Associate dean working to close ‘gender gap’ in computer science


“This is what I’ve learned: You don’t say anything about it,” said Maureen Doyle to summarize her experience as a woman in the male-dominated fi eld of computer science. “People will ask me, why do I think there are no women in CS [computer science], and first of all, I don’t know,” Doyle said. “But I think if people ask that question, they often want the reassurance that what they are doing is okay.” Doyle earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Lowell as well as a master’s degree from Northeastern University. She is now an associate professor of computer science and an associate dean of the College of Informatics. She currently teaches various software and programming courses. A college education in computer science and a career in the sciences in general, however, this was not Doyle’s initial plan. “I was going to be a teacher, because with women in my family, you could be a teacher or you could be a nurse,” Doyle said. Though the media has recently brought the issue of the lack of women in computer science to light, retention of female students in college computer science programs has been on the decline for years, according to a 2011 study by the Higher Education Research Institute. In the face of such statistics, Doyle, is determined to change the trend. “There’s been a lot of research on what you can do to attract and retain women in these fields, and part of it is changing the culture,” Doyle said. “That’s actually what I focus on.” In a 1990- 91 survey conducted by the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, only 16 percent of full-time faculty in four-year colleges across the country were women. Over a decade later, the number of women receiving degrees in computer science continued to indicate a low number of women in the fi eld. A 2010- 11 Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey showed that 12 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women at U.S. PhD-granting universities. “1986 was the year we had the highest percentage of women in computer science, and it’s gone down every year since, even though there were more people,” Doyle said. As with every educational and societal trend, this decrease and the general absence of female students and professionals in the computer science fi eld has many possible roots—none of which, according to a study by Kathy Vargas and Janet Kerner of St. John’s University, has to do with any inability on the part of women. On the contrary, Vargas’ and Kerner’s study showed that women outnumber men in introductory computer science courses and in fact earn higher average grades than men. The report suggests that the reluctance of women to pursue a major in computer science may be a societal “encouragement of the attitude that computers are more for boys than girls,” and that the lack of visibility of women in the fi eld is enough of a discouragement, to those who may be interested, to put them off the computer science track altogether. Doyle said this cycle of invisibility and disinterest of women in computer science is ironic, considering the history of the field. “Around 1986 was when the PC came out, so originally the first programmers were women, who were actually called computers,” Doyle said. “They had been doing the math and they programmed the machines….And they [researchers] think that switch to the hardware and ‘tinkering’, which a lot of boys like doing—not that girls don’t—might be a reason.” Even early on in her career, she said she took note of the discrepancy in the way both genders lived and worked in the field. With a history as a scientific software developer at Data General Corporation, General Electric Company, ALPHATECH, Inc. and BBN Technologies, Doyle has worked on various research projects and also worked on a fielded Sonar Tracking system for the Navy, from which she received a Project Excellence Award in 1993 and 1994. Doyle was a mentor to both male and female programmers and developers at the companies where she previously worked. It was then, she says, that she became aware of women in computer science as an issue. “While I was at my [first job], I noticed things that happened,” Doyle said. “Women weren’t getting promoted, and I asked why women weren’t getting promoted and management would say things like, ‘Well, she didn’t want a promotion,’ so I went and asked the women. I mean, of course I would want a promotion.” Doyle’s position as a mentor in the workplace afforded her an inside look at the factors influencing women’s motivation and performance in the computer science field. What she learned in the process, she said, was valuable. “I started to see things that made me aware that there are still things keeping women back that are out of their control, and there are things keeping women back that are in our control,” Doyle said. Though her position as a professional and educator in computer science offers her ample opportunity to enact change in the classroom with current CS majors, Doyle has extended her efforts both inside and outside the classroom. She and several other professors from both the University of Cincinnati and other institutions have worked together on a ‘Girls on the Go’ mobile learning camp, in which rising freshmen and sophomore high school girls are taught the process of software development and utilize their knowledge to develop an app over the course of a week on a college campus. Though the female students in the setting of a college computer science class are central to the issue of women’s advancement in computer science, research suggests the importance of introducing girls to the fi eld at a young age. Doyle said the age group targeted by the camp is one which could benefit greatly from such an education. In Israel, for example, education in the computer science fi eld is compulsory throughout high school. Doyle said her choice of career in the computer science fi eld has been a good fit. “I think it’s a myth people have that if it doesn’t come simply and quickly, then you shouldn’t do it, and that’s not true,” Doyle said. “Writing code initially was not intuitive to me like it is to some people, but I worked at it and I mastered it. What I want people to understand is that hard work is most of it. I’m not necessarily smarter, and innate talent only gets you so far if you don’t practice. We don’t know what we’re capable of, and there’s a real beauty in finding out.”