Valuing and Prioritizing a Community for Women in Technology

Over the last two years, I helped transform WICS (Women in Information and Computer Science) from a dormant club to an active community at the University of Arizona. It’s been a great learning experience for me, the following are some of my thoughts on the journey.

Towards the end of my first semester of university, I came across this TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg. As I laid on my bed with my bright pink sheets, leaning on my picture covered dorm room wall, I watched the talk multiple times. It was a really strange experience, this woman was sharing these anecdotes of situations that I had experienced. They didn’t remind me of things that had happened, these were scenarios from my life. What was most interesting to me was that she was talking about these situations in a way that I had never really considered.

Overtime, Sheryl Sandberg became an important role model in my life, and I found that she spoke at Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I applied to several scholarships for the event so I could meet her. Though she did not attend that year, Grace Hopper was an incredible experience and I am very thankful for the opportunity to have attended a later one. From that experience and others, my network grew and I learned that most other universities have a thriving community of women in technology. I also learned that at the University of Arizona, the Women in Computer Science (WiCS) club met once a semester if at all, often virtually.

I wish I could say that I woke up one day and decided that a community for women in technology had to be a priority, and worked to make that happened. Rather, I found myself struggling to fit in. I realized I had little in common with my classmates. I was very intimidated when people seemed to ask questions in class that I didn’t even understand. I also frequently found myself in conversations where I was the only female, with others challenging whether or not I was cut out to be a programmer. I quickly realized women were significantly outnumbered by men in my classes. It was brought to my attention by a faculty member that I could help organize change for myself and for incoming classes.

Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code states,

“I want women to be comfortable with being imperfect. I immediately see how girls are afraid to try things that they won’t be good in. And women stay with the things they’re good at even if that’s not what they’re put on this earth to do.”

The organization we were building had to provide a space for mediocre women. When someone is really good at something, it’s just a little bit easier to stick with it. But when someone struggles, it’s much easier to let the things people say get to them, to believe that they don’t belong. I have been that person for so much of my life, I have struggled through my coursework for as long as I can remember. But that has never meant that I should stop trying.

A study reports that for high technology careers, the quit rate is 17% for men and 41% for women. It is clear that we need to prioritize creating a space for women in computer science.

Research has found that a great way to combat sexism and cruelty in the world is with awareness. When I am aware about something, it hurts in a different way. When there exists a community, members can share the burden of that pain with others who are striving to reach the same goals. When I watched Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk, I picked up on a few patterns and tendencies of sexism (I am still shocked when I speak to other women to hear they experience such similar things). Knowing what to expect, and understanding that feeling uncomfortable is valid, has helped me get out of my head and allowed me to pick up on the fact that this is not just one thing that happened to me, but a worldwide issue that is impacting women and minorities everywhere.

And so, this became a really personal thing, to try and provide a support system to people facing similar obstacles. With the help and support of faculty, and the computer science department, the officer cohorts in the last two years were very successful in establishing a community. WICS at the University of Arizona is a strong community that’s growing. Women are talking with each other, and students in the computer science and information science departments know that the organization exists.

I also want to acknowledge that though this initiative is close to my heart, I genuinely understand why women are hesitant to attend our meetings and events. After all, I didn’t take an interest in WICS my first year and a half of college. Earlier this year, an ex-CEO of a retail company gave a talk to students in the computer science department. There were about ten students who attended, and at the end I approached him with the question, “How does a retail company, such as [yours], impact the world and contribute to community?” He responded with some common charitable programs and events that employees of the company were encouraged to do to give back to society. Perhaps it was the way I had asked the question, but he had misunderstood. The statistics he shared through his presentation with us clearly demonstrated the company had a major impact on so many individuals, so there must be some quantifiable impact, which is what I wanted to know about. As I walked out of that room, I felt embarrassed because I was the only female student in the audience, and I was the one who asked that question. In reality, even misunderstood, there was nothing wrong with my question — companies that give back to society with charitable work and donations are making a real difference and it is an important characteristic of an employer. And, outside of this context, I understand that. But being a minority in a group can make one feel like they don’t belong, and the discomfort I felt that day could likely be attributed to just that. When I talk about WICS, when I invite people to attend our events, it’s as if I’m reminding women that they have to work harder to feel like they belong. It’s an unfortunate side effect of what a community for women represents, and I think a lot about how it can be eliminated, or at least reduced.

I don’t have an answer, but despite understanding this controversial perspective of having an organization dedicated to underrepresented genders in technology, I still think that either someone prioritizes a community of women, or they don’t. There exists no in between. I would be lying if I said it is easy for me to constantly be taking a stance with WICS. It’s exhausting, and I feel like I’m frequently anxiously reconsidering if what I share is okay, if it takes away from or adds to the movement.

In the book, Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay writes,

“When women respond negatively to misogynistic or rape humor, they are ‘sensitive’ and branded as ‘feminist,’ a word that has, as of late, become a catchall term for ‘woman who does not tolerate bullshit.’”

Roxanne Gay’s perspective on all things feminism related has transformed the way I approach many discussions. She writes truthfully and points out the many ways women undermine themselves and each other, and how there is really no perfect feminist. She asserts, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

As these pictures show, in the last two years, WICS has done a myriad of truly amazing things. Women in Computer Science has transformed into Women in Information and Computer Science, to include another department in technology.

We ensure that every meeting and event we have is inclusive to students. We welcome students of any gender and any background. None of our meetings require prior knowledge of programming. We have hosted some amazing meetings, including a discussion on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, a workshop on 3D Printing, and a session called Speed Office Hours with professors from both the Information and Computer Science departments. We partnered with Hack Arizona, at which we hosted a social, and the Women’s Hackathon, at which we hosted two sessions. We planned an Employer Trek with the Office of Student Engagement in which we visited Phoenix to network with companies and connect with Arizona State University’s branch of Women in Computer Science.

Of course, building this community took an incredible amount of dedication and optimism from the team of officers. We learned how difficult it can be to retain members and involvement. But we all agreed — having a small community (to start off with) is infinitely better than not having any community. We started out with many of our meetings have low, or no attendance at all, but we always came back stronger. The team found new ways to market our meetings, and together we found ways to grow our organization into what our members were looking for. Thanks to their hard work, WICS is growing more with every event that we host. Women in the department are talking with each other, and students in the information and computer science departments are aware that our organization exists as a resource.

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to play a role in helping WICS at the University of Arizona come back to life. I am so excited to see how the next generation of officers push this organization to excellence, and ensure that diversity in technology is not just accepted, but celebrated.

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