Over fall break, 13 students and three advisors attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) in Orlando, Florida as an educational and advantageous career opportunity. The conference, held from October 4-6, is attended by 18,000 women who are either involved in or interested in the field of computer science. For the past three years, Bowdoin Women in Computer Science program (BWICS) has sent students to this conference to increase student exposure to job opportunities and empowerment in a field where women are immensely underrepresented.
After fighting to find sufficient funding to attend GHC in past years, the computer science department received a permanent addition of $13,500 last spring from the Board of Trustees to enable students to attend.
“I think that one most important things that we can do is to continue to have the funding,” said Toma. “The support clearly speaks to the commitment of the college in general in supporting diversity.”
Laura Toma, associate professor of computer science and chair of the Computer Science department, attended the conference along with two other advisors. Toma has been taking students to this conference since 2009, but the number of Bowdoin students attending has increased over the past few years. These larger groups allow more widespread opportunities for those attending, including informative talks and sessions.
“[There are] speakers who are some of the most accomplished women in the field and this year one of them was Melinda Gates, who opened the conference,” said Toma. “There is [also] mentoring at all levels of the career, [and] there are sessions on the imposter syndrome that many women, if not everyone, associates with.”
The Imposter Syndrome refers to the internalized belief that one does not belong in a certain career or field, which becomes the reason that many women consider themselves ostracized in computer science and subsequently feel the need to quit. This feeling is something that not only the conference but also the BWICS program on campus attempts to combat.
“I think Grace Hopper is huge, just because it gives such a sense of legitimacy and empowerment to everyone that attends. We go in this big group, and everyone gets to know each other and create a community, which is probably the most important factor when deciding what to major in and what to stick with,” said Toma.
Many students who attended GHC also emphasized how empowered they felt.
“This year, and last, I left GHC with a greater sense of legitimacy and authenticity. Being able to feel like you belong in tech and are capable of thriving in the field is an amazing feeling and it is ubiquitous at GHC,” said Claire McCarthy ’18.
Another conference attendee, BWICS co-leader Cory Alini ’18, expressed a similar sentiment. For her, the overwhelming presence of women at the conference in contrast to the still limited number of women in courses at Bowdoin reinforced the importance of Computer Science.
“When you’re in a field that you’ve been the only girl in the class, and you’re then surrounded by 18,000 other people that have very similar interests to you, it’s very inspiring to see how other people have taken what you love and made it into something important,” said Alini.
Coupled with the empowerment of the conference are the efforts of BWICS to encourage women to venture into and remain in this flourishing field. Since BWICS was started, enrollment of women in the computer science department has gone up and reached almost 30 percent, and Toma hopes that with the support of the department and BWICS, more women will feel comfortable remaining in the field.
“We have to make sure that every woman who wants to has a chance to discover what CS is and to feel encouraged to continue if they so desire. 30 percent feels like a good beginning, but not the end,” said Toma.
The Bowdoin community has also recently welcomed three new female professors in the field of STEM. These faculty hires are only more evidence of Bowdoin’s shift toward the support of women in scientific fields.
“One of our big things is supporting women who are already in computer science because in intro level classes I feel like it’s maybe 50/50 girls and guys, and then it drastically drops off after that. While we do care about getting women into it in the first place, I feel like one of the things I’m really passionate about is keeping women in computer science,” said Becca Vanneman ’19, a BWICS co-leader.
In addition to attending GHC, BWICS recently received an invitation to attend the Women Engineers who Code Conference (WECode) which will be held from March 2-4, 2018.
“One of the associate directors had contacted us saying that she could save a couple of tickets [at WECode] for us because she wants Bowdoin to have a presence which is really awesome, and it’s good to hear that they want diversity and not just big tech schools,” said Alini.