Women account for fewer than one in five undergraduate computer science majors at colleges and universities around the country, according to National Science Foundation data. At Bucknell University, the situation is slightly better: Roughly one in four computer science and computer science & engineering students are female. But there remains a clear need for greater inclusion of women in the field.
"In 1985 it was about 37 percent [nationwide]," said Anushikha Sharma '18, who is majoring in both computer science & engineering and women's & gender studies at Bucknell. "So something is happening. Something is wrong."
Sharma and more than 30 Bucknell undergraduates are striving to shift the trend by establishing the first organization for women computer science majors on campus, a chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery-Women (ACM-W), to provide students with mentorship and career development resources. This semester the group garnered a $3,000 startup grant from the National Center for Women & Information (NCWIT) and in October sent a cohort of 15 students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world's largest gathering of women technologists.
ACM-W is an offshoot of the Association for Computing Machinery, which has had a Bucknell chapter for some years, but ACM-W organizers said a separate group was needed to support women, who face distinct challenges in the discipline.
"There's a rooted history of a stigma that it's a man's career," said Cristal Hermosillo '18, a computer science major and treasurer of ACM-W. "Men do tech; women don't. It's hard combating that perception."
Combine that stigma with a lack of role models for women in computer science (where the work of trailblazing women has frequently been overshadowed by that of their male collaborators), Hermosillo said, and it's easy for women to suffer from the "imposter syndrome," the sense that they don't belong in the discipline, in spite of their talents and qualifications.
"You doubt yourself. You hide in the back of the classroom. You avoid eye contact with the professor," Hermosillo said. "You feel that you're just there for show, and you're not a real computer scientist."
Hermosillo and Sharma both said they've felt the weight of the imposter syndrome in classes, but Sharma, the group's president and co-founder, was shocked when she heard noted network researcher and Colorado School of Mines professor Tracy Camp say in a speech last year at Bucknell that the feeling doesn't end in undergrad.
"She said it was very common for women who've been in STEM for a long time to have the imposter syndrome, which was kind of crazy to hear," said Sharma. "I didn't realize it was something that continues on into your career and what you do 15 years down the line. That influenced why I felt this organization needed to be in place — to provide a community that tells women that this is something you can try to do, and that it's OK if you fail a few times. You belong, and people understand."
It was that speech, sponsored by the Bucknell chapter of the ACM, that sparked Sharma's interest in founding a chapter of ACM-W to support women at Bucknell. In the spring of last year, she sent an email blast to gauge interest among the other female computer science majors. It exceeded her expectations, and together with like-minded students and Professor Darakhshan Mir, computer science, who agreed to act as an adviser, Sharma submitted an application to start the group as well as for a seed grant from NCWIT. The chapter has since grown more than 30 members, including Hermosillo; Laura Poulton '18, vice president; Sierra Magnotta '18, secretary; and Tongyu Yang '18, outreach liaison.
The group began hosting events this semester, including a panel discussion about summer research in collaboration with ACM, and has also started a peer mentoring program. But the most exciting achievement for the group so far has been sending 15 members to attend the Grace Hopper Gathering, a trip that was funded in part by Bucknell Student Government, the computer science and electrical & computer engineering departments, and the colleges of engineering and arts & sciences. Held this year in Houston, the conference was attended by more than 15,000 tech professionals, computing students and aspiring coders.
"It made me feel really proud to be a women computer science major — that this is a really valuable career, and I'm really happy I chose this as my future," said Yang.
"Seeing women being the lead in their research — the lead in major projects at Microsoft and Google and Yahoo — you think, 'I can do it. I can make it. I can get to that point in my life,' " added Hermosillo. "It's inspiring."
Group leaders also noted that several male students have joined the group as allies, and that all are welcome to join, especially those from backgrounds that are underrepresented in computer science.
"We're really looking to bring in minority men, and non-conforming, non-gendered people in computer science," said Hermosillo, "to say, 'you might be a minority in computer science, but we welcome you.' "