Spring semester has begun. The readings have been assigned and the first homework assignments have been passed out. I am now counting down the days until my first (*squee*) ACM-W planning meeting on campus. It’s five days, in case you’re wondering. I thought I would find the task of being our campus’s first ACM-W Chapter President daunting, but instead I am so excited I might pee my pants. Well, I hope I don’t pee my pants, that would make for a very awkward first meeting. And really, this is just the preliminary brainstorming session to see how we are going to make this chapter work for the campus and for the girls of the Engineering and Computer Science Department.
A little bit of back story: The ACM is the Association of Computing Machinery. It’s the big organization that does all things computer science related. It releases all sorts of journals with research from the various disciplines and holds conferences and so forth. ACM-W is the branch of the ACM devoted specifically to women. Yes, we get our own branch- mostly because there is such an under-abundance of us in the field. I decided back in October that I really want to start a chapter of the ACM-W at our campus to help promote more women entering the computer science program. Even more than that, I wanted to have a group to help the women that were already in the computer science not only stay in the program, but get out of the degree everything they want (i.e. learning about the various disciplines, being able to talk about the kind of careers available, getting internships, etc.). After attending the Grace Hopper Celebrating Women in Computing 2011, my friend and I decided we were going to make this group a reality.
Just in the wake of me sending out the Facebook group invites and the emails confirming our first meeting time, this article in The Guardian came out. There is a growing crisis in the ratio of men to women in the tech industry. According to their article, only 148 girls took the computing A-levels out of 2,271 students. That’s 6.5% girls taking the examination to be able to study computing at the college level. That’s not a good number. Instead of improving, these numbers seem to be getting worse. Even in the United States, the numbers are pretty dismal. From personal experience I can say that I am the only woman in a class of 22 students taking Systems Programming, which is the prerequisite class for all the senior year courses. That means if I have any hope of working with other girls in my senior level classes next year, they will be transfer students. And what are the odds of someone transferring in for just their senior year courses?
The Guardian article links to another interesting article from the BBC Magazine from 2010 about Computer Engineer Barbie. There is no way that this Barbie doll has anything to do with the reality of being a computer engineer. I don’t know if the doll does more harm than good by portraying such a bizarrely feminine tech freak. Beyond all the obvious flaws with the doll, I take issue with the fact that for a girl to be a computer scientist that it is all about appearance. I believe a woman can dress however she feels comfortable (and if you’re at your desk coding all day, you’re going to want to be comfortable). The important part to being a woman in computer science is you have to have passion. You have to enjoy technology, learning new things, figuring out puzzles, creating the stuff that other people will want to play for hours on end, making the world a better place for everyone. It’s all about pushing boundaries and seeing how far you can get a program to take you. With that passion, you will be an excellent computer scientist, no matter your gender. Do we get that message from a doll like Computer Engineer Barbie? No, not especially. Is there a good way to have a doll transmit that message? Maybe. I’ll admit, we’ve come a long way from 1992’s “Math is tough” Barbie.
I think it’s high time for society to send a new message to the young girls. It’s okay to be passionate AND have fun doing math and science. Nerdy is the new cool. Unfortunately, I’m not a great singer, so I’ll have to figure out another way to get that message out there beside to my readers on this blog. As soon as I do, I’ll be doing it. I want the daughters of tomorrow to grow up thinking that the best job in the world would be to have the job their moms have- computer scientist.