September 12, 2016

Girls Like Dolls, Not Computers!

Gender stereotypes are harming the technology industry, and these Women in Computer Science are doing something about it.
Women are underrepresented in science and technology. That is the same old, tired story we have heard over and over again, and it’s not going to change tomorrow, or next week. However, there are pioneers striving to make meaningful change in the years to come.
Imaculate Mosha is the chairperson of the Women in Computer Science group at the University of Cape Town. In a class where only four of the 46 students are women, she felt it was time to resurrect this society. Not an easy task since it had previously disbanded for inactivity. She, alongside her committee, rolled up their sleeves and spent the last year creating an inclusive and friendly environment for men and women in computer science with events, interview practice and workshops (and pizza!)
This inclusive atmosphere is essential for attracting and retaining women in the field. Michelle Kuttel, associate professor of computer science at UCT, commented that her experience as a student at university stifled her love of programming. “I found the environment very unfriendly to women – to the extent that I started to question my programming ability.”
Fortunately, Kuttel realised her love for computer science and is now a lecturer. However, women all too often leave the field because of the challenging atmosphere. This is something that Women in Computer Science aims to rectify so that other women aren’t discouraged from completing their degrees.
Why is it so important to have gender balance in computer science? Arguably, computers have already redefined the way we live without an equal ratio of men to women. Katie Benson, a representation researcher from AAUW Research, discusses the importance of a balanced team with regards to gender and ethnicity. She comments that diversity in a workforce means that everyone’s experiences guide the direction of the product and “contributes to creativity, productivity, and innovation.” She points out that if we want an internet that’s friendly for both men and women across all ethnicities, then we need everyone working as programmers.
Imaculate comments that “stereotyping” is a large factor dissuading young girls from pursuing a career in computer science. She notes that this starts from a very young age. Boys are given toy cars and taught to solve problems, whereas girls are given dolls and miss out on this investigative learning. The society wants to focus on outreach, and Kittel now runs a programming course at her daughter’s primary school. She comments “I think that it is very important to give young girls early exposure to programming.”
One of the highlights of their year was securing sponsorship from Google, Amazon and Facebook, three global computer-science oriented corporations that can see the tremendous worth in the society. Onalerona Mosimege, who is the freshly elected chair taking over Women in Computer Science next year, has big plans to prepare current students for the corporate world: “My goal is to now try give females the motivation they need to get to these top roles.”
What would Imaculate suggest to any young woman thinking of going into computer science? “Go for it!”

Female under-representation in the mathematical sciences isn’t a new issue. Women, and men, are still addressing the gender imbalance, and this article I wrote for Varsity magasine looks at one especially spirited society and the University of Cape Town; Women in Computer Science.

Find the article here

Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection A computer class at a rural secondary school in La Ceja del Tambo via photopin (license)

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