Determined to diversify computer science
By: Monique Merrill
Chloe Yugawa became interested in computer science after watching a YouTube video featuring women in the technology industry when she was 17 years old. When she came to Western, she began taking computer science classes. Now she’s in her senior year, and is one of the few women in the department.
“I like to be the flag runner for diversity in tech, and I talk to almost everybody about it,” Yugawa said. “I really encourage people to bring in different perspectives so we can have a good discussion about what’s going on.”
The technology industry has a reputation for being a predominantly white male industry. According to the Taulbee survey by the Computing Research Association, the field is 17.9 percent women. These numbers don’t vary much with Western’s computer science program. In the 2015-2016 school year, the percent of women declared as computer science majors came in at 16.4 percent, just slightly lower than in the industry.
In comparison, Western’s overall enrollment for fall of 2016 was 56.6 percent women.
“Some of them have really made me feel like a wild animal in class, like a rare exotic bird,” Yugawa said.
“The demographics of our department does not match the demographics of Western,” Perry Fizzano, computer science department chair, said.
The disproportion can potentially come down to the students’ perception of computer science, Fizzano said.
“We’re trying to break down some of those stereotypes. We’re up against society,” Fizzano said. “How are computer scientists portrayed in the movies and TV shows? A lot of the time, it’s in a not so flattering way.”
The department addressed the demographics in the new major orientation earlier this quarter.
“There’s a lot of supporting organizations and clubs within the department that are focused on trying to create an inclusive environment and a welcoming environment,” Fizzano said.
Senior Francine Ninh is president of the Association for Women in Computing, one of the computer science clubs Fizzano mentioned.
“We like to show support for each other,” said Ninh. She’s started introducing the club to women or people who are underrepresented in the technology community during their meetings.
“There’s a lot of underrepresentation. I think the issue is that we need to start early,” Ninh said. “Having young girls or people of color introduced to STEM of computer science at an early age to balance out that diversity chart a little more.”
Ninh recognizes the challenges of pursuing computer science.
“It’s definitely intimidating going into a classroom. At first glance you seem like you’re the only girl, even though there may be two or three other girls there. In a dark lecture hall it’s hard to feel like you’re included,” Ninh said.
For some members of the club, like Yugawa, feeling the gender divide can come not only from students but professors as well.
“Some of them have really made me feel like a wild animal in class, like a rare exotic bird,” Yugawa said. “When I’m in a classroom environment, I don’t want to be called out or treated differently.”
She said she’s been in classes where women are not allowed to work with each other because professors have said they need to learn to work with men in their classes, and later their careers.
Yugawa said she feels people in the program treat her differently because of her gender.
“I liked one of my professor’s classes a lot and I wanted to know how I could turn it into a career. I was told about a company I could work at four days a week to spend more time with my kids,” Yugawa said.
Another time, when she was the only woman in a lab, Yugawa found a Wi-Fi network named “Cis white males only.”
“I think it was probably a joke, but it made me feel really unsafe,” Yugawa said.
The department has had focus groups held by the Equal Opportunity Office to hear from students about their experiences and concerns. The responses are then shared among the department faculty.
“We, as faculty and staff, want to know what’s going on. What’s working and not working? So that we can focus our energies and resources because we’re limited in our time and energy as well,” Fizzano said.
The department is also involved with Pacesetters, a national program that fast tracks and encourages women coders, seeking to challenge stereotypes and release diversity data, Fizzano said.
For Ninh and Yugawa, being involved in the club and talking about the climate of the major and industry are good ways to start lessening the gap.
“Talking about it in a way that’s approachable is the only way to change things,” said Yugawa.
Ninh says the club will be visiting Kulshan Middle School later this year, part of their Creators and Innovators after-school program, to introduce young girls to technology and engineering and spark an early interest in computer science.