By: Karen Latimer

The persistent underrepresentation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is a well-documented and long-standing issue. Among these fields, computer science and computer science education suffer the greatest disparity of student gender. (Margolis & Fisher, 2002) In recent years, several initiatives have been developed to balance the scales of computer science equity. This includes organizations such as Girls Can Code and Women in Technology; government initiatives such as CSforALL, developed under Barak Obama in 2016 to support computer science equity (Latimer, 2021). Further, the Computer Science Teachers Associate, which in 2023 installed its fifth cohort of Equity Fellows, a select group of computer science educators who demonstrated a passion and acumen for equity, inclusivity, and accessibility in computer science education. (CSTA, 2023). 

Through the work of these organizations and other researchers, several obstacles that contribute to the under-representation of women and girls in computer science have been identified. However, research suggests the most effective intervention is developing a student’s “sense of belonging” or “computing identity”. (Beyer, 2014; Margolis & Fisher, 2002) A computing identity can be defined as the sense of self and belonging within a technology or computer science environment. Strategic classroom interventions have the potential to strengthen one’s computing identity by shaping their experiences in computer science classrooms, interactions with cultural influences, role models, mentors, and historical narratives. This paper explores curricular strategies to cultivate a sense of belonging and computing identity of female students with a specific focus on the utilization of historical narratives.

As I delve deeper into the research within this field, I find myself reflecting on my personal journey throughout my academic and professional endeavors. Recalling my undergraduate years in computer science during the early 1990s, I distinctly remember feeling like an outsider. As one of the few women comprising only 1.5% of my class, I lacked both role models and a supportive environment tailored to our needs. The absence of discussions centered around the contributions of female pioneers and other exemplary figures left me hesitant to seek assistance when needed.

Had our curriculum incorporated the achievements of women in the field, my experience might have been markedly different. By integrating the narratives of these trailblazers into our academic discourse, I speculate that my peers and I would have felt more empowered to actively engage in our studies and seek support when necessary. Moreover, exposure to diverse perspectives and experiences could have mitigated the prevalence of sexist microaggressions, discriminatory practices, and instances of harassment that plagued many women, including myself, in the technology workforce.

In envisioning an alternate scenario where female contributions were acknowledged and celebrated within computer science education, I believe the industry landscape could have been fundamentally transformed. Rather than viewing women as anomalies in the tech sector, our presence would have been normalized, fostering an inclusive environment where individuals of all genders are recognized for their talents and expertise. By addressing historical omissions and actively promoting diversity within the field, we can strive towards a future where equality and representation are no longer the exception, but the standard.

Gender Disparity in Computer Science and the Need for Equitable Representation

Since the age of personal computers, the technology sector has experienced under-representation of marginalized peoples, especially in terms of gender. The marketing of early personal computers to upper-middle-class boys in combination with the “geek” or “hacker” stereotype of intellectual yet anti-social loners propagated by popular culture (Margolis & Fisher, 2002) was the major cause of the severe gender gap in computer science. Although there have been marginal improvements in recent decades, a typical computer science classroom, secondary or post-secondary is still considered a male-dominated field. A 2011 Statistics Canada study found that only 15.8% of first-year computer science undergraduate students were female. (Wall, 2019)

The importance of balancing the gender scales, especially in computer science, is crucial. In general, the vitality of an industry is intricately tied to the depth and breadth of its diversity, as it incorporates multifaceted perspectives, varied backgrounds, and unique experiences. In the context of computer science, gender-balanced representation not only aligns with ethical considerations but also functions as a catalyst for innovation and problem-solving. Further, in computer science, this becomes more important with the development and expanded use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The more diverse the data that is fed into these systems, the more accurate the output and the fewer opportunities for biases. (Miller, 2023) 

Historical Narratives and Computing Identity

My personal journey through computer science history stems from an experience while studying for a Bachelor of Education at the University of Manitoba. While walking towards the library there was a poster of Ada Lovelace that drew my attention. On the side of the poster, it said, “World’s First Computer Programmer”.  The spectrum of emotions that ran spanned from awe to anger. As a woman in computer science, who first began to program in 1983, studied in high school, college, and university, and worked as a professional programmer, how could I not know that the first programmer was a woman? How many more stories need to be told? (Latimer, 2021) My exploration into the world of computer science history thus began, looking for the untold stories of the female pioneers. 

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The importance of educating students on the history of any discipline is crucial to a well-balanced education, including cultivating critical thinking and analysis skills, understanding cultural identity, building empathy and introducing potential role models. Within computer science specifically, these historical figures act as role models for marginalized students, especially women. When a student relates to a role model or historical figure, the connection strengthens their computing identity and breaks negative stereotypes. (Impagliazzo & Lee, 2004) Conversely, negative stereotypes and a lack of relatable role models will have the opposite effect leaving female students feeling isolated. “The social history and culture of computing, based on the activities and culture of boys and men who have made computing the central focus of their lives, contribute to boys’ sense of belonging and girls’ sense of ‘outsidership’ in computer science.” (Margolis & Fisher, 2002 p.75).

Fostering Computing Identity Through Historical Narratives

Historical narratives play an important role in computer science education. By exploring the lives and contributions of these historical female figures, educators also introduce role models, can break stereotypes and foster female students’ computing identity.  These historical figures as role models can break gender stereotypes, and reduce stereotype threat, for those who are under-represented in the field. Sylvia Beyer writes, “Being exposed to female role models who are similar to the self changes female students self-views enabling them  to envision themselves in those roles.” (Beyer, 2014 p. 157)To further support this claim Heyback and Pickup write, “A common proposal for increasing interest and access to STEM is the need for more female role models.” (Heybach & Pickup, 2017 p.616).  In the classroom, there are a number of ways, both implicitly and explicitly historical narratives can be introduced.  


In this case, the exploration of computer science historical narratives can be inherently linked with the explicit delivery and assessment of learning outcomes. The narratives chosen must be deliberate, intentional, and diverse in gender. Engaging with the material not only permeates it with significance and substance but also establishes a meaningful connection with the historical figures emphasized in the classroom. This relationship enhances the depth of comprehension, fostering an understanding that transcends mere academic exploration and forges a profound link with the historical context being studied. The rationale for teaching history in a computing class may not be immediately apparent. History has a unique ability to give understanding to the past so as not to repeat past mistakes, revisit ideas considered too advanced for its time, and remember the inventors, innovators, and pioneers of the field, such as Grace Hopper, Hedy LeMarr and Margaret Hamilton,  who may not have been given their due credit (Impagliazzo & Lee, 2004).

Assessment beyond a written test can come in the form of a research project or presentation. Students find and research a computer science historical figure with whom they have a connection. In a middle-year classroom, an art-based assessment may be implemented similar to the one outlined by Alison Master et al. (Master, Allison et al., 2016). Students are asked to draw a picture of a computer scientist with whom they have a connection, or “looks like them”. Older students can write a short biography, obituary or present pertinent information about the person they chose. By examining the historical figure’s narrative, early life, personal and professional challenges, and contributions to computer science, students find deeper connections with these pioneers. It is these connections that can foster and strengthen a computing identity.(Graham, Sandy & Latulipe, Celine, 2002; Latimer, 2021; Madkins et al., 2020)

Practical examples from my practice vary in their delivery but remain focused on four main research questions. 1. Describe the figure’s early life. This usually focuses on home life or education. 2. What obstacles did they overcome? Generally, this category explores elements of discrimination or external factors like war or poverty. 3. What was their contribution to computer science?  This requirement allows students to explore the innovations and inventions of their chosen pioneer and the impact it has on computer science and their daily lives. 4, What are some other interesting facts? This open-ended question allows students to delve deeper into the lives of these people. 

The most recent lesson employing this concept was a jigsaw activity using children’s books. In groups, students are assigned one book telling the story of a computer science pioneer. Groups then switch to share their knowledge of their historical figure with the rest of the group. Details for this lesson can be found at

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In the older classes as a final assessment for this unit, a presentation comparing and contrasting the lives of two computer science historical figures from different eras gives students an outlet to explore the above research questions as well as explore the similarities and differences between them. Finally, a reflection that allows the student to explore the personal connection they have with their chosen figures. Details for this lesson can be found at

As a film enthusiast, incorporating feature films and documentaries is a natural fit. Using works such as Hidden Figures, Bombshell or Coded Bias can be used as learning opportunities for students and provide fuel for class discussions. 

Classroom Environment

Adorning one’s classroom space is generally at a teacher’s discretion. However, it should not be done without purpose or intent. Looking back to the “Geek Myth” of computer scientists as anti-social, science fiction loving, intellectuals the classroom environment should not perpetuate the negative stereotype. This matters when the desired message is one of inclusion. Research indicates that when the classroom environment reflects diversity and steers away from the “Hacker” stereotype, positive impacts to students’ sense of belonging and computing identity are observed(Cheryan et al., 2011). When the negative stereotypes are propagated in the classroom environment, students identifying outside that persona feel excluded, unwelcome and unvalued. (Cheryan et al., 2009, 2011; Margolis & Fisher, 2002). These computer science pioneers, innovators, and inventors don the walls to generate deeper conversations. Several times in my own practice, spontaneous conversations evolved from these images. 

In today’s society, the accessibility of role models has reached unprecedented levels. Prior to the advent of platforms such as Zoom, FaceTime, and WebEx, educators were limited by their geographical location when sourcing guest speakers and other invited guests. However, with the emergence of these remote communication technologies, the educational landscape has been broadened. Now, individuals from diverse backgrounds and locations across the globe can virtually address any classroom, thereby offering students a wealth of varied experiences and perspectives. This expansion of access to global talent has ushered in a new era of educational enrichment, empowering students with opportunities to engage with a diverse array of voices, disciplines and insights.


Fostering a positive computing identity is a crucial component of balancing the equation for marginalized and racialized people in computer science. Incorporating the historical narratives of female computer science pioneers, innovators, and inventors can be a strategy to challenge obstacles that female students may face in the field. When a student can relate to these individuals on a personal level, making meaningful connections with them, they transform from a name on a page to a role model. It is these connections that foster a positive computing identity for students regardless of gender.


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Cheryan, S., Master, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2015). Cultural stereotypes as gatekeepers: Increasing girls’ interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereotypes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Cheryan, S., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kim, S. (2011). Classrooms matter: The design of virtual classrooms influences gender disparities in computer science classes. Computers & Education, 57(2), 1825–1835.

Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. G., & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045–1060.

CSTA. (2023, September 18). CSTA Announces 2022-24 Equity Fellowship Cohort.

Graham, Sandy & Latulipe, Celine. (2002). CS girls rock: Sparking interests in computer science and debunking the stereotypes. SIGCSE, Reno, NV.

Heybach, J., & Pickup, A. (2017). Whose stem? Disrupting the gender crisis within stem. Educational Studies, 53(6), 614–627.

Impagliazzo, J., & Lee, J. A. N. (2004). Using computing history to enhance teaching. In J. Impagliazzo & J. A. N. Lee (Eds.), History of Computing in Education (Vol. 145, pp. 165–175). Springer US.

Latimer, K. (2021). Stem the tide: Inspiring change in IT through cs education. In M. Nantais & R. Redekopp (Eds.), Education and Technology: Manitoba Teachers and Social Issues. Manitoba Association of Computing Educators.

Madkins, T. C., Howard, N. R., & Freed, N. (2020). Engaging Equity Pedagogies in Computer Science Learning Environments. Journal of Computer Science Integration, 1–27.

Margolis, J., & Fisher, A. (2002). Unlocking the clubhouse: Women in computing. MIT Press.

Master, Allison, Cheryan, Sapna, & Meltzoff, Andrew. (2016). Computing where she belongs: Stereotypes undermine girls sense of belonging in computer science. Journal of Educational Pschology, 108(3), 424–437.

Miller, K. (2023, October 31). Where are the women in tech and AI? The Boston Globe.

Wall, K. (2019). Persistence and representation of women in STEM programs. Statistics Canada.

About the Author

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Karen Latimer teaches computer science, ICT, and mathematics at St.Paul’s High School in Winnipeg Manitoba Canada, and a Masters of Education student at the University of Manitoba focusing on curriculum studies with the CS equity lens. Her previous experience as a software developer and project manager gives her a unique perspective as an advocate for women in computing. These experiences shaped her pedagogical philosophies and ignited a passion for teaching the history of computer science through its pioneers and unsung heroes.