For women in the U.S., breaking the glass ceiling remains a daunting challenge, particularly in the fast-paced world of computer science. Paradoxically, while the U.S is still at the forefront of the international field of information technology, women continue to lag behind men in the workforce.

Experts agree that there continues to be a gender and ethnic imbalance in computer science. Despite modest gains in recent years, computer science remains, for the most part, a male-dominated industry.

“The most important thing is not to take the gains of recent years for granted and not to believe that the playing field is in fact level,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates chair in computer science at the University of Washington.

“There can be no doubt that computer science has a gender diversity problem,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been aware of for years now, and something we’ve been working on for years.”

The mere fact of women being underrepresented can cause them to under-perform at the workplace, said Sapna Cheryan, a UW assistant professor of psychology. “There is still a perception that Silicon Valley is the Valley of the Boys. Men are seen as more adept at engineering while women are not,” she added.

Cheryan’s research focuses on the power of negative stereotypes in the technology industries. “The prevailing stereotype is that computer scientists are geeks, who lack social skills, play video games, and prefer junk food,” she added.

Cheryan’s findings are borne out by a study by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, which attributed the underrepresentation of women to the continuing power of cultural stereotypes about women’s skills.

According to most experts, there remains a relatively small proportion of African-Americans, Hispanic and Asian-American women in these fields. Yet still there are notable exceptions from the Puget Sound region. Many of the University of Washington’s graduates from underrepresented groups are leaders in the computer science field.

One is Karen Liu, a Chinese-American who earned a Ph.D. in computer science at the UW and is now on the faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Liu is a leader in the field in computer graphics and digital animation. She received a MIT Technology Review “TR 35 Award” several years ago, one of the 35 top technologists under the age of 35.

Another success story is Hakim Weatherspoon, an African-American Husky football player from rural Washington. “As I recall, his dad worked in the lumber industry, his mom was a school teacher, and his older brother now works for a start-up after spending a number of years at Intel,” Lazowska said.

A UW computer science graduate who subsequently earned a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, Weatherspoon is now on the faculty of computer science at Cornell University, like the UW and Berkeley, one of the top ten universities in the country in the field.

A number of other UW computer science graduates of color, many Asian-American women, work at such technology firms as Google, Amazon, Intel, and Boeing.

Overall, the number of computer science graduates at the University of Washington remains robust. “Despite widespread observance of a decrease in computer science degrees, there are about three times as many degrees awarded annually in computer science nationwide as in all the physical sciences taken together,” Lazowska said.

“There are two-thirds as many degrees granted in computer science as in all of the rest of engineering combined – electrical, chemical, industrial, civil, nuclear, biomedical, aeronautical, materials.”

Yet industry-wide, women professionals in technology industry professions still lag behind their male counterparts. The National Science Foundation reports that women earn only 20.5 percent of all bachelors degrees in computer science. “In the more competitive academic programs, the gender balance tends to be even worse,” Lazowska added, but he also notes that at the UW, one of the top ten computer science programs in the nation, roughly 25 percent of the students are women.

Lazowska argues that today’s reality is very different from the mainstream perception of computer scientists, however. “The software industry is not at all the Dilbert stereotype that people have fixed in their mind.”

“Looking nationally, and across all fields, we are definitely not there yet,” Lazowska said. “There are fields where women are well represented, but they tend to be under-compensated fields.

One important reason for increasing gender and ethnic diversity, he believes, is the need for creativity and innovation. “A non-diverse engineering workforce inevitably leads to diminished – indeed, impoverished – engineering solutions,” he writes in a recent article, “Pale and Male: Nineteenth Century Design in a Twenty-First Century World.”

Lazowska agrees with his colleague, William Wulf, past president of the National Academy of Engineering and an eminent computer scientist. “Every time we approach an engineering problem with a pale male design team, we may not find the best design solution,” Wulf said. “We may not understand the design options or know how to evaluate the constraints. We may not even understand the full dimension of the problem.”

Lazowska confirms Wulf’s assertion. “While there are many reasons for striving to increase the representation of women in our field, the selfish reason is the most compelling one: the quality of the solutions we achieve is enhanced by the diversity of the individuals contributing to these solutions.” Lazowska added, “Computer science is a great field for everyone, and computer science, as a field, needs everyone.

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