By Ally Tobler
For Unwind magazine
Gender ratios and attitudes toward women in computer science are changing just as quickly as computers themselves at the University of Maryland.
Technica, the university’s all-women hackathon is returning for the second time this fall on November 5. For 24 hours, “women are immersed in tech culture and encouraged to exercise their imagination to create interesting and innovative hacks,” according to the Technica official website. The founder of Technica, junior computer science major Amritha Jayanti, created the event to help women on campus feel comfortable exploring computer science.
Jayanti entered the field with no prior experience so her initial computer science discussion section was her first step into the CS world.
“I asked a question and some guy behind me condescendingly said, ‘Do you really not know the answer to that?’… It really impacted how I approached the class.” Jayanti knew she wasn’t the only one who felt this way and decided to take action.
At Technica, there are workshops, tech talks with women in the field, and peer-to-peer learning through the creation of hackathon projects.
“These personal projects can be used to develop a certain skill while building a product that interests them,” Jayanti said, “such as an image processing application that detects whether a person is suffering a concussion based on their reactions and pupil dilation.” One year, a hacker even made a website dedicated to women in the computer science field as a source of empowerment.
At the University of Maryland, there has been a 21 percent increase in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in Computer Science between 2000 and 2015, as reported by the National Center for Women and Information Technology. In fact, women comprise 46.1 percent of the undergraduate population at the university, and 18 percent of undergraduate students pursuing computer science are women . As for full-time female computer science faculty members, there are currently five.
“Definitely the numbers have changed,” Jandelyn Plane, the director for Maryland Center for Women in Computing and associate director of ACES, said. “To be up to [approximately] 20 percent makes a big difference when you look out in a classroom.”
One of the issues contributing to the lack of gender diversity in this field is that young women are underexposed to computer science prior to entering college. In high school, freshman computer science major Camille Stacho noted that programming classes were available but not well advertised.
“Boys, at a younger age, gravitate towards programming recreationally,” she said. “It was just not something I was doing.”
Gender stereotypes also play a role in this imbalance. “For girls, our society pushes a very strong image of this one set of values,” freshman computer science major Eric Yu Cao remarked. “I think computers are seen as nerdy and [girls] can’t be nerdy.”
In high school, Stacho noticed a difference in the way her computer science teacher treated her as opposed to her male counterparts. “If a boy would ask a question, [my teacher] would say, ‘figure it out, ask your friends.’ And if a girl asks a question, he’d say, ‘Okay, Camille, how can I help you? What’s going on? Sit down with me.’”
Beyond campus, there is still a push for women to enter this field.
“Unless the women and other underrepresented populations become represented at the same rate, we’re always going to be short in the number of people for jobs,” Plane explained. “We need that diversity. It’s been proven that the best products are made if there are diverse teams.”
“It feels like I’m changing history a little bit,” Stacho stated, “I know I’m only one person…but after I get a job… I plan on inspiring and motivating [students].”
With the help of Technica and other events on campus, Jayanti hopes young women “will feel inspired to go explore more, perhaps start attending co-ed hackathons or begin working on personal projects at home,” changing the role of women not only in computer science at the university, but in the field overall.