Women in Computing: The Imperative of Critical Pedagogical Reform

Undeniably, professions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are among the fastest growing occupations in the US economy. According to Evans, McKenna, and Schulte (2013), “by the end of the decade, the US economy will annually create 120,000 new jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree in computer science” to meet the demands of emerging fields like cloud architecture, forensic investigation, and geospatial technology. However, while the number of computer science baccalaureates has increased in recent years (NSF 2015), it continues to lag behind workforce demands in these disciplines (see figure 1), jeopardizing our nation’s capacity to remain at the leading edge of innovation.


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Key to sustaining US global competitiveness is the country’s ability to harness the kinds of diverse perspectives that not only are known to fuel better scientific outcomes, but also are associated with the inclusion of underrepresented groups, particularly women and women of color (Cantor et al. 2014). While women of color and white women together represent the largest college-going segment of our society (NSF 2015), they remain a largely untapped—yet rich—source of talent in disciplines like computer science. Between 2002 and 2012, the percentage of baccalaureate computer science degrees earned by women declined from 28 percent to 18 percent (NSF 2015). In the same period, the percentage of black, Hispanic/Latina, and Native American women who earned baccalaureate computer science degrees declined from 7 percent to a mere 5 percent (NSF 2015).

A Rise in TIDES

The relative absence of historical accounts of women as “human computers” in the early 1800s has led to masculinization of the discipline, devaluation of women’s contributions, underestimation of women’s mathematical aptitude and, ultimately, gender inequity. While overcoming stereotypes is an important strategy toward increasing women’s representation in the computer and information sciences, the most promising approach is pedagogical reform (Tsui 2007) that is not only evidence based, but also culturally sensitive. 

Despite the importance of such reform, STEM faculty often lack formal training in pedagogy and research-based learning theories (Vergara et al. 2014; Oleson and Hora 2014). Furthermore, many professional development opportunities aimed at helping STEM faculty enhance their teaching practices overlook the role of cultural competence in teaching and learning and fail to inextricably combine cultural sensitivity with advanced pedagogies. Additionally, professional development interventions are often devoid of the elements necessary to achieve sustained change in STEM teaching patterns.

To address these issues, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, with generous funding from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, launched its TIDES (Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM) initiative in 2014. TIDES recognizes and directly addresses the limitations of current undergraduate STEM reform efforts by increasing the capacity of STEM faculty to positively affect underrepresented STEM students’ interest, competencies, and retention in the computer sciences and related STEM disciplines.

Since its launch, TIDES has supported nineteen institutions—including public and private institutions, minority serving institutions, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, research universities, and a women’s college—as they develop campus-level efforts aimed at empowering STEM faculty to implement culturally competent pedagogies. Two examples include the University of Puerto Rico–Humacao, a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI); and Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college. Each of these institutions has taken a bold and innovative step not only toward improving the learning outcomes and retention rates of women and women of color in computer and information sciences, but also toward ensuring that inclusive excellence, as it relates to all underrepresented groups in STEM, becomes an inherent part of institutional purpose and practice.

TIDES at the University of Puerto Rico–Humacao

At the national level, Hispanic women continue to constitute only a small fraction of women who earn baccalaureate degrees in the computer sciences (figure 2). While the University of Puerto Rico–Humacao (UPRH) boasts of robust STEM enrollment among its underrepresented minority female undergraduate population, a scant number of these students elect to establish careers or enroll in STEM doctoral programs that require strong quantitative and computational skills. The UPRH TIDES project, “Cybernetic Girls Can Be Pinky: Increasing the Number of Female Hispanics into Computational Biology,” aims to increase the interest, competency, and retention of Hispanic women in graduate programs and careers in computational biology and related STEM areas.


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Using culturally relevant teaching strategies, the UPRH TIDES project addresses three barriers to increasing the interest and retention of Hispanic women in the STEM disciplines: the masculinization of the STEM disciplines, the absence of faculty professional development, and the lack of intentionality toward culturally sensitive course redesign. With an undergraduate student population that is 70 percent female and 100 percent Hispanic, the UPRH’s institutional context as an HSI is central to this approach, as is its appreciation for the cultural domains that often preclude women from pursuing STEM degrees. 

The cultural expectation that women will be overtly feminine is a central aspect of life as experienced by many Hispanic women. For instance, Hispanic females are often expected to be “pinky”—that is, to dress nicely, wear makeup, and become mothers. Girls are often discouraged from playing the video games that they frequently enjoy, which have been shown to increase interest in and curiosity about computer science. At the UPRH, even women students who are attracted to careers in STEM are often dissuaded from these fields based on cultural and historic perceptions that such careers are exclusively for men.

To overcome such misperceptions, the UPRH TIDES project provides faculty with professional development opportunities focused on the construction of gender, particularly as it relates to experiences in science. The program familiarizes faculty with critical gender theories and raises faculty awareness of implicit bias, with an emphasis on how these theories and biases affect the everyday experiences of Hispanic women in STEM classrooms. Faculty also learn advanced pedagogies and strategies for integrating computational and mathematical skills in relevant STEM course work.

Using these strategies, a team of biologists, anthropologists, and other STEM faculty are reconfiguring elements of their STEM curricula to better integrate computer science and mathematical proficiencies and applications in disciplines such as ecology, cellular and molecular biology, and the social sciences. This curriculum adjustment and redesign not only enhances the critical thinking skills of UPRH’s male and female Hispanic students, but also supports institutional efforts to increase the number of Hispanic women who matriculate in STEM doctoral programs.

Although the project is in its early stages, interesting data already are emerging. For example, while UPRH students reported a lack of knowledge about quantitative analysis and computational biology in an initial survey, they also indicated an interest in knowing more about discoveries related to computational biology, applications of the discipline in research situations, and career opportunities. Many student respondents also emphasized the importance of mentors and research experiences.

A second initial survey administered to UPRH students revealed significant misperceptions about the role of women in STEM (see figure 3). Male students were more likely than female students to think that males have better leadership capabilities than females, that males have more natural talent for quantitative analysis, and that there is an equal playing field for males and females in science. Most students also reported that females in computational biology have working environments and salaries that are similar to those of men.


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Interestingly, in a follow-up survey completed at the end of the first year of the UPRH TIDES project, most students reported a change in their perceptions. For example, in direct contrast to initial survey results, students significantly disagreed in the second survey with the statement, “In computer science-related jobs, women and men have similar working environments and salaries.” In addition, male students, more so than female students, reported increased disagreement with a statement indicating that one of the basic responsibilities of a professional woman is to raise children.

Indeed, the inclusion of gender equity as a major issue in daily classroom interactions appears to have begun altering the perceptions of both female and male Hispanic undergraduates in STEM. The UPRH expects to continue educating new generations of Hispanic STEM professionals to overcome gender misperceptions, particularly in the computational sciences.

TIDES at Bryn Mawr College

Bryn Mawr College, a liberal arts college for women, is committed to enrolling an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse population (see figure 4). In keeping with its founding mission of providing access to a first-rate education for women, Bryn Mawr has successfully encouraged many young women to major and pursue graduate study and careers in STEM disciplines such as physics and computer science, where they have been historically underrepresented.


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As high-speed computers become more sophisticated and interdisciplinary fields such as computational physics emerge, leading scientists must be both liberally educated and computationally savvy. Institutions that seek to advance women’s success in these fields must systemically support pedagogies that encourage deep and active learning—an educational “process whereby students engage in activities” and with materials “that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content” (University of Michigan CRLT 2014). To increase the representation of women in physics and other STEM fields, institutions also need to create inclusive environments where women experience opportunities to develop skill sets that are highly desirable in the fields of computer and information sciences. Indeed, to focus on the representation of women in STEM without considering the limitations imposed upon them that are unrelated to their aptitude obscures the more subtle issues that significantly contribute to gender inequities in these fields.

Through its recently completed Next Generation Learning Challenges project, which embedded computer science proficiency throughout sequences of courses required for the physics major, Bryn Mawr demonstrated that an approach to teaching and learning that blends online and face-to-face instruction can improve STEM student learning in a liberal arts setting while also facilitating meaningful faculty-student interactions and overall student success. Building on these earlier efforts, Bryn Mawr aims to transform the way it educates and trains STEM majors through its TIDES project, “Enhancing Computation and Information Science Learning Opportunities for Women Leaders in STEM.”

Through its TIDES project, Bryn Mawr aims to build online, self-paced modules that develop and reinforce computational skills for core STEM curricula, first in physics and later in biology, chemistry, and the geosciences. These modules will teach computational skills by encouraging active learning. Bryn Mawr is exploring the potential for these modules not only to build skills, but also to counter the racial and gender stereotyping that can discourage underrepresented students from persisting in computational and scientific careers.

Bryn Mawr’s TIDES project launched in 2014 with a summer retreat where project stakeholders, including physics and other STEM faculty, students, administrators, and staff, began designing a computational physics course that will serve as a vehicle for developing, piloting, and assessing modular learning units in a blended learning format. At the retreat, participants discussed topics such as implicit gender bias and culturally inclusive teaching. They also developed working definitions of key concepts (e.g., algorithmic thinking, computational skills) as well as a short list of competencies that students should achieve in the context of STEM learning and of physics in particular. In addition, participants assessed relevant curricular elements currently in place at Bryn Mawr, critiqued example course modules and pedagogical approaches, discussed resources focused on implicit gender bias and culturally inclusive teaching, and selected a computational environment for the new course.

To support the TIDES project’s objective of fostering culturally sensitive approaches to teaching, the TIDES modules will contain gender-inclusive materials—for example, highlighting the contributions of two women pioneers in computer science, Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Additionally, TIDES efforts will be integrated with those of the Bryn Mawr Teaching and Learning Institute, which has the capacity to convene faculty for professional development, promote reflection and dialogue among faculty colleagues, and establish pedagogical partnerships between faculty and student consultants.

The inaugural TIDES Faculty Workshop will occur in May 2015 at Bryn Mawr’s Blended Learning in the Liberal Arts Conference, where nationally recognized experts will engage faculty in overcoming gender biases and developing culturally sensitive approaches to teaching in the STEM disciplines. In subsequent workshops, faculty will review the appropriateness of instituting modules for culturally sensitive teaching throughout all STEM curricula, provide training on how to use these modules in a blended format, and, ultimately, increase the self-efficacy of STEM faculty in implementing pedagogies that are evidence based and culturally competent.


Recently, Freeman et al. (2014) concluded that examining the aspects of instructor behavior that can yield the most significant gains in STEM student learning may provide valuable insight into our understanding of how and why such practices can differentially affect certain types of student populations, particularly those from underrepresented groups.

To that end, the University of Puerto Rico–Humacao and Bryn Mawr College join the entire AAC&U TIDES community not only in examining advanced pedagogies, but also in empowering STEM faculty to adopt and sustain culturally sensitive teaching practices aimed at increasing retention and learning outcomes in the computer and information sciences and related STEM disciplines. We expect this approach to result in a cadre of STEM faculty in US higher education who are sensitized to nondominant cultural domains in every learning situation, aware of their privileged perspective within the classroom, and equipped with tools for creating the kind of inclusive classroom experiences that support learning and success for all students.


Cantor, Nancy, Kelly Mack, Patrice McDermott, and Orlando Taylor. 2014. “If Not Now, When? The Promise of STEM Intersectionality in the Twenty-First Century.” Peer Review 16 (2): 29–30.

Evans, Cameron, Madeleine McKenna, and Beneva Schulte. 2013. “Closing the Gap: Addressing STEM Workforce Challenges.” EDUCAUSE Review 48 (3). http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/closing-gap-addressing-stem-workforce-challenges.

Freeman, Scott, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth. 2014. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111 (23): 8410–15. http://www.pnas.org/content/111/23/8410.full.

NSF (National Science Foundation), National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2015. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015 (Special Report NSF 15–311). Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15311/.

Oleson, Amanda, and Matthew T. Hora. 2014. “Teaching the Way They Were Taught? Revisiting the Sources of Teaching Knowledge and the Role of Prior Experience in Shaping Faculty Teaching Practices.” Higher Education 68: 29–45. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10734-013-9678-9#.

Tsui, Lisa. 2007. “Effective Strategies to Increase Diversity in STEM Fields: A Review of the Research Literature.” Journal of Negro Education 76: 555–81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40037228.

University of Michigan CRLT (Center for Research on Learning and Teaching). 2014. “Active Learning.” http://www.crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsal.

Vergara, Claudia E., Mark Urban-Lurain, Henry Campa III, Kendra S. Cheruvelil, Diane Ebert-May, Cori Fata-Hartley, and Kevin Johnston. 2014. “FAST-Future Academic Scholars in Teaching: A High-Engagement Development Program for Future STEM Faculty.” Innovative Higher Education 39:93–107. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10755-013-9265-0.

Kelly Mack is vice president for undergraduate STEM education and executive director of Project Kaleidoscope at the Association of American Colleges and Universities; Melissa Soto is director of undergraduate STEM education at the Association of American Colleges and Universities; Lilliam Casillas-Martinez is associate dean of research affairs at the University of Puerto Rico–Humacao; and Elizabeth F. McCormack is professor of physics and associate provost at Bryn Mawr College.

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