Sundials in the shade: A study of women's persistence in the first year of a computer science program in a selective university

Rita Manco Powell, University of Pennsylvania


Currently women are underrepresented in departments of computer science, making up approximately 18% of the undergraduate enrollment in selective universities. Most attrition in computer science occurs early in this major, in the freshman and sophomore years, and women drop out in disproportionately greater numbers than their male counterparts. Taking an ethnographic approach to investigating women's experiences and progress in the first year courses in the computer science major at the University of Pennsylvania, this study examined the pre-college influences that led these women to the major and the nature of their experiences in and outside of class with faculty, peers, and academic support services. This study sought an understanding of the challenges these women faced in the first year of the major with the goal of informing institutional practice about how to best support their persistence. The research reviewed for this study included patterns of leaving majors in science, math and engineering (Seymour & Hewitt 1997), the high school preparation needed to pursue math and engineering majors in college (Strenta, Elliott, Adair, Matier, & Scott, 1994), and intervention programs that have positively impacted persistence of women in computer science (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). The research method of this study employed a series of personal interviews over the course of one calendar year with fourteen first year women who had either declared on intended to declare the computer science major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Other data sources were focus groups and personal interviews with faculty, administrators, admissions and student life professionals, teaching assistants, female graduate students, and male first year students at the University of Pennsylvania. This study found that the women in this study group came to the University of Pennsylvania with a thorough grounding in mathematics, but many either had an inadequate background in computer science, or at least perceived inadequacies in their background, which prevented them from beginning the major on an equal footing with their mostly male peers and caused some to lose confidence and consequently interest in the major. Issues also emanated from their gender-minority status in the Computer and Information Science Department, causing them to be socially isolated from their peers and further weakening their resolve to persist. These findings suggest that female first year students could benefit from multiple pathways into the major designed for students with varying degrees of prior experience with computer science. In addition, a computer science community within the department characterized by more frequent interaction and collaboration with faculty and peers could positively impact women's persistence in the major.

Subject Area

Higher education|Educational software|Science education|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Powell, Rita Manco, "Sundials in the shade: A study of women's persistence in the first year of a computer science program in a selective university" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3175654.