Making the Case for More Women in Computer Science

A new grant supports and expands Columbia’s proven track record for inclusivity.


There has been an explosion of interest from undergraduate women across Columbia and Barnard who are choosing to major in computer science (CS). In 2019, 39.5% of 1,268 CS declared majors were women (of 1,212 reporting gender across SEAS, Columbia College, General Studies, and Barnard). The CS major is the second largest at Columbia and still growing. This is the result of the centrality of computing to our lives today, as well as the Computer Science department’s initiatives over the past decade to encourage students to explore CS and to major or minor in CS.

In recognition of the high success rate in attracting and retaining women in Computer Science and the potential to do even more, Columbia is part of the first cohort to receive a grant from Northeastern University’s Center for Inclusive Computing. The Center partners with “nonprofit colleges and universities with large computing programs (200 graduates or more per year) to implement evidence-based practices that support the recruitment, enrollment, and graduation of historically underrepresented groups majoring in computing.”

The grant will fund several new joint initiatives as well as expand existing ones that support Columbia Engineering’s and Barnard’s overarching objectives to attract and retain women in introductory CS classes, continuing to improve the climate for diversity across the University’s CS community with the goal of reaching gender parity.

“The department’s programs run by our faculty and students have helped keep women and underrepresented minorities in our introductory classes,” said Julia Hirschberg, the Percy K. and Vida L. W. Hudson Professor of Computer Science. Hirschberg has been advocating for women in CS since she started at Bell Labs in the 1980s. “We are really delighted at how diverse our major has become.”

Columbia has come a long way to become one of the top schools in the US with a high percentage of women in CS. Ten years ago, the percentage of females majoring in computer science was just 8% percent. Columbia and Barnard have worked closely together to make CS more accessible to students with little to no CS background, which disproportionately includes women and underrepresented minorities. The School has been able to retain women in its introductory classes with considerable success through the following initiatives:

  • The development of COMS 1004 Lab, in which students with little programming experience in the introductory CS course get help practicing coding
  • The Emerging Scholars Program, in which students with little CS background attend weekly sessions to discuss CS as problem-solving
  • The Womxn in Computer Science group, a network for women undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff; the group promotes interaction on academic, social, and professional issues
  • The Application Development Initiative, which organizes hackathons and other events
  • The development of COMS 1002 Computing in Context, in which students planning other majors can get basic CS training to use on interdisciplinary problems, this course has had an unanticipated effect—leading to an increased number of students with no CS background deciding to major in CS

“My introduction to CS was welcoming, especially for students like me who do not have a CS background,” said Desu Imudia, a second-year student from Columbia College. As an African American woman, she says there is little representation in the School and sees the value of the labs for students to learn in groups and build confidence. Imudia plans to declare CS as her major and to continue working as a teaching assistant. She added, “Even though I know a lot now, I am no expert, so I think more labs in addition to courses will be really helpful for students.”

Barnard has gone from just one graduating CS major in 2013 to 33 in 2019—CS is now one of Barnard’s 10 most popular majors. In 2019, Barnard hired its first CS faculty as part of a comprehensive plan to expand its focus on CS and fully meet students’ needs, as well as to bring computing education to Barnard students outside the CS major, potentially attracting more of them to major or minor in CS or newly developed joint programs.

Rebecca Wright, Druckenmiller Professor of Computer Science at Barnard College and director of the Vagelos Computational Science Center, said, “This is an extremely exciting time for CS at Barnard. In addition to continuing to collaborate with Columbia, we also have the opportunity to explore new models and new kinds of computing curriculum.”

As part of the project, Barnard will develop a Computing Fellows program. Led by the new Vagelos Computational Science Center at Barnard, the Computing Fellows program will support faculty to incorporate computational projects into their courses and provide ongoing support to faculty and students in those courses. Specifically, a number of undergraduates each year will be hired and trained as computing fellows to work with faculty in departments across Barnard and their students.

At Columbia Engineering, the COMS 1004 Lab, Emerging Scholars Program, and Computing in Context programs will continue under the grant, with additional teaching assistants and PhD students expected to be hired. Hirschberg will lead the project and manage the Computing in Context, the 1004 Lab, and the ESP initiatives in collaboration with Adam Cannon and Paul Blaer, lecturers in discipline at Columbia Engineering.

At Barnard, Wright will spearhead the development and execution of the Computing Fellows program and will collaborate with the rest of the team across all of the initiatives.

“We are so grateful to Northeastern University’s  Center for Inclusive Computing for helping us to expand the programs which have so far proven so successful in retaining a diverse group of CS majors,” said Hirschberg.