By Jillian Vandiveer
Published: September 21st, 2016
“Even on the first day, you’re one of a handful,” Noam Swisa, a second-year Computer Science (CS) student at Brooklyn College says. “You’re one of five girls in the class, maybe. And after a few weeks—a few days, even—the number just gets lower and lower.”
“It’s the only STEM field in which women’s participation has actually decreased,” she says, referencing statistics from as far back as the 1980s. “It’s a very well-documented problem. For women who do come into the major, there’s a huge drop rate after the intro class.”
Swisa knew it was time for a change, and she could start that in Brooklyn College for other female students interested in the field.
Last spring, driven by her own vision and a glaring need on campus, Swisa started compiling the paperwork and signatures that would eventually bring the Women in Computer Science club to life. Once word of the club spread on the Facebook page “Brooklyn College Computer Science Community,” interest flourished. By the end of the spring semester, the club had 35 members, and gathered many more during the recent campus club fair. “We haven’t counted the number yet, but it’s a lot,” Swisa laughs. WICS became an official club this fall, and Swisa now serves as president on its executive board.
Vice president and BC Junior Nishat Anjum emphasizes that anyone with an interest in computer science, even as a hobby, is welcome to join. “The club doesn’t consist of only CS majors; there are multimedia computing students as well,” Anjum says. They plan to hold workshops for those wanting to learn basic coding, in addition to more advanced workshops.
Growing up, neither of the women were encouraged to enter a career in computer science. “I was never even into tech,” Anjum says. “It was always pre-med or law school, something like that.” Swisa, on the other hand, recalls always being around computers as a kid, but had to recognize them as a desired career option on her own. “My mom and dad never told me, ‘You should be a computer programmer!’ They’d suggest being an actor, or, I don’t know, a doctor.” The club aims to combat these gender biases in CS that start, even passively, in childhood.
“It’s pretty alarming,” Anjum says about the experience of starting CS classes as a woman. “The club lets you meet women before even taking the classes, that way you’re going in as friends.”
The club’s faculty support comes from a seemingly unexpected source: Professor Scott Dexter, an 18-year veteran of Brooklyn’s computer science department.
“He’s a guy, but he’s a super hardcore feminist,” Anjum says. “He is the best ever.”
Dexter is working on a book examining the effect of the artificial human on race and gender politics in America. He has a particular interest in cultural representation in technology, and this concept is working its way into his classroom.
Swisa recalls a recent lecture in his Software Design and Implementation class, in which he used a routine multiple-choice exercise to point out the imbalanced gender and racial representations in the textbook. Despite the book’s quality of information, Dexter describes the prevalence of white male programmers in its photos as “insidious.”
“I don’t want to be affirming any quietly held beliefs that only white guys can be programmers, he says, “so I figured the best thing to do is get it out in the open.”
When he heard rumblings of the club in the spring, Dexter jumped at the opportunity to become its advisor. Now, he helps the executive board with solving logistical issues and collaborating with other clubs on upcoming projects. “We need to be finding better ways to attract women to computer science and to keep them around,” he says, “and the club is an integral part of both of those.”
The support and inclusion the club promotes have already been successful. Junior Chava Shulman has found her experience in the club to be invaluable during her CS career at Brooklyn.
“I’ve met a lot of other CUNY students, and their support system is not the way ours is,” she explains. “They may have a community, but it’s not as welcoming.”
Much like Anjum, Shulman didn’t consider computer science as a career until she began experimenting with introductory classes at Brooklyn. “I think people have the idea that the only thing you can be is a programmer,” she says, “but the field is so diverse. There is so much more you can do.”
In April, Swisa, Anjum, and Shulman were all part of a larger group of club members that attended a conference held by the women’s branch of the Association for Computing Machinery. The conference, held at the Microsoft Technology Center, featured workshops and keynote industry speakers. It was a powerful learning and bonding experience for the women, who all described it as “amazing.” The club also attends — and wins — ongoing hackathons, which are large gatherings of programmers collaborating on software projects in smaller teams.
“I think for me, the ultimate goal would be to have Brooklyn College host its own hackathon,” Anjum says.
There are great ambitions for the club all around. The women hope to eventually be able to send students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a conference in Texas Anjum describes as “kind of like South by Southwest, but for women in tech.” It hosts thousands of international students and offers networking and recruiting opportunities.
Shulman, inspired by her experience with a mentor from Google, has recently undertaken an initiative to create an alumni mentorship program for the club. The year-long program, in collaboration with the Magner Center, connects applicants with different women working in computer science. “You can hear from someone who has been where you are and actually made it,” she explains.
To new and prospective female computer science students, the club’s message is consistent: Stick it out through that first class. Reach out to the community and use its resources. Find what interests and excites you.