As recently as April 2023, women made up just over one quarter of the U.S. workforce in computer and mathematical occupations. Research has shown that gender stereotypes about interests arise early, and can help perpetuate existing gender imbalances in the sector, leaving much potential untapped.
The W&M Society of Women in Computing aims to challenge this and is winning international prizes in the process. In recognition of its mentorship of middle school girls, the club has recently received an ACM Student Chapter Excellence Award for Outstanding Community Service from the Association for Computing Machinery.
The William & Mary SWC, which is one of over 680 ACM student chapters worldwide, has already secured three ACM awards in just five years.
“I am incredibly proud of the SWC achievements and this award! Three times in the past five years is an incredible honor,” said Evgenia Smirni, Sidney P. Chockley Professor and computer science department chair. “Comparing to the four other student chapters that were also honored for excellence in other categories this year, they all come from large state schools with very large computer science departments. Computer science at William & Mary may be small but it is for sure mighty.”
Since 2018, the SWC has been mentoring the girls’ robotics club at Berkeley Middle School in Williamsburg; over the years, the program has seen a growth in participants, particularly in students from low-income households. This year’s sponsorship from Cisco and Northrop Grumman allowed the SWC to improve on the curriculum and make plans to expand this activity to other middle schools in the Williamsburg/James City County area.
Among other initiatives, the SWC also hosts panels with women in tech roles at major companies as well as technical interview workshops, addressing a key part of computer science interviews which requires candidates to code on the spot.
Why start in middle school?
Female participation in computer science at bachelor’s degree level peaked in 1984, when women represented 37% of all computer science graduates in the United States, and started declining steadily thereafter.
Despite a change in trends in recent years, national figures remain lower than 40 years ago: In 2021, only 22% of the computer science degrees went to women. In the same year, the William & Mary figure was above the national average at 26%; in 2022-23, 31% of the William & Mary students declaring a computer science major were women.
A report from Accenture and Girls Who Code identified middle school as a crucial time to promote girls’ participation in computer science, with the ultimate aim of tripling the number of women in computing nationwide. This is why the SWC has chosen to focus on this demographic.
“It’s important to create something that the girls can enjoy,” said outgoing SWC president Aashni Manroa ’24. “It’s easy to accidentally create a lesson that is too complex.”
Manroa herself started coding in middle school and still remembers her happiness at making her program work for the first time, but she also recalls how frustrating errors could be at that age.
“Helping the girls to understand computer science and robotics concepts, and learning alongside them as we updated the program, was incredibly rewarding,” said Kaitlyn Wilson ’23, who served as outreach chair and mentorship program leader for the past year.
“Translating technical concepts to non-technical people was an important skill that I gained,” agreed incoming president Lydia Cheng ’24. “This was something very new to me since we don’t usually get an opportunity to learn something like this.”
Following the Accenture report’s recommendation, the William & Mary SWC has been tailoring classes to the girls’ specific interests in order to sustain their commitment to computing. 3D printing, button-making and laser-cutting were popular activities, undertaken in cooperation with Tonia Eriksen, the school’s library media specialist.
Many activities involved the use of a micro:bit, a pocket-size circuit board designed to help young learners to code.
“We also focused on electrical engineering with breadboard circuitry, and we had a lesson about cybersecurity and staying safe online, which is very important nowadays with social media,” said Manroa.
“And when we introduced the waving robot, the girls were excited because they knew it was going to be more interactive,” added Cheng, referring to a print-and-assemble robot powered by a servo motor and controlled by a micro:bit.
Using robots was a full circle moment for Cheng, whose interest in computer science was sparked in high school while watching members of the robotics club race their robots at lunchtime.
“I was so intrigued because I didn’t know that you could just write a few lines of code and just make them go, zoom down the hallway, turn around and come back,” she said. “I didn’t know it was just possible with computers. I always felt like you needed a controller.”
Cheng, as well as the other volunteers, found it very empowering to be able to make a difference for middle school girls.
“When I was their age, I didn’t have a resource like this, and it was very difficult as a girl to try and break into the tech industry,” she said. “It’s great to know we can be somewhat of a role model for them.”
“The middle schoolers constantly impressed me with their intelligence and technical abilities and challenged me to find the perfect middle ground between keeping them engaged and not intellectually overwhelming them,” added Wilson.
Beyond the current gender imbalance
Computer science has not always been coded as a stereotypically male interest. The 19th-century British mathematician Ada Lovelace is widely considered to be the first computer programmer. Women were among the field’s earliest innovators before the first U.S. computer science department was even established in the early 1960s and were once touted as “naturals” at computer programming.
Several factors have been considered to explain the current imbalance, including gendered representations of computer scientists popularized by media or “masculine defaults” rewarding characteristics generally associated with men.
Cheng ended up never joining the robotics club in high school. “There wasn’t anything specific saying that girls couldn’t be there,” she said. “But it felt like I didn’t fit in.” Fast forward a few years, she is double majoring in computer science and psychology while holding a leadership position in the SWC.
Are things really improving? Manroa relayed the experience shared by a panel of senior female academics in computer and data science.
“When they started, there were maybe one or two women in the classroom, and they had to really fight for their positions,” she said. “They commented themselves on how they can see the improvement over the past few years and how they’ve been teaching many more women and non-binary people.”
And now, the girls in the robotics club don’t perceive themselves as not being able to code, Manroa said. Building on the success of the program, Cheng said she aims to support plans to reach out to other schools in the area and “hopefully make an impact on more girls’ lives.”
“Computer science is a wonderful field with a lot of opportunities,” said Manroa. “It’s perceived as very cut and dried, but it can be as creative as you want it to be.”
Antonella Di Marzio, Senior Research Writer