Computer Science event seeks to hook women

By Frank Krolicki

This Mom’s Day weekend, the computer science department aims to spark interest in the field among women and girls through its “Mom’s Day Celebration of Women in Computing.” The event, Friday, April 7, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Siebel Center for Computer Science, will feature a keynote address by Dr. Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology. The event will also include a live jazz band.

The goal of the celebration is not only to get more women interested in computer science, but also to create awareness of the under-representation of women in the field and its negative effects, Sam Kamin, a professor in the department who is involved in organizing the event, said.

“Computing is a huge field that is still growing and offers great career opportunities, and also great opportunities to affect peoples’ lives,” Kamin said. “Yet young women are largely absent from the field – somewhere around 10 percent of computer science majors are women.”

According to data on the University’s Division of Management Information Web site, of nearly 650 undergraduate students studying computer science during the 2005-2006 school year, 59 are women.

While Information Technology is the most dynamic, fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, getting women interested in pursuing careers in the field still proves to be a nationwide challenge, Sonya Harris, program director for the Department, said. The celebration is a way to address and work to solve the problem.

“This would be a great time to network and share ideas,” Harris said. “This is a way to get the community engaging in conversations with the University – Students with faculty, professionals and staff – everyone.”

The department held its first celebration of women in computing last spring, at which women of all ages convened to participate in a variety of competitions and demonstrations. The event consisted of a Friday evening talk and reception, as well as several weekend activities that focused on getting high school-age girls involved and interested in the field. This year, the celebration is a separate event, and will include a talk geared toward attracting a broader audience.

“We’re trying to expand the audience to include women in the community – not only women who work in the computer field, but anyone who is concerned about the future of women and technology in our society,” Kamin said.

In the talk, titled, “Inventing OUR Future: Women & Information Technology,” Sanders will engage the audience in a conversation about the difficulty of getting women into information technology, and the importance of doing so for the future of people both in and out of the field. Sanders co-founded the National Center for Women and Technology in 2002, after working in technical and executive positions at Bell Labs, Lucent Corporation and Avaya Inc. The center has become the largest organization in the nation devoted to increasing the number of women in the field.

Kamin said while the computing field increasingly affects the daily lives of everyday people through technology such as podcasting, blogging, online retailing, instant messaging, video games and cell phones, it is mainly controlled by the information technology workers involved in its development.

“At some point, you can’t get the technology you really want unless you’re involved in creating it,” he said. “And women have not been involved in creating this technology in nearly large enough numbers for their ‘voice’ to be heard.”

The Women in Computer Science program has previously helped get high school and college-age women interested in technology through events and programs such as ChicTech, an outreach program in which group members visit Illinois high schools to dispel myths about computer science and create awareness. “Games 4 Girls” is a computer game design competition.

The celebration could have a significant impact in getting young women interested in computer science by mingling them with women in both the department and profession, allowing them to see first-hand what they have achieved, Harris said.

Kamin said he would like to see the event help dissolve misperceptions about the field.

“That’s a matter of talking to a lot of people – girls, parents, teachers, etc. – and keeping on talking to them until they see what the women are missing,” he said. “This presentation is just part of that ongoing conversation.”