How do women in computer science overcome barriers?

By SIRI TUMMALA and ANANTA SRIVASTAVA | November 15, 2018

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COURTESY OF MEAGAN PEOPLES AND DIVA PAREKH Many women in computer science find themselves in largely male-dominated academic environments.

At the first Women in Computer Science (WiCS) meet and greet on Sept. 7, freshman Rena Liu observed the welcoming environment of her new major. 

“It seems like it’s a really close community,“ she said. “I’ve gotten to meet a bunch of executives and upperclassmen in Computer Science, and it’s been nice getting to know other people in the department.”

WiCS became an official student organization in 2016 and, according to WiCS Chair Vivian Tsai, has aimed to build a community for women, non-binary people and other underrepresented groups in the field.

“It is a lot about creating a space where women and other groups can feel comfortable pursuing their professional and academic goals at Hopkins,” she said. 

According to statistics from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, only 23 percent of Computer Science (CS) bachelor’s degrees at Hopkins went to women. Nationally, women earned only 18 percent of CS degrees in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And in the workforce, women only fill one quarter of positions, according to data from Girls Who Code. 

What are the barriers that women in CS face, and what resources does Hopkins provide them to overcome the gender gap? Female-identifying students, alumni and faculty members spoke to The News-Letter about their experiences in the male-dominated field.

Dealing with discrimination

Class of 2017 alum Jenny Wagner is now a software engineer at a startup in Baltimore. During her freshman year, she experienced harassment in her programming class by the professor teaching the course. 

“He kind of intimidated me to begin with, as a person who didn’t come into the major with prior experience — which oftentimes does correlate with being a woman in the field,” she said. 

Wagner explained that she struggled with coursework. While working on a coding project, she was offered someone else’s code and she used it. Wagner and nine other students were caught for plagiarizing. She explained that her professor brought her into his office and yelled at her for cheating. She said he told her she wouldn’t be successful if she copied from boys and then compared her to his ex-girlfriend.

“He said, ‘Well you know you’re never going to make a career out of cheating off boys who are more awkward than you. You can’t use boys for the rest of your career,’” Wagner said. “Another thing he said was that he had this ex-girlfriend who was like me. That she was beautiful and she had everything, except she was a liar — she had no morals.” 

After this interaction with her professor, Wagner said that she felt discouraged from pursuing her major.

“I was really embarrassed and ashamed,” she said. “I was afraid to go into department buildings, I was afraid to be involved in any events, even for Women in Computer Science, because I didn’t know if other people had experienced that.”

In her four years at Hopkins, Wagner noted that she was often one of few women in the classroom. She attributes this to the fact that women are not encouraged to pursue STEM fields in their formative years. 

“The majority of my classes were male. In the larger classes, that was clearer,” she said. “I believe that in one’s primary education, or in one’s personal life at home, young girls are not often encouraged to take apart computers or to take AP Computer Science.”

The number of women taking AP Computer Science has more than doubled in recent years, according to the College Board. However, women still only account for 27 percent of students taking the AP test. 

Senior Adriana Donis Noriega, vice chair for WiCS, said that in a class of 20 to 30 students, she has often been one of only two other female students. For the past three years, she has attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest conference series for women in computer science. This event showcases speakers and career fairs as a means to provide networking opportunities for women in the field. 

She recounted some of the comments her male peers made when she returned to Hopkins, after making several connections at the conference. 

“When I came back, some of my guy friends told me that I just got those jobs because I am a girl,” Donis said. “It sucks, because I may have gotten more interviews because I am a girl, but I passed those interviews too.”

Finding community 

Tsai emphasized that in addition to WiCS, other student groups like Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) help students apply their skills after they graduate from college. ACM is open to the entire student body and aims to aid CS students nationwide through events about technology and scholarships.

“Because there is that gender disparity in computing, it is difficult in the real world to feel comfortable getting advice on internships or knowing who to ask about research or things you might be interested in,” Tsai said. “Both WiCS and ACM have really helped create a really positive atmosphere.”

CS Associate Teaching Professor Sara Miner More explained that though she experiences gender disparities in the field on a regular basis, she finds the department’s environment largely positive. 

“As a faculty member specifically, it is unfortunate to look around the room and see very few other women around. But I do find the environment generally welcoming here, and I don’t feel like I’m treated differently in this particular department,” More said. 

More found that women pursuing computer science were particularly resilient for being able to push on, despite feeling like a minority in the field. 

“Often, the women that stick with computer science turn out to be some of the strongest majors we have,“ she said. “Maybe it’s because they were the ones that were strong enough to survive that adversity and that feeling of not belonging.”

Developing perseverance

Despite facing microaggressions and being a minority in her major, Donis encouraged other girls pursuing computer science to persevere, especially during the first years in the department.

“Once you take the first step, it becomes easier and you become motivated. You have to get through the awful classes first,” she said.

Sophomore Mia Boloix also noticed that there is a disproportionately small number of women in CS. She speculated that sometimes, women might be deterred from CS because society expects them to be perfect.

“In CS, you can’t have the mentality of being a perfectionist, because you are always going to fail at something at some point,” she said. “Men are taught to be brave and try, but if women do the same thing, then they are called bossy and cold.”

Boloix also observed that early in their childhood development, men and women are exposed to technology in drastically different ways. She cited the example of video game technology being largely geared toward men, which she argued exposes men to computing at a much earlier age than women. 

First-year Computer Science graduate student Shreya Chakraborty, however, did not perceive a gender disparity in CS at Hopkins, particularly in comparison to her experience in her home country of India.

“This is a stark contrast from my home country. There was a relatively much lower representation of women in engineering there,” she said.

She encouraged women interested in CS to pursue it regardless of what anyone else believes they should do.

“People should get going in whatever they want to do,” she said. “Just because you are a woman and some people may tell you that you have a low IQ or that you’re not meant for STEM, don’t follow them and don’t listen to them. Just fuck them, and go do whatever you want.”

Katy Wilner contributed reporting.

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