We’ve all heard the statistics: women are pretty drastically underrepresented in STEM fields, particularly those of computer science and engineering. A mere 17 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees, nationally, are awarded to women. Although Swarthmore typically does a little better than this national average, it is still disproportionate relative to the number of women attending the college.
Because of this uneven distribution of men and women in the Computer Science department, the student group Women in Computer Science was formed to provide a supportive community for women in this field dominated by men.
“It can be kind of intimidating to walk into a CS class, especially at an upper level as a women when you’re surrounded by men. Having a support system and being able to talk to people who are dealing with similar things can be really important in helping people feel comfortable staying in the field rather than just taking an intro-level course and then dropping,” said club outreach coordinator Ali Rosenzweig ‘18.
The introductory CS classes–such as Introduction to Comp Sci, Introduction to Computer Systems and Data Structures and Algorithms–are fairly even in terms of how many men and women are enrolled in the class, although the number of women in CS classes drops off in higher level courses, according to WiCS webmaster Martina Castigliola ’17. “One major goal of WiCS is to create this welcoming community filled with great opportunities for women interested in CS really early, so that they are more encouraged to continue with the major,” Castigliola said.
Castigliola echoed Rosenzweig’s feelings about the importance of a welcoming and supportive environment. She hopes that it will create space for women in the department to ask each other for both personal and academic advice. “We also want to create projects for members to participate in, and create a platform that allows members to get together and participate in side projects on their own time, and to create opportunities for members to receive help and guidance with career related topics – like technical interview prep, resume reviews, and networking opportunities,” Castigliola said.
Rachel Diamond, co-president of WiCS also brought up the importance of having women get involved in CS. “Everybody interested in CS should be able to and be encouraged to pursue their interest, and groups like WiCS are an important part of making CS accessible and welcoming to everyone,” said co-president Rachel Diamond ’18.
Rosenzweig knows the importance of a supportive community because she has, in her high school particularly, experienced what it is like not to have such a support system. “When I was younger that intimidation factor of being in a heavily male-dominated field definitely made me not start earlier. Like we had a high school robotics team that was almost all guys, and it was a very distinctive group and you kind of knew if you weren’t a part of it. I thought it was really cool but I never felt comfortable joining so I didn’t start CS until college,” Rosenzweig said.
One of the club’s main focuses is to prepare women in CS for future job opportunities through events with Career Services, teaching resume advice and technical career prep, and job interview preparation. “These are useful skills that everyone needs but I think women tend to be less prepared for it because of the personalities that we’re trained to have; that you have to be more sure of yourself in those settings than women are normally encouraged to be,” Rosenzweig said.
WiCS does a lot of work with Swarthmore alumni in order to increase these networking opportunities and to work on job readiness. The club is starting a new mentorship program that pairs current students with alumni working in computer-science related fields, in order for students to gain insight as to what a career in the field might be like.
For Diamond, the experience has been exciting and inspiring. “WiCS has made me realize how amazing Swarthmore alumni are- they are great people to reach out to and they have experience that is a great resource for current students,” Diamond said.
While the group does focus a lot on job and interview preparation, another one of its main goals is to create a safe space for women in CS fields by creating a community of women so it feels like there’s a stronger female presence in the department. “We have events that aren’t structured, so it’s essentially just us doing homework or hanging out in the robot lab in Sci and listening to music and eating oreos and whatever. If you have people who have questions specifically about gender related issues or just in general and aren’t comfortable asking professors or aren’t comfortable asking certain peers then it kind of gives them an environment where they can do that more comfortably,” Rosenzweig said.
WiCS also allows members to travel to coding conferences, such as Grace Hopper, the largest all women’s tech conference in the world, as well as events like FemmeHacks at UPenn and WECode at Harvard.
One event that WiCS held recently was an opportunity for people to share their externship experiences with the group. One student’s account of her experience that stood out to Rosenzweig did so because of the small details about gender dynamics in the workplace. The event created a space for such things, which may not normally be considering when students apply to jobs or internships, to be discussed openly.