Alumnae/i Feature

Sherry Seibel '18 Researches Women in Coding

We asked Sherry about her research into the gender gap in computer science education.

Dix scholar, Sherry Seibel '18 is researching how the motivations of women who attend coding bootcamps differ from the motivations of women who attend undergraduate computer science programs. She presented her preliminary research at SIGCE 2018 in Baltimore in February 2018 and her work was featured on a blog run by the Code & Cognition lab at the University of Washington Information School. We’ve asked her to share a bit about her research.

Tell us about your research. 

My research focuses on the gender gap in computer science (CS) education. When you look at students who traditionally study the computer sciences, only 18% of enrollees in American colleges are women. Starting around 2013, coding bootcamps emerged as another educational model for teaching coding. Coding bootcamps are immersive programs that last on average 14 weeks, and have 35% women enrollment. The question my research is trying to answer is, "What about the bootcamp model makes learning to code more attractive to women than traditional CS degrees?"

What drew you to this particular project? 

This is a really personal project for me. I’m a nontraditional student, having started my undergraduate education in 2007 and leaving after my freshman year to join AmeriCorps. After AmeriCorps, I focused on work and became interested in programming. I enrolled in a coding bootcamp, then worked as a programmer for three years. I was a software engineer at Harvard Medical School when I realized I wanted to finish my college education. I fell in love with Simmons, left my job to finish school full time, and graduated in May with a B.S. in computer science.

My journey embodies what I’m researching. I’m inspired by the amazing women I’ve met along the way — their stories offer powerful insight into what women in STEM are experiencing right now. Hopefully this research can identify ways to empower more women to become coders.

Have the results surprised you? 

I was surprised that the majority of women I interviewed, both computer science graduates and bootcamp graduates, didn’t know what a computer science major would entail. Many didn’t know what types of courses would be involved, or thought it would be mostly math. That disconnect is significant because it was a powerful deterrent. 88% of all participants wished they had started coding earlier, and 88% of the coding bootcamp graduates found coding much easier than they originally thought once they finally started to code. To me, that suggests we need to make coding more approachable as well as more accessible.

How are you hoping to use the results of your research?

If we can isolate a few concrete factors responsible for encouraging more women to code, it’s possible to recalibrate how traditional CS classes are taught, structured, and marketed. There is enormous potential to recruit more women into a rewarding profession. 

How do you see the field changing for women?

One question I ask my participants is: “Do you consider yourself a stereotypical software engineer?” I almost always get a “no.” Occasionally though, I’ll get someone who says “yes” or “I will be.” Those women consider themselves stereotypical because they’re surrounded by other women who are creative, intelligent, and empathic, among other things. 

I envision more women starting to feel that way as more women enter the field. I think it will take time and a lot of work. But ultimately, I envision women having a greater presence and impact, making it more welcoming for other women.

Are you still looking for participants for this study? 

Yes! If you are a woman who graduated from a coding bootcamp or with a computer science degree, I would love to hear from you! You can contact me via email. I will be contacting participants until September 2019.

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