Event considers challenges for women in tech

Photo by Madeline Turriff
Photo by Madeline Turriff

Women in the field of computer sciences and engineering are reportedly underrepresented.

And according to professionals in the industry, something needs to be done.

The University of Waterloo welcomed the Ontario Celebration of Women inComputing (ONCWIC) last Friday and Saturday for its annual conference.
ONCWIC was intended to celebrate women in computing as well as address some of the issues that women are faced with in the industry.

Waterloo was chosen to host the conference for its fourth year and saw 240 registrations.

“It’s to promote computing,” said Kate Larson, the conference chair. “Women tend not to go into computing, so [the conference’s purpose] is to talk about issues related to that and to also provide somewhat of a community, so that women at different institutions or companies can get together and see that there is a network.”

Attendees of the conference could learn how to build apps, reach out to younger students and build negotiation skills.

The lineup of keynote speakers, however, really drew a crowd.

Maria Klawe, the acting president of Harvey Mudd College in California, spoke

Saturday morning about how to bring more women into technology-related careers.

“[She] is known for her work on diversity in science, technology, engineering and math,” Larson said. “She’s also interesting because she’s actually Canadian.”

Klawe is the first female to serve as president of Harvey Mudd College since its founding in 1955. She is also a renowned advocate for women in the technology sector and has been heavily involved in increasing the representation of women in the field.

According to Klawe, reasons as to why so few women enter the world of computer science can include lack of interest, a perceived lack of ability and a unique theory known as “imposter syndrome.”

This phenomenon creates feelings of failure and disappointment regardless of any previous success or accomplishments.

“One of the students I was talking to came to a talk I had probably about two years ago and she was about to drop out of her PhD program,” Klawe explained.

“She came up to me afterwards and asked if we could do a phone call because she really needed some support.”

Klawe emphasized that conferences and talks such as ONCWIC are extremely important because they provide communities and encouragement for women who are otherwise minorities in their field.

“I think the biggest thing about this kind of event is that it brings together people with similar experiences, it provides people with opportunity and it’s allowing them to understand best practices,” Klawe said. “I think it’s really important.”

Larson reflected on her own experiences with underrepresentation.

“It can be isolating at times,” said Larson, who is an associate professor at the Cheriton School of Computer Science at UW.

“I’m a faculty member here at UW and ever since I’ve started working in computer science, I have always been a minority.”

Klawe believes that the best method to bring more women into the field of computing is to influence women at the education level.

“Provide introductory courses that are not intimidating, but are just as rigorous,” she said. “Make sure all of the people feel like they’re empowered to succeed.”
“Then, encourage them to take one more course.”

Klawe also wants computer science departments in post-secondary education to make getting women into the field a “priority” as numbers are drastically declining.

“If you look at the percentage of computer science majors that were female in 2000 to now, its declined from roughly 20 per cent down to 12 per cent,” she said.

The aim of the conference was to bring awareness to the issues surrounding women in the computing field. While the numbers may not seem promising, Klawe believes that events are greatly influential.

“When you send students or young professionals to things like this they come away feeling inspired, enthusiastic, and with a much better support network.”

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