ChicTech hopes more women jump into tech

By Naomi Miyake

Pooja Mathur, freshman in engineering, entered the University with hopes that one day she could make money designing video games.

Though Mathur’s dream job is typically the domain of guys, Mathur is breaking gender trends by being one of few women in the University majoring in computer science.

Mathur admits there are times when she feels lonely being one of only seven girls in a 94-student lecture hall, but going against the grain brings Mathur a sense of accomplishment.

“I can follow the crowd and do things that don’t require so much math and science, like what many girls choose, or I can be part of something amazing, something that is involved in changing the world and its future,” Mathur said.

Mathur became interested in computer science during her senior year of high school. ChicTech, a high school outreach program, visited her school and Mathur said that visit encouraged her and other female students to consider a major in computer science, a field dominated by men.

Members of the program mostly visit Chicago suburban high schools with pizza and give a 40-minute presentation about the benefits of becoming a computer scientist, as well as dispel some of the myths surrounding computer science.

“(People think) that everyone who does computer science is geeky, and that…people who study computer science are all game-heads with greasy hair, and it just isn’t true,” said Cinda Heeren, faculty adviser to women in computer science.

Out of 899 undergraduate computer science majors, only 11.2 percent are females said Steve Herzog, academic adviser in the computer science department. One of ChicTech’s objectives is to make female students realize computer science isn’t only suited for males according to the ChicTech Web site.

“Women make up a huge proportion of the users of technology…and if (women) want to play a computer game, then women should be the one designing them because the boys have no idea what kinds of computer games women enjoy,” Heeren said.

Mathur also stresses that women need to get involved in the development of new technology.

“How is a 5-foot tall woman supposed to drive a car that is made for a 5-foot-9-inch tall man? The answer is, she is barely going to see over the steering wheel,” Mathur said. “Women understand what other women want. We can make products that other women can find use for.”

Heeren uses her own positive experience to advertise the computer science field.

“Computer science jobs tend to be fairly family-friendly jobs, fairly flexible, very well paid and I think women should share in that bounty just as much as men should,” Heeren said.

ChicTech also offers a challenge for high school students with the ChicTech Technical Ambassador competition. Students from different high schools develop a technical project that benefits a non-profit organization within the community.

Mathur and three other students created a Web site for the National Honors Society for their high school and won second place.

ChicTech offers the project to give students technological experience and a flavor of computer science, Heeren said.

“What we kind of hope is that they’ll fall in love with the process and think, ‘I’d like to have a career doing this kind of thing,'” she added.

Mathur realized computer science was her true calling after the ChicTech presentation at her school.

“I love the challenge,” Mathur said. “My favorite part is doing a hard problem or writing a program, spending time to figure it out and then getting the right answer…I guess I love the feeling of accomplishment.”

Though Mathur generally loves the major, there are times when the work is grueling.

“My least favorite part of computer science are the nights that I am up until 2 a.m. doing homework,” Mathur said. “I would just like to go to sleep, and…it’s true, almost all computer science majors either drink coffee or Mountain Dew (to stay awake).”

Mathur hopes ChicTech will succeed in the recruitment of more females in the computer science field so that women won’t get left behind in the rapid rate of technological advancements that are being made in our society. But in the meantime, Mathur said that being one of the few women in the field isn’t all that bad.

“When I have a computer science class, I won’t have to open the door for myself, and that’s pretty nice,” Mathur said.