2021 EDSIG Proceedings: Abstract Presentation

Encouraging Women in an Information Systems Program: an Origin Story

Amy Connolly
James Madison University

Danielle Gallagher
James Madison University

Laura Atkins
James Madison University

Like many computing programs, the majority of students in our Computer Information Systems (CIS) program are men. Historically, only 20% of our CIS majors are not men. As warned by an outside advisory board, we need more women in our program. While we cannot solve this societal problem overnight, we can make structural changes to the program to make it more inclusive for all students. To that end, faculty and administrators are jointly reviewing the entire curriculum with a fine-tooth comb for small changes with big impact. One such change involves students’ first major course. That course is Principles of Programming with Python. Students are not expected to have any prior programming experience before this course. However, beginning students are most often hamstrung by confidence issues, not an ability to do the work or learn the skills. They know more than they think they know. Women and minorities, navigating stereotype threat, can feel intimidated in a male-dominated classroom of seeming experts. Once they get through this first course though, they succeed. Student development theory states that community building in college students’ first years improves retention (Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Herrenkohl et al., 2019; Ong et al., 2018; Wenger, 2000). One reason suggested for women avoiding computing is a perceived lack of community (Sax et al., 2018; Simon et al., 2017). In an attempt to address this discomfort, recent literature suggests centralizing women and non-majority student populations to increase sense of belonging (Ong et al., 2018; Victores & Gil-Juárez 2016). Historically, such initatives get confined to limited spaces and times (i.e., student organizations, Women’s History Month, etc.) but when fully embraced, funded, and celebrated, such initiatives produce greater senses of belonging and community among non-majority students (Ong et al., 2018; Victores & Gil-Juárez 2016). Coincidentally, we teach five sections of the Programming course each semester. In an attempt to jump start feelings of community in CIS and to artificially create critical mass, we decided to attract women, minority and transfer students (or those apprehensive about programming) into one section. We anticipate that this section will make students feel more comfortable (Cohoon, 2002; Fischer, 2017; Opie, 2019). To avoid discrimination, this section was made available to all students with a descriptor in the course schedule as “focused on diversity and inclusion”. For Fall 2021, the course enrollment is 63% women and 58% students of color. The other four sections of the same course by constrast have 15%-25% women and 20%-28% students of color. All five sections will be taught the same content with the same outcomes, but we hope that the diversity-labeled section will encourage a more inclusive learning environment. In this presentation, we will discuss why we chose this intervention, preliminary results from the first semester pilot, and some of the issues we had to navigate as we designed the intervention, such as how to avoid reverse discrimination. This presentation should interest any faculty or administrators looking for ways to improve gender ratios in their CIS programs.

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