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Big Idea

Computer science — for everyone

One of the biggest critiques of the tech industry is the way its lack of diversity — in gender, racial background, and life experience — affects how companies operate and the products they produce. We spoke to Carla Brodley, Northeastern University’s Dean of Inclusive Computing and the former dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, about how to broaden the field. Here are five takeaways. 

Computer science involves more than coding.
Although people don’t always realize it, computer science is highly collaborative, and you are often giving presentations. It’s important to learn how to own a room. Most companies have morning stand-ups or code reviews where you have to present. The other really important thing is being well-grounded in ethics. 

Carla Brodley, Dean of Inclusive Computing. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The field needs diversity of every kind.
Sexual orientation. Whether you’re a veteran. Age. Socioeconomic background. Disability. Living in different regions, even within the United States, brings different experiences. In addition, at a university, it’s about what people choose to study. At Khoury, we’ve created combined majors and the Align Master’s Program, so people could discover computer science after they graduated from college. 

There are fewer women in computer science today than there were 30 years ago.
In the ’80s, the field was about 40% female. But when computer science started being offered in schools as an elective, for some reason it was an all-boys thing. At its lowest, about 10 years ago, [the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in computer science awarded to women] was at 17%. It has clawed its way back to 21.5% since then. 

That lack of diversity has real-world results.
Machine learning only works if the population you train your model on is the same as the population you apply it to. Speech recognition is 13% more accurate for men than women and more accurate for people who don’t have a heavy regional accent. If you’ve been in a modern car, you can give it instructions. If it doesn’t ever recognize your voice, it’s a drag. [Recently], I hurt my wrist and needed to dictate a lot. Well, if I’m fixing 13% more errors than my male colleague is, I’m far less effective. 

Any background can prepare you for computer science.
If you can just get people to try it, they typically fall in love with it. It’s so creative; there are so many different ways to solve something. We’ve got people in the Align Program who studied dance. We’ve got someone who studied sports management. We have lots of combined majors with English, political science, the humanities. We’ve got a combined major with theater now. When I go to plays, I often see some of our students onstage. There’s no major that is not a good fit. 

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