Women in Computer Science club helps bring gender equity to the field

(Maria Fong / The Tufts Daily)

Imagine an unhackable, military-grade attack helicopter. Picture an event calendar that pulls from Facebook’s application programming interface to collect all the events happening at Tufts over the weekend. Or imagine an app, called Know Your Rights, that could scrape the web and find resources for sexual assault survivors based on gender, age and location. All these creations have been imagined and brought to fruition by women here at Tufts.

The projects were created by Chair of the Computer Science Department Kathleen Fisher, sophomore Lexi Walker and senior Winnona DeSombre, respectively.

According to data provided by Fisher, more and more women at Tufts are studying computer science.

“The trend is positive, and these numbers compare favorably to national statistics of the number of women majoring in computer science … but we would very much like to do better,” Fisher told the Daily in an email.

The statistics may seem daunting. The percentage of female-identifying computer science majors at both the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering never goes beyond 40 percent, according to data provided by Fisher — for the School of Engineering, the percentage reached 17.9 percent this year. Fisher had advice for women hoping to enter the field of computer science.

“Computer science is a deep, intellectually interesting field that permeates nearly all aspects of modern life… If you haven’t studied it before, it can seem daunting, but like all other subjects, it can be learned,” she wrote. “Think about learning a new language, say Spanish or Mandarin. Of course, it isn’t easy, but it is doable by anyone who has good teachers and applies themselves diligently.”

Fisher added that many students find Introduction to Computer Science (COMP 11) intimidating because the material is rigorous and some students seem to know it all already. She said the course has no prerequisites because the department is aware that many students who take it have never programmed.

“In fact, many of the best students in the course come in with no previous background,” she said. “We welcome all Tufts undergraduates in Comp11.”

According to DeSombre, the Women in Computer Science (WiCS) club is looking to increase the number of women who study computer science. The club’s mission is to connect Tufts women passionate about the field of computer science. DeSombre, the club president, describes women in computer science as people who are female-identifying or non-binary.

“The official mission of WiCS  is ‘connecting and supporting women and femme non-binary people studying computer science at Tufts,'” DeSombre said.

DeSombre, a senior majoring in international relations and computer science, first reached out to WiCS last fall. The club only had two members at that time. Since then, WiCS has grown exponentially to have about 55 to 60 members, according to DeSombre.

With this growth, WiCS has started some big initiatives, including the full-day Women in Tech Conference on Oct. 28, which will feature speakers, panels and workshops. According to DeSombre, the conference is a culmination of the goals of WiCS and is the first WiCS conference, thanks to the group’s eight-person executive board and 23-person conference planning committee.

“[We hope to] show the Tufts women that are thinking of studying computer science that there is this huge community that knows what everyone is going through when it comes to being a new person in tech [and] having impostor syndrome as a woman in tech,” DeSombre said. “But we also want to be a little pre-professional, try to have interview prep … and make it such that you can get a job from WiCS and that we prepare you for the real world.”

According to its website, the conference has several corporate sponsors, including Google, Microsoft and Dropbox.

Walker, a sophomore majoring in computer science and biotechnology, explained that she joined WiCS this year as a resource for computer science courses here at school, as well as a way to meet other people in the industry. Walker, who is a member of the logistics team for the conference in charge of organizing speakers and panels, is particularly looking forward to the cyber security panel and hearing Fisher speak.

The keynote speaker for the conference is Deidre Diamond, CEO and founder of CyberSN, a cyber security company. Full of outstanding female figures, DeSombre hopes that the Women in Tech Conference at Tufts shows women that computer science is a field for them.

“It’s culminated in this one big conference, which I really think encourages people to see the breadth and depth of where computer science touches in every industry,” she said.

The significance of women and femme non-binary people in computer science should not be understated. All three women spoke on the diversity in thought and ideas that women bring to the field.

“Women are just as good at being computer scientists as men. If societal norms drive women away from the field, then we are missing out on half of the world’s brain trust in the field,” Fisher said. “Women do have different experiences than men, and if the field is populated exclusively or even mostly by men, we run the risk of those distinctive experiences not being appropriately taken into account.”

Walker shared Fisher‘s idea that women add diversity to the field.

“Because computer science pervades all aspects of society, it is crucial that the full range of diversity in our society participate in the directing, managing, and inventing the field,” Walker said.

As more women enter the tech industry, projects can be focused on solving issues that hold immense importance to women. One example is the Know Your Rights app, which DeSombre and her team created last year at Tufts’ PolyHack fall hackathon.

Opportunities like this for gender equity in the computer science industry make DeSombre hopeful for the future of tech.

“Just getting more women in tech is going to diversify the employee pool, the industry, the types of problems [and] the ways problems are being solved, and really just make the industry a far more inclusive and efficient place,” DeSombre said.