Women become more involved in STEM majors on campus
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In the computer science department at Southern sits a pair of blue and white knee-high converse sneakers, that are painted with a bar graph that indicates the growth of female students that enter the field.
As the population of women in computer science grows, the bar graph rises, adding fresh paint to the sneakers. The updating process of the sneakers falls in the hands of Chairperson Lisa Lancor and STEM Innovation and Leadership Director Winnie Yu.
“They’ve been everywhere and they tell the story,” said Lancor. “People stop us and ask ‘what are those?’ and it just lets us talk about the lack of women in tech.”
The idea of creating the “boots,” as Lancor and Yu call them, was thought of while the two were at the National Center for Women Information Technology Conference after becoming leaders.
“We were told to come in a pair of sneakers because pacesetters in a marathon set the pace for others to follow,” Lancor said. “We couldn’t have a regular sneaker for we found our boots.”
According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, since 2015, the computer science department has since seen a 75 percent increase in female students enrolled in the department.
Although the boots represent the growth of women deciding to join computer science at Southern, women still account for less than half of the population graduating from secondary schools at 35.5 percent, according to a 2016 Catalyst study, a study created to highlight the gender gap in each individual STEM field.
“[Women] are 50 percent of the population and there should be an equal amount of women and men in every field not just [computer-science],” said Colleen Bielitz associate vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Outreach. “It is frustrating that there are still so few women in computer science when we need their voices to be heard. The obstacles are always the same. We need society to change its views of what it considers roles for a man and a women. There are no such boundaries, only the ones we make up.”
As the number of women in the field continues to grow, they still account for less than half of the field’s employees and according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, “computer science research jobs will grow 19 percent by 2026. Yet, women only earn 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the United States. Despite the high job demand, computer science remains a male dominated field in the United States.”
On Nov. 12, the Computer Science Department and the Computer Science Club hosted a presentation outlining women in the tech field. Computer science professor Amal Abdel-Raouf gave a speech detailing the role women have in the field, while also stressing how they still are a minority.
“In the Computer Science Department, we started our efforts [to boost female enrollment and involvement] in 2016,” Abdel-Raouf said. “And we actually aim to increase the number of female participants in our department and in computing in general.”
Though the presentation was centered around women and the hope to bring more into the field, male students and faculty showed up in support of their female colleagues and classmates.
“First of all, I want to say that all women in computer science – I know it’s a challenge for them,” said computer science major Aryan Bisht, a sophomore. “They are such a minority in the whole STEM field, so I just wanted to come and support the cause. I came to support all the speakers.”
Class of 2010 computer science graduate Chalise Grogan said she was the only woman on the team at any of the jobs in the tech field when she first started after graduation. Grogan currently works for 23 and Me in Silicon Valley, Calif. Now half the engineering team is made up of women, she said. Based on her experience, she said she believes that psychology has a lot to do with why women feel threatened in a male-dominated field.
“Stereotype threat is a concern that you are going to accidentally reinforce a negative stereotype. It is like saying women are not good at math or they are not good engineers,” Grogan said. “Another is imposter syndrome, which is when someone believes they don’t belong and they feel they aren’t as good as their counterparts. And I think that has definitely plagued me for a long time in my career. I am always trying to make sure no one puts me in a box.”
Although the field is still considered to be male-dominated, men themselves have observed the lack of female representation. It is said that it’s due to women not wanting to go against the grain.
“Well, as a male in a male-dominated profession,” said Omar Abid, Computer Science Technical Support Analyst, “I believe that for a long time the computer science and STEM in general were viewed as the ‘boys club’ and it turned many women off from the field because they did not want to stand out; but as many women begin to enter the field I believe that stigma is slowly beginning to dissipate.”
One woman who has stepped into a leadership role in the field on Southern’s campus is senior and Computer Science Club president Elizabeth Endri, who despite the intimidation is continuing to pursue a career in STEM.
“I joined the field because of my interest in technology,” Endri said. “It is a little intimidating being one of the only girls in a department so heavily male-dominated but you learn to work with everyone and get things done.”
According to National Public Radio, the decline of women in the computer science field began in 1984 due to the progression of personal computers in homes as games they promoted were targeted primarily towards males and the stigma for many years to come became that computers were made for men.
“We definitely want to reach elementary schools, middle schools,” Endri said. “That’s when I think kids are first exposed to ‘boy toys’ [and] ‘girl toys’ and kind of get rid of those gender-specific roles and choices or styles.”
As the stigma of gender specific roles continued, women found themselves having to catch up in a race they entered years too late.
“My biggest obstacle since starting with computer science was having to learn as much as I could in the span of four years,” said computer science major Tiffanie Edwards, a senior. “Prior to coming to Southern as a freshman, I had no technical background of any kind. Everything I learned about computer science has been largely taught through this school and I was always a little unsure of whether I was at a disadvantage compared to other students who started off earlier in their life.”
Although women have strayed from the field in the past, according to Endri, this is no longer the case.
“There are definitely more women staying in the field because the tech community is becoming more inclusive,” said Endri. “Everybody helps each other out.”
According to Lancor, having women on the team adds to the diversity of the staff and to the quality of the software produced.
“Software is built better when the team is more diverse,” Lancor said, “and this is what companies want.