The percentage of women working in computer science is disproportionately low. But NKU faculty, staff, and students are intent on reversing the trend.  

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By Kelsey Bungenstock

NKU Marketing + Communications intern

 

It has become a largely forgotten historical fact that women represented the majority of the original computer programmers back in the 1940s.. But beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing to this day, the proportion of women who work in computer science in North America and Western Europe has plunged to just 26 percent. Only 18 percent of all Computer and Information Sciences bachelor degrees are awarded to women.

While there may be no single answer to what’s caused such a drastic and lasting decrease, a group of technical female faculty and staff programmers at NKU is focused on stopping trying to reverse the trend.

On Feb. 19 and 20, the ACM-W Regional Tri-State Women in Computing Conference (TRIWiC) included female academic and industry experts and conference sessions that focused on their careers and work. The conference included a variety of keynote speakers and educational lectures, all coordinated thanks to the dedication of faculty from around the region, volunteers, and the NKU professor who started it all.

Maureen Doyle, associate dean for the College of Informatics, initiated the first TRIWiC in 2011 through a National Science Foundation Broadening Participation grant awarded to Gloria Townsend of DePauw University. Doyle says  Gloria’s vision was “to have celebrations all over the country so women could attend a low-cost conference and drive no more than three hours to get there.”

As the conference chair, Doyle has been responsible for making sure that TRIWiC runs on schedule every two years. She says that past conferences dedicated to the support and empowerment of women in technical fields have been energizing and a source of inspiration for those who may have been discouraged from careers in technology. Support from all departments in the College of Informatics included faculty volunteers, student recruiting, as well as generous sponsors and donations from ACM-W, Microsoft, GE, and others.

“I have had a great industry career spanning almost 20 years before I went back to graduate school,” Doyle says. “I have had a few hassles and can say that while not all not all of the hassles have been due to being female,  some definitely have. My career would have been quite different had I been male, and while I am sure some things would have been better, some things probably would have been worse. What comes to mind immediately is that I was often the only woman on a team, so I always stood out and would be remembered, unlike a lot of male peers. I tried to use this to my advantage and encourage others to do so, too!”

TRIWiC 2016 attracted more than 200 attendees from 17 different universities and colleges. NKU was well represented, with more than 35 of Doyle’s students and 10 faculty members in attendance, including sophomore Information Technology major Allyson Frame, and senior Computer Science major Cody Gilstrap. Frame acted as a student representative for the Women in Informatics club at NKU, and made sure that all materials that guests needed for the conference were available.

While attending a lecture about the process of starting an Association of Computing Machinery-Women’s chapter (ACM-W) presented by University of Cincinnati’s ACM-W group, Frame learned about many of the challenges involved with starting a chapter. When she talked to fellow NKU students about trying to switch the Women in Informatics club to an ACM-W chapter, Frame says she was met with enthusiasm, along with their willingness to pitch ideas for meetings and the club in general.

“There really isn’t much diversity in the field, or even in some of my classes here at NKU,” Frame says. “Having diversity in the field helps everyone. The team would have more perspectives on how to solve an issue, and having more ways to solve an issue is generally a good thing to have.”

As a male, Cody Gilstrap wanted to attend TRIWiC to have the experience of being in the minority. He says that he noted a significant difference from his typical experiences in the field.

“The IT department where I work is predominantly male, and the app development team is all male. The vast majority of students in my classes are male. I do believe that being a female in programming would be more intimidating, and I wish it were not so,” Gilstrap says.

While at the conference, Gilstrap spoke to one of the keynote speakers, Dr. Deb Agarwal, and took her words to heart.

“Males that are just entering college are still ready to chest bump,” Gilstrap explains. “This show of bravado can be intimidating or even discouraging at times—especially in what is considered by many as a ‘male field.’”

TRIWiC is currently transitioning to a standalone ACM-W conference to ensure it continues to grow and evolve. But Doyle notes that the continued  support from NKU and the College of Informatics was necessary to kicking off the conference and makinge it as successful as it is today.

“I believe diversity in all fields is helpful to creating better products and services,” Doyle says. “The National Council for Women in Technology studied diverse teams in 2014, and found that they often ‘provide superior productivity and financial performance compared to homogeneous teams.’”

For additional information, see the NCWIT Report.