Christine Alvarado, Associate Teaching Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, and
Mia Minnes, Assistant Teaching Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, at University of California, San Diego and instructors for the Java Programming 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.
Reflections from Christine Alvarado
I always knew I wanted to teach and, for most of my childhood, felt equally as strongly about not getting into computer science. My dad was an electrical engineer who encouraged me to explore technology, but I just didn’t see the point of computers or Logo programs that made turtles draw shapes on the screen. But in high school when I took my first real computer science class, I discovered that computer science was intriguing and challenging. For me, solving concrete problems was just plain fun. I was hooked.
In grad school I found myself drawn not only to teaching but also to programs designed to teach young women specifically. Over the early years of my career as a professor, the goal of increasing women’s participation in computer science moved from a hobby to a central goal of my teaching and research. I was distressed by women’s absence in a field that I found so fascinating. I wanted to help young women, and indeed all students, see that there was no fundamental reason why they shouldn’t be studying or pursuing a career in technology.
Within the gender diversity conversation, often the “tech pipeline” narrative comes up. But I think this narrative is often used as an excuse. Studies have shown that the pipeline is leaky. At the heart of the tech industry, there’s a broad cultural change that needs to happen. It’s not about just pushing more women into computer classes or STEM disciplines from a young age. Women are still entering higher education and are confronted with barriers in a learning environment dominated by male students and instructors and later on, in the industry.
We need to address the cultural issues and biases that are at the root of gender diversity, to make women feel that they are accepted and belong in computer science and the tech industry. The more people who acknowledge these biases publicly, from educational institutions to technology companies, the more we all will be able to confront this problem and work together to change it.
Reflections from Mia Minnes
Being a role model is something I take very seriously, and it’s something that my own experiences as a student in college have helped shape. As an undergraduate, I remember the jolt of realizing, almost every time I stepped into a lab or a lecture hall, that I was the only woman in the room or one of very few women.
Thankfully, throughout college my two roommates also happened to be in my program and we supported each other. We had a great network of peers in our math and computer science classes, but there was something special about the friendship we built. Together we were able to connect and rely on each other for support.
Anyone embarking on a challenging field or project can benefit from having someone that they can relate to and look up to. I think it’s especially important to be able to see others who you can identify with and who have gone before you and succeeded. I see this in my student dynamics each semester. All of our core Computer Science courses typically have enrollments of only 20-30% women. However, the demographics in my office hours are much more balanced. Many of the women who attend my office hours have told me this is the first time they’ve ever felt comfortable approaching one of their professors, not to mention participating in office hours. I think that’s very telling of just how crucial it is to have networks of women – both in the workplace and in education. They are essential to supporting them and further setting them on the path to succeed in the technology industry and their future career paths.
I agree with many who will tell you that mentorship isn’t the only solution, but I think it’s an important factor in empowering women to pursue their passions and follow their curiosity, whether it be in technology or any other field.
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