UIC helps bring women, minorities into computer science

Rachel Harsley

Rachel Harsley, UIC graduate student in computer science, was named one of the Illinois Technology Foundation’s “Fifty for the Future.” Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

The University of Illinois at Chicago is one of 15 universities joining an initiative to increase the percentage of women and minorities pursuing undergraduate degrees in computer science. UIC and each of the other universities will receive $30,000 a year for three years to support their efforts.

The Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) initiative was announced Sept. 24 by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative. Part of the Girl’s CHARGE programs for girls and women, the BRAID initiative is being underwritten by Google, Facebook, Intel and Microsoft, each of which has made a three-year funding commitment.

“In 1986, about a third of all computer science majors (nationally) were women,” says Robert Sloan, professor and head of computer science at UIC. Today, women make up only about 13 percent, according to Sloan.

“This is especially disturbing because this is where the jobs are,” he said.

UIC will use grant money to introduce and reinforce department efforts to recruit and retain more women into computer science and to send female undergraduates to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a prestigious annual conference.

“It has been shown that women who attend the conference are more likely to stay in computer science,” Sloan said. The BRAID funding will allow UIC to send between 25 and 30 women to the conference this year.

Tanya Berger-Wolf is an associate professor of computer science at UIC who has attended the conference as a grad student, post doc, junior faculty, and now as an established researcher. She is looking forward to bringing a team of young women from UIC to be inspired.

“I’ve been attending Grace Hopper since its second year and have seen it grow from 200 to 8,000, but I still feel invigorated and inspired every time I go,” she said.

Other efforts at UIC to recruit women will include revamping introductory courses; creating double majors to draw women interested in other STEM fields into computing; supporting the long-standing Women in Computer Science student group; and continuing to reach out to local high school science teachers.

“We are also asking our women students to visit their high school alma maters and ask for the opportunity to talk to students about their own experience with UIC’s program,” said Sloan. “UIC really excels at retaining undergraduate women in our computer science program, but we need to do much more to recruit them.” UIC has been “extraordinarily successful” in recruiting and retaining Latino students into computer science, Sloan said, and he believes the same success can be achieved with female students.

The BRAID initiative will be administered by the Anita Borg Institute, a nonprofit focused on advancing women in computing.

More about computer science at UIC.

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