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Dalhousie computer science department struggles to improve gender balance

Department working to recruit more women, but has no specific plan

3 min read
caption Moira MacNeil is a fourth year math and computer science student at Dalhousie.
Sarah MacMillan
Moira MacNeil is a fourth year math and computer science student at Dalhousie.
caption Moira MacNeil is a fourth-year math and computer science student at Dalhousie.
Sarah MacMillan

When Moira MacNeil walks into class, she’s mostly surrounded by men.

MacNeil is a fourth-year student at Dalhousie University. She’s studying math with a minor in computer science.

When people ask her what she’s studying, they’re often surprised by her answer.

“It’s almost kind of offensive that someone is surprised that you’re doing that,” says MacNeil. “I don’t know if I just don’t come off as an intelligent person or if it’s just shocking that that would be a thing that a woman is interested in.”

In the computer science department, women are outnumbered by men by nearly six to one.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, while women made up 59 per cent of university graduates age 25 to 34, they made up just 30 per cent of graduates in mathematics and computer science.

At Dalhousie, the gender disparity is even greater, with women making up just 14 per cent of those enrolled in computer science this year.

Recruiting women at Dal

While the department is trying to recruit as many women as possible – both students and faculty – there is no specific plan or target to improve gender imbalance.

Andrew Rau-Chaplin, dean of computer science, says he and the rest of the department are very aware of the gender disparity. He says it’s something they are working to fix.

Rau-Chaplin says that for more than 10 years, the computer science department has been organizing outreach and high school presentations, in an effort to get students interested in computer science.

He says they have made a concerted effort to send diverse groups of people to run these presentations and do outreach.

“People need to see those exemplars,” says Rau-Chaplin. “If you don’t see people like you in a particular setting, you might say, ‘oh, well that’s not for me’ and so how do you get over that lip?'”

Still, only a small sample of Dalhousie’s computer science professors are women.

MacNeil says she hasn’t been taught by a woman in any of her computer science courses.

While MacNeil says she hasn’t found computer science to be hostile or unwelcoming to her, she does wish there were more women involved, both as teachers, and students.

Rau-Chaplin says he hopes to see an improved gender balance as well, but that it will take time to make a big change.

“There isn’t a magic wand. But what it takes is sustained focus.”

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