Solving the Gender Disparity for Future Iterations

In the workplace and higher education, there is a large gender disparity in the computer science field, but these imbalances already begin to emerge in early education settings. In a large STEM school like Stuyvesant, writers explore the gender disparity in AP Computer Science and what the school can do to fix it.

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Junior Katherine Zhao has been coding since middle school. She has attended coding camps like Kode with Klossy, created multiple websites for companies, and worked in data science internships. Naturally, AP Computer Science would be the next step toward her interest in programming. Yet she found herself struggling with the homework and felt alienated and uncomfortable in the class. Similarly, junior Kate Alvarez was excited about computer science after taking an introductory HTML course at Columbia University, but after taking APCS, she no longer wants to continue the CS track in her senior year. And it’s not just Zhao and Alvarez who feel this way. Dozens of other girls in APCS have had this shared experience: they enter APCS with excitement to study a field they’re passionate about, and leave feeling dissatisfied with their computer science education at Stuy.

Studies have shown that there has been an increase in girls studying computer science. There has been a 10 percent increase in women taking AP Computer Science since the year 2000, yet overall, there has been a 19 percent decrease in women working in mathematical and computer science fields since 1995. Though women have been given more opportunities to study computer science, many still feel discouraged to enter the field, suggesting that early computer science education has a large impact on whether girls stay in STEM fields or not.

Stuyvesant has one of the leading computer science programs in the country, yet one problem that even Stuyvesant cannot completely solve is the gender disparity in its computer science classes. In the professional world, women in the field have been severely underrepresented, and this same trend is evident in our computer programming classes.

Stuyvesant’s computer science track begins with a single semester or annual introductory course, continues with an APCS or NextCS elective, and ends with the opportunity to choose from a plethora of computer science electives that explore more niche areas of the field. Stuyvesant’s requirement for students to take at least one semester of an introductory course in computer science has played a large role in introducing the daunting discipline to students of all skill levels. Senior and Sensei at the CS Dojo, Yaying Li recounted how her introductory class had blossomed her interest in the field. “My first experience with [CS] was actually in Intro CS. [...] The real reason why I really wanted to pursue CS was at the end of that course we had this group project where we basically made something from scratch with teammates that we chose, and so I chose to do a Pokemon game and when I realized that I too could make a game. I was like, ‘hey, that’s pretty cool’; I want to continue doing this.”

As a result of computer science being required of all students, Stuyvesant has been pretty good at tackling the issue of gender disparity in its computer science classes, especially in comparison to the national data on the percentage of female students taking the APCS A exam. Twenty-five percent of the exam takers were female in 2020, which is the most recent data published by the College Board. In Stuyvesant, according to the program office, 36 percent of students enrolled in APCS are female. This distribution is comparably better than the national average, especially when we consider the fact that Stuyvesant’s overall gender distribution is 43 percent female and 57 percent male, but the gender disparity becomes more evident as students approach post-APCS electives.

Once students begin to have the option to choose to take higher level computer science courses, female students tend to avoid choosing these options. This semester, 38 of the 155 students enrolled in a post-AP elective were females. This is less than 25 percent of enrollment. Comparing the APCS A female enrollment of 2022 and the total female enrollment in post-AP elective courses in 2022, around 57 percent of females do not take higher level computer science courses when given the option, compared to the 25 percent of male students who do not decide to take post-AP courses. Of course, there may be many reasons why a student may decide to forgo taking a higher level computer science course; however, the numbers evidently point to females seeing a higher drop-out rate from the computer science track in Stuyvesant than males.

The problem with the gender disparity in higher level computer science classes in Stuyvesant is not something the faculty have ignored, though it’s still not clear where the problem originates from or what the best solution to it would be. APCS A and Software Development teacher Topher Mykolyk commented on why female students tend to gravitate away from computer science as the computer science track continues: “I don’t have a good answer. I could speculate but it’s something we talk about a lot in here and [are] not sure we have a good answer [for].”

Some students speculate that the problem stems from the fact that female students may feel uncomfortable in male-dominated class environments. “I mean, just naturally, when you’re in a classroom, and like three quarters of people are fundamentally different [from] you in some way. You feel excluded. And so [...] I would imagine it’s probably the main reason,” junior Gabriel Thompson said. Even with introductory classes that expose all students to computer science, female students are still seemingly less inclined toward higher level computer science classes. Thompson believes that it is due to the historical exclusion of females in the field. “When something is primarily targeted at one group of people, it’s very hard for that to change without any sort of intervention,” Thompson reflected.

NextCS and Computer Graphics teacher JohnAlf Dyrland-Weaver argues that the reason for such a drop may be due to the tendency of female students having less experience in computer science coming into Stuyvesant. “The boys are often encouraged to do computer science, they tend to have more experience with it when they’re younger. [...] And that can create an atmosphere in a classroom where if you are someone who hasn’t had the same level of experience [in] CS, you’re going to compare yourself to the students in the class,” Dyrland-Weaver said.

Junior Jasmine Yuen sees a problem in the class atmosphere. Being a minority in the classroom can make it hard for female voices to be heard. “It’s more about the guys in the CS class, because their voices are really overpowering [...]; it’s hard to ask your own questions, and then put out your own ideas when there’s such a large vocal majority,” Yuen commented. While the guys in her class are not overtly sexist, the lack of a female presence in the room creates an atmosphere of animosity.

Zhao also brings up the phenomenon of mansplaining. Mansplaining is defined as the explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing. Zhao, along with many other girls in STEM fields, has recalled experiences where guys would automatically assume that she lacked knowledge in CS simply because of her gender. “I will be talking about code, having my own private conversation [...] [and], there [are] so many times where guys that you don’t even know the names of, they will see you’re coding, stop, drop and roll. Just to be like, ‘Oh my God,’ you’re doing it this way. That’s not good. Do it this way instead.” Other cases include when guys in their classes would brag about their perfect grades in class, or outwardly say things like “This is so easy. Why would anyone have trouble with this?” It gives the classroom a competitive atmosphere and makes others feel unwelcome when they struggle with the classwork. Overall, Zhao believes that teachers should not ignore students’ patronizing commentary. She emphasizes that teachers should not just tell students to stop, but also explain why it is problematic and that their commentary makes minorities feel unwelcome in the field.

The computer science community and faculty have been working to involve more females into the field. One of the solutions that the faculty has been working on is cultivating a welcoming environment for female students through acknowledging student successes. “Those people that took [part in] the programming competition, felt bad about it, but you know, part of what helped, I believe, was their teachers talking to them about ‘no like, program competitions are hard, but you have done these things, like you’re being successful, right,” Dyrland-Weaver said.

In addition to these words of encouragement, the faculty has also been working to create welcoming environments through small acts. “I try to be mindful of the examples I give. I try not to rely only on real-world use cases that are typically like male-dominated areas.” Mykolyk said. “If I have the option to choose ‘he’ or ‘she’ in a story, I will opt for the ‘she.’”

Although some teachers may have good intentions, some tactics may not work as well. For example, Alvarez noticed that her computer science teacher often paired the girls together or seated them near each other. “It felt a little weird and [the teachers] weren’t transparent about it. [...] I feel like the point is not to put girls in a bubble but to treat girls the same as guys.”

Stuyvesant has also worked to bring more females into its CS faculty. However, such a feat has proved difficult. “Unfortunately, it’s just very hard to find computer science teachers. We have, in the department we’ve worked at, a teacher deficit for a number of years,” Dyrland-Weaver said.

One of the female CS teachers that Stuyvesant has successfully hired, Izagma Alonso, has had a great positive impact on her female students. “And I have noticed that there are more females that feel more comfortable and some of them say and some of them just you can tell, because I’m a female,” Alonso said. Alonso is one of many new female computer science teachers who have been able to become a role model for female success in the field.

Female-inclusive computer science spaces have also played large roles in reducing the gender gap in Stuyvesant’s computer science programs. “I think that [the club Girls Who Code] is amazing; […] it’s an inclusive space and it’s dedicated just [to] females. And I feel like it would be a nice starting point, it introduces the basics. It teaches them about coding in a safe environment where they don’t need to worry about being mansplained to,” Li said. In addition to female-only spaces, the CS Dojo is known to be quite balanced in terms of its gender ratio. “I think [it’s] more reassuring for females there because it’s like, ‘Oh, hey, those two people at the two leadership positions over there. They’re taken up by females and maybe that’s something I can aspire [toward] as well,’” Li commented.

Other coding communities in Stuyvesant, like the Competitive Coding Club (CCC), that have not seen as great of a success in bringing more female programmers into their communities have made extra efforts to make sure students feel comfortable in their environments. “The leaders were all guys. I think last year, all of the people that showed up to meetings, granted, it was over quarantine, were guys as well. This year [...] three of them are girls, and we do have one girl in the advanced section who likes going to competitions,” senior Maxwell Zen, one of the leaders of the CCC and a Sensei at the CS dojo, reflected.

However, the CCC has made substantial efforts to increase the number of female participants, because the problem seems to be extremely evident in similarly competitive atmospheres. “One of our approaches this year was just to be more inviting to everyone, which isn’t targeted at the gender dynamic,” Zen said. In order to do so, the leaders of the club created sections catering to different skill levels. “We’ve been able to create more inviting beginner intersections, and hopefully that leads to those girls who have been able to enter the club to stay and grow and ultimately be part of the leadership of the club a couple of years down the line,” Zen explained. Because it seems like more female students tend to have less experience in coding before entering Stuyvesant, even with introductory courses offered to all students, pursuing computer science in higher levels and outside of class can become daunting.

Yuen believes that the school should make computer science more engaging by making more exciting, beginner-friendly courses. While she understands that Netlogo and Scheme are important languages, she feels that starting with more fun content would make people more interested in continuing with STEM and understand its real-world applications. “I think providing an incentive for people to join things [would help] such as putting on the course curriculum, ‘We’re going to learn how to make games or how to make a crossword puzzle’; something that's more interesting than putting computations into Scheme.” she explained.

It is clear that members of the CS community at Stuyvesant have noted that early STEM education has a large impact on whether girls pursue STEM or not. If females feel unwelcome already in a classroom setting, they know that they will have the same feeling in higher education or in the workplace. One prevalent topic common in popular culture is the idea of the “woman in STEM narrative.” The idea that a woman must work hard and stand up for herself in a room full of men may be empowering at first, but it continues to emphasize disparities. Zhao says, “No one should ever have to sacrifice [their] mental health and sanity just to break down barriers. I think it’s a [b.s.] narrative that women and minorities have to bear it and that it will get better later […] that’s not fair.”

Similarly, when Alvarez decided that computer science was not for her, she felt disappointed in herself. “I felt like I didn’t overcome the statistic,” she said. The gender disparity burden does not need to fall all on women in CS. It can be a collective effort to make computer science a more welcoming space for all people. While the CS faculty has made it a point to create comfortable spaces for women through student clubs and teacher efforts, it seems that the females in the school are calling for more involvement from male students to create those comfortable spaces.

As the nation continues to make efforts to bring female students into computer science, Stuyvesant, too, is taking that step. Whether it be through creating female-inclusive communities that maintain ways to make their female members feel comfortable or making more accessible and welcoming classroom environments for female students to advance in the field, Stuyvesant has certainly taken large strides, but it cannot stop now. As long as female enrollment in higher level and post-AP electives continue to be low, Stuyvesant as a community must work toward a solution to this problem.