UVA Engineering Career Development Director’s Novel Research Sheds Light on Decisions Women Make After College About Careers in Computer Science

Engineering can best be described as the process of using science and math to design solutions for big problems. And yet there is a long-standing problem in the field of engineering itself still begging for a solution: Women are significantly underrepresented, especially in computer science.

Julia Lapan is focused on answering why.

Lapan is director of the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Center for Engineering Career Development. UVA Engineering is far above the national average in terms of the percentage of women earning computer science degrees – approximately 30% of UVA’s computer science degree earners are women, compared to 19% nationally, and both the interim department chair and incoming chair are women.

However nationally, the number of women earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science has been declining, according to the National Science Foundation. In 1997, the national average for women earning computer science degrees was 27%, eight percentage points higher than today. This is despite the fact that computing careers are some of the fastest growing and highest paid, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the computer science industry will grow by 19% in the next four years

Julia Lapan, Computer Science, Internship, UVA Engineering, women

Lapan is director of the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Center for Engineering Career Development.

For the seven years she has been in her job, Lapan has observed that nationally, many women students do not choose to go into computer science-related careers after graduation. UVA Engineering computer science 2021 graduates reported a median starting salary of $95,000, and Lapan said that means women could be missing opportunities.

In novel research she conducted with mentor Katie Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University, Lapan investigated the internship experiences of women computer science students to see if it shed light on their job choices after graduation.  

“There’s been a lot of research on how to attract more women into computer science majors and retain them in the computer science industry, but there’s not a lot of research on the college to career transition,” Lapan said.

In their study, Lapan and Smith focused on giving women students a voice by interviewing them about their internship experiences at tech companies. Their paper titled “’No Girls on the Software Team’: Internship Experiences of Women in Computer Science” appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Career Development earlier this year and highlighted the voices of 13 women from a mid-sized university who were in their final year of undergraduate school and had completed at least one computing-related internship. To protect participants’ confidentiality, Lapan and Smith used pseudonyms for the students and did not identify their university.

All participants in the study reported experiencing imposter syndrome, which means they doubted their own abilities and thought they weren’t prepared enough for their internships. One student, who Lapan and Smith called “Shafi,” stated, “I always think that I’m not good enough in computer science. I always think I need to take more classes to be better at coding.” Her peer, “Susan,” said, “My male peers look at me and go, ‘Well obviously you’re going to get an interview because you’re a girl. They interview all the girls.’”

The tech industry is focused on bringing gender parity to the field, often holding job fairs and conferences specifically for women. But that segregation can possibly lead to imposter syndrome. Another study participant, who Lapan and Smith called “Marissa,” said that on the first day of one of her computer science courses, a professor commented, “Computer science is such a great field to get into. And it’s even better if you are a girl. You don’t even have to be good because they just need to fill these quotas.”

“Eva” wondered if “I only got this internship because I went to Grace Hopper, and I only went to Grace Hopper because I was a woman,” referring to the global Grace Hopper Celebration annual conference highlighting women in computing. “Lucy” reported being told by a family friend, “You only got that internship because you’re a woman.”

“That feeling of imposter syndrome and questioning of competence also made the students feel like they had to try that much harder to prove themselves and work harder than those around them,” Lapan said.

Lapan and Smith found that women interns immediately noticed a gender imbalance at their internship site and found themselves navigating established “microclimates” within the organization. They define microclimates as the environments that people encounter and engage in daily. For interns, those are generally the teams they are placed with while working for companies.

“The important thing about microclimates, according to our research, is that it is often these microclimates – the local, day-to-day interactions with others at the internship site – that had more of an effect on women’s career plans than the larger organizational culture,” Lapan said. “A company can have an over-arching positive stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion, like family-friendly policies and gender-diverse recruiting practices, but if the microclimates into which interns are placed are not welcoming and inclusive, that can counteract those company-wide diversity efforts.”

For all participants in the study, Lapan and Smith found that social dynamics and the presence or lack of diversity on teams played a significant role in the quality of the students’ internship experiences. In almost all cases, interns were placed on teams where women were underrepresented.

“Eva” stated, “I really have not experienced a lot of blatant hostility...it’s much more like there’s no girls on the software team. [Instead, it is] ... realizations that you don’t see yourself in other members on the team, and not having as many mentors that look more like you.”

“When I first had the stand-up meeting and see all my group, I feel kind of...weird because it’s a small room and all the other people are guys,” “Radia” said.

Smith, Lapan’s collaborator, said, “Overall, women wanted internships where they could connect with colleagues, do meaningful work, extend their knowledge and be challenged, and receive regular feedback. Women also sought teams that were diverse in terms of gender, race and age, and companies with women represented among leaders.”

Lapan and Smith found internships ripe for investigation because they often are critical in determining a student’s future job choices as well as the development of skills and confidence. In addition, since many internships take place over the summer, career advisors at colleges and universities often do not have details about students’ experiences.

“We really have no idea what happens during those internships or how they might be shaping students’ career decisions,” Lapan said. “But what we found with this research is that gender really is a salient aspect of women’s internship experiences in computer science.”

Smith said she shares Lapan’s academic and professional interests in promoting women's success in computing majors and careers. “If we can better understand how current systems and cultures promote or inhibit women's interest and success in computing, we can ultimately improve women's access to, interest in, and overall experiences in computing,” she said.

The project supports Lapan’s work toward a doctorate in higher education at UVA’s School of Education and Human Development.

Her advisor and capstone committee chair, Brian Pusser, associate professor in the higher education program, said he believes Lapan’s research is hitting a critical nerve that needs to be investigated. “Julia’s research is particularly relevant in light of the increasing importance of computer science in higher education, and its centrality to the global political economy,” he said.

Gender disparity issues in computer science have been widely reported. A recent survey by Microsoft Security estimated that there are more than 2.5 million vacant, high-paying cybersecurity jobs, but that women only make up about a quarter of workers in that discipline.

“Security threats are increasingly complex, frequent, and impactful; they come from outside and inside the organization, and everyone is vulnerable,” wrote Vasu Jakkal, Microsoft corporate vice president of security, compliance, identity, management and privacy, in an article the company published recently. “The landscape requires a workforce of security professionals who bring diverse expertise, backgrounds, and skills to these cybersecurity challenges.

“I’ve often been the only woman or person of color at the table. And, while I’ve tackled every challenge thrown at me, I sometimes doubted myself and struggled with imposter syndrome. Most of us do – women especially. The important thing is that over time, we find our voice and learn to speak up,” Jakkal said.

In the expanding field of artificial intelligence, which refers to computer systems that perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence and logic, Tufts University’s Digital Planet team released research in December showing that only 17% of the global talent pool in artificial intelligence is female. Women’s perspectives and experiences are therefore not well-represented in developing technologies that have a growing influence on society.

Aidong Zhang, William Wulf Faculty Fellow, professor and interim chair of UVA’s Department of Computer Science, said that although she has devoted her career to academia and has not worked in industry, she agrees that gender diversity is an important topic for study, discussion and action. “Research has shown that diversity on teams leads to better outcomes,” she said. “Many women computer science leaders and their achievements have demonstrated that women are an important part of the team to lead in innovation.”

An important aspect of Lapan’s and Smith’s work has involved going deeper than statistics to understand the quality of women’s earliest exposures to computer science jobs.

“Qualitative research is so interesting because we can dig in and really find out what are the actual mechanisms that are shaping the trends we see,” Lapan said.

Pusser said he believes qualitative studies are extremely important in understanding organizational culture and employees’ lived experiences. “Qualitative research has also been central to advancing our understanding of the ways in which diversity, equity, and inclusion strengthen organizations and spur innovation and more effective leadership,” he said.

Smith added, “Qualitative research studies provide detailed and nuanced insight into the nature of women's experiences in computing settings that explain not just the 'what,' but the ‘why.’”

Lapan hopes the lessons gleaned from the research will begin to lay the groundwork for a more proactive approach at reaching gender parity in computer science.

She and Smith are working with researchers from UCLA on a larger study about how race and gender affect non-computing majors’ participation in computing internships. She also co-authored a paper with Smith, published in December in the peer-reviewed journal Computer Science Education, about different degree paths students take to enter computer science – Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science programs – with the goal of better understanding the paths and promoting women’s success in the field.

Lapan and Smith said employers should be asking the question: “How can we structure internships so that they are positive experiences for all students, with particular attention to creating an inclusive culture for women and students from other underrepresented backgrounds?”

While women in general are underrepresented in computer science, the pair found that women of color are extremely underrepresented. “Julia and I struggled to successfully recruit students from [Black and Hispanic] groups for our work, so while our research begins to unveil undergraduate women's experiences in computing settings, our findings do not and cannot represent the experiences of all women. There is a great need for research that examines the academic and workplace experiences of racially minoritized students in computing, especially women of color,” Smith said.

Lapan is already putting her research to work in her position at UVA Engineering. This spring, she and her colleague Dana Quist, assistant director in UVA’s Center for Engineering Career Development, piloted a new course, Careers in Computing for Social Good, that they hope will help students realize the opportunities in the burgeoning field of computer science and attract more women and other students who are underrepresented to enter the field.

“What I want people to take away from our findings is a deeper understanding of how women in computer science think about and navigate their career journeys,” she said. “There’s been a lot of discussion around how we can get women more interested in computer science, but I think that’s the wrong question. I think we need to be looking more at how the culture of computer science, particularly as it plays out in academic and pre-professional settings like internships, influences students’ career decisions.

“If we can identify and address aspects of computing culture to make it more welcoming and inclusive, then we might have a chance to draw not only more women, but more people who don’t identify with what is often portrayed as the stereotypical computer science person, into the field. And I think that would be a very good thing.”