Shrinking the gender divide in Computing

New Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing Conference encourages women in the field

25 per cent of students in Queen’s School of Computing are female, Queen’s professor says.
25 per cent of students in Queen’s School of Computing are female, Queen’s professor says.

Computer Science has traditionally been a male-dominated field, but at Queen’s an increasing number of females have been enrolling in the program.

25 per cent of computing students at Queen’s are female and a new conference run by Queen’s School of Computing aims to embrace their role in the field.

The Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing runs today and tomorrow downtown at the Radisson Hotel.

Adjunct Professor and Research Associate Wendy Powly is the chief organizer behind the conference. She said the two-day event is based off of a similar conference which takes place annually in the US called the American Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. The conference aims to bring together the research and career interests of women in computing.

After attending the Grace Hopper conference in 2008, Powly, MSc ’90, said she wanted to bring something similar back to Queen’s.

“What inspired me was watching the young people at the conference,” she said. “The look of awe on their faces stuck with me when I came back.”

She said the conference has been funded almost entirely by sponsors. This has allowed almost all costs to be subsidized for delegates. The conference will include keynote speeches, student presentations and panel discussions.

160 female computing undergraduates, graduates and industry representatives from all over Ontario are registered for the conference this year. Despite this female interest in the field, Powly said there are still vast inequalities in the program’s gender dispersion.

The image of the stereotypical geeky computer scientist is perpetuated by the media, Powly said, and this negative stigma can discourage girls to become interested in computing, Powly said, adding that a lack of female role models in the field also prevent some females from pursuing computing as a career.

“At Queen’s, we are working to make our first-year courses more stimulating and interesting. We have done very well in retaining our female enrollment. We tend to have first-year instructors that are female, and we hope that this inspires females to remain in the program,” she said, adding the students can also work towards concentrations that combine computing with other fields.

Biomedical computing is one of the most popular options among females who are also interested in health sciences, but concentrations are also offered in cognitive science and computing and computing and the creative arts.

Although males continue to dominate in computing, Powly said she has felt that her gender has put her at an advantage. Because there is a lack is women in the field, there are far more opportunities to get involved, she said.

In order to attract more women and grow in size, there needs to be mentorships put in place for young girls, she said.

“Males are more likely to become interested in computing when they are young. It’s an innate attraction that girls don’t seem to have for the most part,” she said. “Two weeks from now a computer-engineer Barbie is coming out. That sort of thing will do more for the field than anyone will imagine, which is quite sad.”

Anna Belkova, CompSci ’11, said she first got interested in computing in grade 10, and chose Queen’s because of its biomedical computing program which will allow her to do computer surgery if she pursues a master’s in the field.

“The program has given me a lot of options and has exposed me to a very large skill set. At Queen’s computing is great because it’s a very small faculty,” Belkova said.

Out of 40 students in her class, Belkova said on average around eight of these are female. Some of these girls have since dropped out, though the same is not true for male students in her classes, she said.

“A lot of them just don’t understand what computing is. Girls say they don’t want to sit in front of a monitor for the rest of their lives. I don’t know if computing is to blame for this, or if it is just people’s expectations,” Belkova said.

Because of this, a lot has been done to ensure female retention in the program, she said.

Belkovais part of Women in the School of Computing (WISC), which organizes mentorship events for first-year females interested in the program. This year, a pizza party was held for all the women in the department, both faculty, and students, to get together and socialize.

WISC is also one of the main organizations supporting the Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing conference.

“I think there really needs to be a regional type of this conference all across Canada. Women need to know not to get discouraged from the field,” she said.

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