor I have to do more than take my children to these events. I need to bring others, spread awareness, and help encourage the creation of other similar experiences to further increase this kind of access.
But what about those who don’t have access to classes and makerspaces? Is it naïve to think everyone can just “join in?” I became a member of the MOOC movement because I see this as one more chance to give back for that financial aid I received. I teach courses online because it’s a chance to pay it forward by providing access to learning opportunities to others who may not have been as lucky as I was in my path to a life in technology.
Other blog posts in Coursera’s #WomenInTech series:
- Why Data Science Needs Diversity — Emily Sands, Data Science Manager, Coursera
- “Yes You Can” – Empowering Women Through Education — Priya Gupta, Software Engineer, Coursera
- Finding My Community: From Math Olympiads to Coursera — Colleen Lee, Software Engineer, Coursera
Overcoming Stereotypes in Tech — Richa Khandelwal, Software Engineer, Coursera
- The Unconventional Route to Statistical Inquiry — Jennifer Rose and Lisa Dierker, Professors, Wesleyan University
- The ‘Pipeline Problem’ is Leaky — Christine Alvarado and Mia Minnes, Professors, University of Californa, San Diego
- How can we encourage more women to go into Computer Science? — Colleen van Lent, Lecturer, University of Michigan
- International Women’s Day: Our Weeklong Reflections on Women in Tech — Daphne Koller, President and Co-Founder, Coursera