Women Forge Community in Computer Science Department

By Elizabeth Zhou

It is no secret that the computer science field – at Middlebury and beyond – is dominated largely by males. Restrictive gender norms throughout history have permeated into modern academia, resulting in spaces that do not always feel comfortable for traditionally underrepresented groups. An initiative spearheaded by Hannah Beach ’18 and Anna Parker ’17.5 is seeking to change this culture. Known as WiCs++ (pronounced as “wicks”), the newly formed Women in Computer Science Club is open to all female-identifying individuals in the department.

The idea for the group stemmed from an e-mail that Academic Department Coordinator Amy Rose and Professor of Computer Science Amy Briggs sent out to all female majors and minors this past fall. Noticing a lack of community among this ever-growing demographic within the department, they proposed the creation of an official club. Now, the two professors – the only women within the eight-member computer science faculty team – serve as advisors to WiCs++.

Alongside a group of ten or so peers, co-presidents Beach and Parker have dedicated the past several weeks to informal logistical meetings and bonding sessions over lunch. Their goal is to forge connections within a field that has traditionally consisted of male-centric spaces.

For Beach, alienation within the computer science world has been a problem since her high school years.

“My experience in senior year was that everyone was talking about Stars Wars all the time. I didn’t watch Star Wars,” she explained. “So I thought that I enjoyed computer science, but if the people I work with can only talk about Star Wars and I don’t like Star Wars, is this the job for me?”

For many females, this type of isolation has persisted into the scene of higher education.

“I don’t want to speak for everyone’s experience, but I’ve found that boys in computer science tend to find their communities in computer science,” Parker said. “Girls who major in computer science tend to take the classes but find their community elsewhere.”

Last Wednesday, April 6, marked the first official WiCs++ gathering, which centered on tech prep and was designed to attract a larger group of any interested parties. Soon to become a regular installation of WiCs++, tech prep sessions offer a practical overview to participants hoping to enter the professional world of computer science.

“For many CS jobs, the interview process is very technical. Intro-level classes cover this, but if you take them your freshman or sophomore year, it’s easy to lose that information later,” Parker said. “Tech prep meetings seek to help review these concepts.”

The club also seeks to instill a sense of excitement for the real-life applications of coding. Last Friday, WiCs++ hosted a game night open to anyone of any experience level in computer science. Students had the opportunity to try on virtual reality goggles while bonding with other tech enthusiasts.

The next project in the works is a conference linked to Girl Develop It, an organization that sets up tech meet-ups for women at various meeting points around the country. Scheduled for April 23, the event will feature a panel of guest speakers and computer science faculty members, as well as a robotic controller workshop.

“The goal of the workshop is to be as welcoming and unintimidating as possible,” Parker said. These are things that are generally lacking from the computer science department, and we think it’s one of the reasons why there are fewer women and fewer underrepresented groups in the field. It’s hard for people to come in and see themselves breaking into that demographic.”

The efforts of WiCs++ to empower traditionally marginalized identities come as part of an important larger-scale movement. All across the United States, chapters of Women in Computer Science have been cropping up at institutions like Dartmouth College and Columbia University. The impact of WiCs++ extends far beyond the college years as well: diversity initiatives at the higher education level will provide tech companies with a larger pool of qualified candidates to choose from once these students graduate. In the meantime, females with a passion for coding will experience greater comfort and accessibility both inside and outside the classroom.

“We’re building a community in a department where that has never existed,” Beach explained. “Joining this club now, I feel I have so many more connections that I did not have before. It’s made my classes a lot less intimidating.”

 

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Women Forge Community in Computer Science Department