How data can drive 'women in tech' policies for higher ed

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With a variety of challenges facing women who are interested in tech careers, how do schools that want to improve diversity decide where to allocate their resources?

The NCWIT Extension Services Transformation, or NEXT, Awards provide a useful starting point for answering that question. The awards program hosted by the National Center for Women & Information Technology recognizes colleges, departments, and undergraduate programs for excellence in recruiting and retaining women in computing education. They highlight best practices and include helpful methods for assessing the current conditions for women in higher education computing programs that administrators can use to identify the best ways to start improving diversity.

For the team at University of Michigan’s Division of Computer Science and Engineering, a 2017 NCWIT NEXT Award 2nd Place recipient, student feedback drives decisions about pedagogy, including those that can help with retention of female students. The school administers surveys to all students in introductory computing classes so that faculty can better understand what’s working and what’s not working. If the survey data indicates that students do not like a particular project, it is not repeated. If a project receives a lot of favorable reviews, it’s used as a model for future assignments. By using a survey model, like those included in this NCWIT resource on assessing how students experience their major, faculty are also able to discover what factors most motivate students to enroll in a second computing class, and this data can be used to promote retention of female students.

University of Michigan Collegiate Lecturer Dr. Mary Lou Dorf explains: “When we first began working with NCWIT, our NCWIT Extension Services for Undergraduate Programs (ES-UP) consultant urged us to try data-driven action. Although we were skeptical — after all, we really knew our students — we tried it. Wow, were we wrong on a number of decisions! We now ask the students a lot of questions, but more importantly, we listen and implement changes accordingly (within days to weeks). What we didn’t expect were the far-reaching positive results. Now we wonder why we didn’t do this earlier.”

The Department of Computer Science at The University of Colorado, Boulder, also a 2017 NEXT Award 2nd Place recipient, starts collecting data on female students before they even reach the campus. The school keeps track of the number of women who apply, are admitted, and enroll in a technology department, updating their statistics weekly. This process requires collaboration across multiple areas of the university, and Dr. Sarah Miller, assistant dean for inclusive excellence, says her department is fortunate to have that broad support.

This early data takes on new meaning when combined with surveys that gather students’ feedback on recruiting and outreach events. By comparing enrollment numbers after each event, a department can identify which recruitment practices have the most impact on prospective students, and particularly for women and prospective students of color.

The computer science department at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, which was the 2017 NCWIT NEXT Award Grand Prize recipient, used surveys to find out what experiences influenced students’ decisions to choose their program. They asked all first-year students to report on the various ways they had interacted with the department prior to enrolling, including outreach programs, promotional literature, the department website, and visits from the campus Women in Computer Science organization.

The survey data confirmed the faculty’s initial hunch that personal interactions with members of the department were the most significant factors driving women to enroll. Direct connections such as experiencing a WCS outreach event, attending an on-campus presentation, and interacting with students, faculty, and advisors in the program helped incoming female students feel more comfortable enrolling in a computer science course.

Finally, many NEXT Award recipients cite the NCWIT Tracking Tool as a resource that helped them to get a clear picture of how their enrollment numbers were evolving as they implemented new practices. The computer science department at University of Texas at Austin — a 2016 NEXT Award 2nd Place Recipient — used the online tool to track how many students were leaving the major.

“The Tracking Tool has been invaluable for our department, as it helps us actually understand when we’re losing women throughout the pipeline, ” said Department of Computer Science Associate Director Tiffany Buckley. “We’ve added mentoring programs, outreach to incoming students, and a variety of activities to reach different groups of women, and as a result, we are graduating more women now than we have in the last 10 years.”

By creating targeted recruitment strategies based on this data, the department has been able to increase the percentage of women in the major from 12 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2016.

Clear assessment practices are indispensable for any organization that seeks to address the problem of women’s underrepresentation in computing fields. There are so many ways to use NCWIT resources to support your school’s strategic efforts to create change — will you be NEXT?

About the author

Angela Galik is an editorial consultant at the National Center for Women & Information Technology. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, then taught college writing and literature for over a decade. Now a freelance writer, editor, performing artist and creativity coach, Angela works with individuals and organizations to help them find their voice, clarify their message, communicate effectively, and create change. When she’s not poring over style manuals and sharpening her red pencil, you can find her composing and recording music or wandering along a forest trail somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology, or NCWIT, aims to increase the meaningful participation of all women in computing. The non-profit convenes, equips, and unites change-leading organizations in achieving goals focused on both internal culture change and outreach to underrepresented groups — from K-12 to post-secondary and workforce programs.

NCWIT Extension Services for Undergraduate Programs (ES-UP) helps computing departments utilize high-impact strategies for recruiting and retaining more women students that are research-based and customized to local needs and conditions. The NCWIT Extension Services Transformation (NEXT) Award honors ES-UP clients who have the most significant impact on the long-term goal of increasing the number of women in information technology and other computing-related fields.

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