While we may be living in the heart of Silicon Valley—a region recognized globally for technological innovation—computer science (CS) is a field in which women are severely under-represented. Earning a mere 18% of bachelor degrees in the field, the workplace rarely showcases a fair balance of both genders.
However, at M-A two out of three CS teachers are women. Tomiko Fronk teaches AP Computer Science Principles (in addition to Precalculus) and Cynthia Donaldson specializes in AP Computer Science A, or AP Java.
Donaldson was first introduced to the world of technology through her father, a mechanical engineer. “He really wanted us to be astronauts, so he bought us one of the first home computers called the VIC-20,” she said, adding, “There is something about a girl having her father’s permission to pursue a male-dominated world that helps a lot.”
Donaldson shared a talent and affinity for math and studied it at the University of California, Berkeley, where she also learned coding.
She explained, “I went to Cal thinking I would major in math, but I took as many coding classes as I could just because it was on the rise. It wasn’t super popular yet, but people were starting to code.”
However, the courses were dominated by men. “I was usually the only woman in my math and coding classes,” she said.
Donaldson experienced this further when she interned for the Chief Aerodynamics Scientist at NASA. “I walked into the aerodynamics building, and they didn’t have any other women except the secretaries. They were so excited I was there because it meant they could finally be part of the co-ed softball league.”
Years later, Donaldson still sees the same phenomenon at M-A. She said, “My classes are still easily two-thirds men. I don’t know why that is.”
Donaldson hopes female students are not intimidated by the course. “The average scores for the women in my classes are a standard deviation above the men’s scores,” she said. “As a rule, women do really well in the class.”
She also wants students to understand that taking computer science does not mean you have to become a computer scientist, but it will provide you with a helpful skill set for many different professions. She said, “Whatever job you choose to pursue, you will be coming in with a wider skill set than most. In most fields nowadays, having a little bit of coding knowledge absolutely gives you a leg up.”
Fronk’s passion for teaching computer science stemmed from her own academic experience. “I started out as an electrical engineering major in college, which at the time had the least number of females than any other engineering field,” she explained, noting that she quickly decided that was not something she wanted to pursue.
“I was sitting in a lecture and I was one of two girls out of about 100 students,” she described. “I turned to the guy sitting next to me, and he was playing video games while the lecture was happening. I asked him a super simple question like ‘What is the homework assignment?’ and he looked at me, didn’t say anything, and then went back to playing his video games.”
Fronk was determined to ensure that this discrimination didn’t happen at M-A, so when she and Donaldson started at the school in 2014, the pair worked together to develop an inclusive and welcoming program.
She advised, “Don’t be afraid to try. CS is challenging, but I do think that the teachers here, like Ms. Donaldson, are so kind and willing to work with you. If you are up for the challenge, there’s lots of support here.”
Donaldson and Fronk’s stories reflect that discrimination is still prevalent in STEM, but they also serve as a reminder to all young women that they are capable of achieving success in any field they desire.
Donaldson and Fronk have created an inclusive computer science community and continue to inspire every student to reach their coding goals, in the hopes of a future that sees gender parity in professional and academic spaces that women were historically discouraged from.