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Sisters in computer science: Female-focused programs encourage balanced enrollment

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Posted: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 8:03 am

Entering her first computer science class as a transfer student, Amy Schlesener found herself surrounded by male students with only a few other women in the classroom. Laughter came from the groups of men joking around, and she felt like she didn’t belong.

“Not only did it make me feel uncomfortable, but it also made me more nervous to contribute to class discussions,” Schlesener said. “Whenever I talked, it was obvious I was one of the only women in the room. I felt like I was being judged. I didn’t want to look stupid and make the rest of the women look bad.”

Schlesener joined the Association for Women in Computing (AWC), a campus club, her first quarter at Western Washington University. The support she got from the club made her feel at home enough in the major to stay. Now president of the club, Schlesener is in her senior year of computer science.

Out of 213 computer science majors at Western, there are 26 women, said Camille Ciancanelli, director of leadership development for the club. She has started a new program this quarter, called the Computer Science Sisters (CS Sisters), to bring more women into the major. CS Sisters is offered through the AWC, Ciancanelli said.

The goal of this new program is to prevent females interested in computer science from dropping out of low-level courses, Schlesener said. The program will give lower-classman females the opportunity to be paired with an upper-classman female for a peer mentorship.

There are currently nine pairs of big and little sisters who meet for at least 10 minutes per week. They are also part of the AWC, and will be included in events such as social gatherings and field trips. The club does not meet weekly, but sends out emails about events and meetings.

CS Sisters will keep little sisters from feeling isolated and give them an opportunity to be more involved in the department, Ciancanelli said. It will also give big sisters a chance to give back to the community and gain leadership skills.

The CS Sisters program is just for women, but the AWC is not gender-exclusive. There are a lot of guys who regularly go to club meetings, Ciancanelli said. 

“We exist to support each other: the women in computer science,” Schlesener said.

The Association for Computing Machinery, another campus club, has a program in place called the Mentors Program. Initially for peer-mentoring, the program is now for homework help. Since this program no longer offers mentoring, Western junior Allen Suner, computer science major, along with other members of the Association for Women in Computing, is currently looking into starting a program similar to CS Sisters for men. The program is in an experimental phase and has one brother pair. 

The creation of the program depends on the interest of male computer science majors. If the men of the computer science department express interest, the CS Sisters will become the Siblings Program, Ciancanelli said. 

The Siblings Program would encompass the CS Sisters and the program Suner is working on. The program would give lower-classman women and men the opportunity to be paired with a mentor of the same gender, Ciancanelli said.

Schlesener was always interested in computers and technology, but did not begin programming until college. Once she got into the computer science major, she loved it, but it was different being surrounded by guys, Schlesener said.

“I haven’t really experienced this, but some [women] have gotten a few very sexist comments like ‘Women don’t belong in computer science,’ and ‘Women can’t do math,’” Schlesener said. “You hear that every now and then, but you have to realize it is mostly immature guys who are saying that, and just brush it off.” 

The mission of the CS Sisters program is very similar to that of the department, said Perry Fizzano, computer science department chair. Fizzano is also the adviser of the Association for Women in Computing.

“Its mission is to help people feel acclimated if they feel lost in the department,” Fizzano said.

People may shy away from computer science because they feel that they don’t fit into the culture, Fizzano said. 

Computer science is a tough major, and average grades are the norm in the department, but when women receive average grades they may feel more discouraged than men, Fizzano said. There is no definite reason why female students with average grades shy away 

from the major or feel they’re not good enough for it, Fizzano said. “It’s not an ability thing,” Fizzano said.

“We pick one outstanding graduate every year. If you look at our last 12 outstanding computer science graduates, six of them are women.”

The National Science Foundation has given the math and computer science departments a grant for encouraging women to enter into those fields. The grant is used in the Computer Science-Math Scholars Program. This attracts high school women interested in the math and computer science departments to come to Western with scholarships. Some of the scholarship students this year have already signed up for the CS Sisters, Fizzano said.

“It’s really just a synergistic thing with the department’s mission right now, trying to increase the number of women in the program, to make them feel welcome and to show them all the different opportunities that are out there for them,” Fizzano said.

Suner has noticed the unbalanced male-to-female ratio in the department, and is involved in the CS Sisters program.

“I can understand it being intimidating. Maybe the men in the department need to do their part and be more inviting,” Suner said. “However, we don’t bite.”

Computer science is a community-oriented major, and the department would like to see more females get involved, Suner said.

“It makes a difference to see a diverse population in a class, and that’s why I chose to get involved in this project,” Suner said. “It gets kind of dull only seeing the male perspective on things.”

The AWC has helped women get into computer science, and the hope is that the CS Sisters will do the same. It is hard to say at this point how much the CS Sisters will impact the computer science department, but the goal is that the program will bring more women into the major, Schlesener said. 


 

Microsoft trip causes controversy

by Rhoades Clark

Unrest surfaces in Western Washington University’s computer science department, as a female-only trip to Microsoft caused some students to complain and feel left out. 

Western’s Association for Women in Computing organized a field trip to Microsoft for the women in the computer science department. In an email sent out to the department Tuesday, April 9, Department Chair Perry Fizzano wrote that the organizers of the field trip were given “grief” for leaving men out. 

Fizzano declined to comment on the issue when called. 

“We all know women are underrepresented in computer science,” Fizzano said in the email. “Western, Microsoft and other tech companies are doing a lot to help create more opportunities for women and minorities in this field.” 

According to the organization's website, the club strives to create an open environment for everyone in the field of computer science. The organization holds events that focus on the advancement of women in computer science. 

Fizzano complemented the AWC for holding many events exclusive to women to foster a safe discussion of important issues women face in the workforce. 

Microsoft’s website lists the company’s current programs and initiatives in promoting global diversity and inclusion, specifically for college students. 

Microsoft wants to attract women to the world of technology to promote diversity, according to the site. Microsoft paid for the field trip and requested only women attend, Fizzano wrote. 

The bus can hold 40 students and only “30 or so” women were interested in going, Fizzano said. 

To fill the gap, Microsoft allowed some men to go on the trip. More men signed up than seats available on the bus, so a panel made up of members from the club, Microsoft and Fizanno chose the men allowed to go on the trip. 

“Men were chosen based on several criteria,” Fizzano wrote. “Those who participated in past AWC activities, those who are good citizens of the department. Microsoft preferred men who were interested in mock interviews.” 

The organizers tried to be as fair as possible, Fizzano wrote. The attitude of some members of the computer science program prompted Fizzano to write the email. 

He suggests those “grumbling” about the event channel their energy in a way that benefits everyone in the department. 

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