How do I feel as a woman entering the field of Computer Science? I feel excited? I love to code. Yet there’s also a little twinge of nervousness- how will I be received in a mostly male-dominated field? Will I notice that I am different? Will others notice it? Does it matter? I have a lot of questions, and I am sure they will all be answered as my life plays out. I am very optimistic that by the time I am fully immersed in the industry, there will be many more women.
The question, “will I notice if I am different” is one I am particularly intrigued by. The thing is, I am not yet fully sure how I feel about being a woman in Computer Science. It is one of those things I don’t think much of until someone asks me. In my courses, my head is usually buried in my notes, or intently listening to the professor. I never really look around me to see how many girls or boys are in my engineering classes. When I score well on Matrix Algebra, Physics, or CSE exams, I don’t find out whether more boys than girls did well. It is something that I know is present, yet I am so used to it, I do not recognize it.
When I lift my head and look around and actually am required to engage in a group setting, then I am suddenly aware that I think differently, and what I say is not necessarily taken seriously. When I first applied to the Computer Science major, they asked me to speak to the unique perspective I would offer to the program. My mom suggested I write about being a woman, but I told myself that was too much of a cliché. That my essay wouldn’t have stood out had I gone that route.
Thinking back on it, I do not know why I chose not to speak out about my being a woman, one things that give me a unique perspective, in a field that offers only 18% of its bachelor degrees to women. Being a girl and wanting to major in computer science was my unique perspective. Yet, I undersold myself because I was convinced that being a woman and writing about it might be seen as complaining in the eyes of the admission’s committee. I told myself they can’t admit you based off of your gender. I told myself being a woman wasn’t really something special. I told myself I would be complaining about something that wasn't really all that bad. While my thought process was based in sound reasoning, as there have been countless pushes to encourage more young women to join STEM fields, there are still numerous amounts of backlash. For every push to increase numbers of women in Computer Science, there is another article trying to push women out of this field, one boy in your CSE class telling you you’re misusing a Linked List (you’re not), and one movie where the main computer-code-cracking character is a boy. The fact that I felt uncompelled to write about my being a woman as a unique perspective in the computer science field is just the beginning to why it gives me such a unique perspective.
Growing up I always loved math, and I never saw my gender as a reason not to. Yet, in the sixth grade I begged my parents to let me switch out of advanced math classes, because I thought loving math would make me unpopular. To my benefit, they refused to buy into this idea I had created in my head, and I stayed in my advanced math class - and I was much happier there. It’s no secret that past generations have been afraid of being “nerdy”- all you have to do is watch an 80’s movie or a Disney show and I guarantee the unpopular kid is good at school. The thing is, we are lucky we live in a day and age where it is becoming cool to be smart. We lift up the super cool tech savvy heroes who have created the social media and technological devices we love. The super smart kids who get into Ivy Leagues are envied, and getting a 5 on your AP Physics test is just as cool as scoring a touchdown or being a cheerleader. This changing demographic is clear, and all you have to do is watch 21 Jump Street to see it pan out in the media. So in this new and accepting, liberating world, why did I think acting dumber than I was would make me cool? Trying to figure the answer out, I started asking some of my friends at school questions.
I asked engineering and non-engineering students some questions. Both groups said that being smart was seen as cool at their high schools. Yet, when I asked questions related to their feelings on STEM courses, most males picked majors based on if they did or did not like STEM. Most women, however, who chose a non-engineering major picked it because they thought they were bad at math or science. I found these responses to be interesting, so I did some research and discovered hundreds of studies on the trend of girls’ declining skills in math. The studies show that girls excel in math past boys in elementary school, yet fall behind once high school rolls around. These studies also note that girls and boys have the ability to perform equally in math, but girls believe they aren’t as good at it. Math is an algorithmic process, and being good at it leads to interest in STEM, which therefore leads to choosing computer science. These studies are pretty sad when you think of what they must be doing to women’s interest in computer science. Thinking you aren’t good at something means you probably won’t choose that for a major and a career.
Thinking I’m not good at something all the time is another key to my unique perspective. I have noticed I do not have the same confidence in my work as my fellow male peers, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I have learned I am more open to criticism, more flexible when it comes to problem solving, and more open to different routes to solving the problem. I have grown up with the idea that my thinking might not be right, so I actively seek out corrections and things to fix. This is a trait that is beneficial in the field of coding, because your first try at something probably won’t be your last.
For the most part, being a woman entering the field of Computer Science is exciting. Although I have spent a majority of this post speaking to the obstacles I still see present, many people are working towards breaking down these barriers. It feels as though there are many people on my team, and many people want woman to succeed and become a part of this field. I feel motivated to do a good job at work, not just for my own benefit, but for this large support network I feel I have as a woman in STEM. Being a woman is not enough to get you a job, or to get you in a major, but it is something that represents a unique view you may have to offer. You still have to be exceptional at what you do, to be a team player, and embody a positive attitude.
For every challenge that exists as a women entering the field of Computer Science, there is a definite reward. I am a girl who loves Britney Spears, glitter, the color pink and coding, and I am sure there are hundreds of girls just like me who would fall in love with CS if they gave themselves a chance. It is important for me to remember that I am special as a woman. What I bring to this field will, I believe, help me see things differently than my male counterparts, which in turn, will help us together as a team create some pretty cool code.