For the first time, Berkeley saw an introductory computer science course with a majority of female students – 106 women vs. 104 men. This turnaround signals a promising trend in the male-dominated STEM world. However, Berkeley is an exception: according to the National Science Foundation with just 18.4% of computer science degrees were given to women (as of 2010), a trend that has been steadily decreasing since 1991, when it was a more impressive 29.6%.
Professor Dan Garcia, who taught the Berkeley course last spring, says that he attributes the gender flip to a drastic transformation in the curriculum, including team-based project learning, opened-sourced materials, and opportunities to become teaching assistants. “The course & curriculum really does capture the “Beauty and Joy” of computing; learning can be a lot of fun,” he writes. Worldwide trends in the gender balance aren’t any better than the U.S. Recent data from UK universities, shows that while women do earn a majority of the degrees (60% vs. 40%), they vastly under represent their male counterparts in computer science (82% vs. 17%).
The gap has its origins going back at least as early as high school. Statistics, biology, and calculus courses all have roughly equal gender balance, but in computer science, the pie chart skews heavily male. (chart by Exploring Computer Science, with data from the College Board).
Garcia says there are still barriers to keeping women interested throughout their entire tenure, such as “the lack of female role models in our industry, in our faculty, and in the graduate student population.” Even if they go on to advanced courses, there’s no guarantee they’ll get a job in the cut-throat tech industry. As an important feeder school to Silicon Valley’s top companies, Berkeley’s numbers may result in a positive shift in increasing the proportion of women in top tech companies in the near future.