A Successful Effort to Increase the Number of Female Students in Computer Science
by Truls Gjestland
The Norwegian University for Science and Technology (NTNU) observed a steady decline in the number of female students in subjects related to computer science. In 1996 only 6 percent of the students in Computer Science were women. On the other hand female students with a degree in computer science were highly in demand, reflecting a general Norwegian trend to have a balanced workforce.
It is considered important that both men and women are among the well-qualified computer science and IT graduates that work in R&D projects that will color our future. Good qualifications in computer science is the gateway to interesting, well-paid careers. More females should be employed in this market. Both Norwegian industry and the public sector recognize that competent staff with IT skills are essential. When half the applicants to higher education are female, we should make use of the resources and scientific talents that women possess to educate well-qualified female computer science graduates.
In 1997 a special program was launched by NTNU to increase the number of young women in computer science. First of all a special extra quota was established reserved exclusively for female students. Someone would argue that having special quotas would lead to students with inferior qualifications. This has not been the case. In 1997 and 1998 a total of 36 and 37 women respectively were admitted on this special quota. At NTNU students are admitted to the various faculties according to their grades from high school. Different faculties may have different qualification requirements. All of the quota girls belong gradewise to the upper quarter of all the students at NTNU; definitely not a minor league team.
Information material especially designed for women were distributed to all the high schools in Norway, and all the women who expressed an interest in studying computer science at NTNU, were invited to participate in an all paid girls day at the university. During this visit they would meet with students and faculty, and given all relevant information as a hands-on experience.
The results were promising. One of the problems earlier was that only 40% of the young women who were accepted actually started their studies at the university. Now this percentage was increased to 80. At the semester start in 1996 only 6 out of 101 students in computer science were women. In 1997 the ratio was 50 out of a total of 171. In 1998 the efforts were further increased. In the fall 1998 the number of women starting to study computer science at NTNU had increased to 69 out of 230. The percentage of young women admitted for the fall semester 1999 is now 29.6 %. The experiment that started at NTNU has now been expanded to become a national initiative. Four universities are currently involved.
Measures directed at the upper secondary school was implemented in the summer 1998. The project engaged the services of a natural science teacher at this level. A common information campaign was launched by the four universities to get more young women into computer science. This comprised a brochure, advertising, web-based information and a special postcard:
- 25 000 copies of the campaign brochure were distributed to universities and 380 upper secondary schools all over Norway. It was also sent to teachers in mathematics in the third year at secondary schools who participated in a special conference, Damer@Data (Females@Computing) at the University of Tromsø in March 1998.
- The campaign postcard was printed in 60 000 copies and distributed in cafes, discos and similar places where young students gather in most large towns in Norway. A further 10 000 were sent to universities. At NTNU, the Department of Computer and Information Science sent a personal postcard to all the young women in the upper secondary school in Norway who had taken the necessary subjects in mathematics and physics to be qualified for admission. Professor Reidar Conradi, head of the Department of Computer and Information Science wrote them and urged them to consider studying computing at NTNU.
- The project had double and single page ads in the press, especially in magazines for young people. There were also ads in the student newspapers at the four universities.
- The project also written about in the local and national media and specialized computer magazines.
It is not enough to have a high percentage of women at the beginning of their studies. You also have to make sure that they complete the courses. This was also part of the initiative. NTNU does not have any computer classes exclusively for women. Certain actions, however, are specifically aimed at the female students. There is a computer lab for women with six designated assistants (female students at senior level), and there are two assistants whose prime task is to make sure that the new female students are having a good time! They arrange special courses, visits to computer businesses, social meetings with female industrial leaders, etc. In order to emphasize the role-model aspect, a female associate professor has also been engaged. Another important aspect has also been a series of lectures: Know your subject. In these lectures the relevance of the computer science subjects is discussed to give the students a broader perspective.
The project has received financial support from the Norwegian research council, and several large industrial firms in Norway act as sponsors. For further information see:
Kirsti Rye Ramberg - Norwegian University of Science and Technolgy
Tel: +47 73 59 09 32