October 27, 2011 | Education

This is What a Computer Scientist Looks Like

By Anna Louie Sussman

NEW YORK CITY -- To hear Cassidy Williams talk about her job prospects, it’s easy to forget that unemployment in America is over nine percent. The sophomore at Iowa State University is batting away suitors.

“There are so many opportunities, I’m having to turn down interviews,” said Williams, 19, who has hopped around the country – Kansas, Milwaukee, Seattle – to meet with corporations on weekends.

Williams isn’t your ordinary student: she’s a female Hispanic computer science major, a rare combination in a field overwhelmingly dominated by white men.

Currently, only 20% of all computer engineers and software programmers are women, according to a report on hidden bias in information technology workplaces released in September. But as the nation’s economy evolves, companies keen to diversify their workforce particularly in the rapidly growing fields of science, technology, engineering and math, known collectively as “STEM,” must turn to untapped labor pools if they want to fill those positions. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 24% growth in the employment of computer scientists from 2008 to 2018, a faster rate than most other occupations. By contrast, typically female-dominated sectors like healthcare and education are laying off workers left and right, making it more critical than ever to shift women into this burgeoning field of high-paying, skilled jobs.

Women currently hold eleven percent of leadership positions at Fortune 500 information tech companies and less than five percent of information technology (IT) patents, said Lucy Sanders, CEO and Co-Founder of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). Because so many drop out of the IT workforce along the way – as many as 56% leave mid-career – it’s essential to increase the feeder pool. That means catching girls young and supporting them throughout their careers.

In 2007, Sanders’ colleague Ruthe Farmer launched a small awards program, the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing, to recognize girls in high school who showed an aptitude for computer science and invite them to NCWIT meetings. To her surprise, the girls found the experience transformative. It provided much-needed validation to counteract the discouragement they often found at school, where they were a small minority – or sometimes the only female student – in Advanced Placement computer science classes.

With the resources of firms including Bank of America, Google and Motorola, Farmer has scaled up the Aspirations in Computing Award to a nationwide program, with regional and local events so that girls are recognized within their own communities.

“Young women who self-identify as technical is kind of a priceless group,” she said. “They’re very attractive to everybody.”

Nearly 800 girls have been recognized nationally, regionally and locally so far, including Williams, who was an Illinois affiliate winner in 2009-2010. National winners receive a $500 cash prize, a laptop computer courtesy of Bank of America, and a trip to Bank of America’s corporate headquarters in North Carolina.  Every winner gets not one, but two, plaques.

“Each of the girls gets a plaque that goes home with her,” said Farmer, “and then we send a second one for the school to put in their trophy case.”

The winners also provide each other with peer support through a 290-member Facebook group. At the beginning of this school year, one girl posted on the group’s Facebook page that she was the lone female student in her programming class. The others jumped in with encouragement: “Don’t worry!” “Hang in there!” “You can talk to us.”

Farmer said the award’s impact is crucial to countering the self-doubt that they face for having what are considered unorthodox interests. According to an evaluation survey, 79% said that it has made them less “afraid, worried, or nervous.”

“They really use those words,” said Farmer. “They’re afraid or ashamed of being technical.”

Sanders has a theory about the genesis of this anxiety. Until the 1980s, she said, computing was not a gendered industry. It wasn’t fifty-fifty, but women were around a third of the workforce. But the tech boom of the early 1990s spawned a rash of media coverage focused on young, white men heading start-ups, and which could veer towards the unflattering.

“Before the tech boom, nobody put anybody doing computer science stuff on TV,” she said. “The tech boom caused popular media to pay attention, but when they did, the attention has been a little less than desirable.” She also believes the perception that the job market is a zero-sum game, in which women “take” jobs from me, lingers from the days after World War II.
“Unfortunately our society tells our women to a great degree, much worse than when I was young, that their primary goal is to be attractive,” said Andresse St. Rose, Senior Researcher at the American Association of University Women and co-author of the 2010 report “Why So Few?” on the dearth of women in STEM. “They wonder, ‘If I like math does that mean I’m unattractive?’”

The stereotypes have become so mainstream that companies including JC Penney and Forever 21 sell t-shirts for teenage girls printed with phrases like “Allergic to Algebra.”

Williams is aware of the stereotypes, but said the best way to counteract them was just by being herself.

“A lot of people are afraid of ‘being good at computers’ because they associate it with guys who code all day in their basements,” she said. “Sometimes I’m talking to people and when they ask me what my major is and I say ‘computer science,’ they say ‘Really?’ or ‘But you’re a girl.’ One even said, ‘But you wear pink.’ I don’t let it define me.”