By McKenna Middleton | Opinion Editor
Baylor’s Women in Computer Engineering club is working to keep more women in the School of Engineering and Computer Science. The group meets each week for community, mentorship and professional development opportunities.
Data from the School of Engineering and Computer Science reveal that only 23 percent of students enrolled in the program are women. WiCS president and Columbia, Mo. junior Maddie de la Torre said the club was founded as an initiative to keep more women in computer science programs at Baylor.
“One of the things I liked about it was, when I was a freshman it was so intimidating,” de la Torre said. “Because, first of all, there aren’t that many girls.”
De la Torre said she felt behind in her entry-level courses because she didn’t have any computer science experience in high school, though many of her male classmates did.
“They had questions that were way beyond where I was, and they were so confident and everything. What I was struggling with was the easiest thing ever … I was just so intimidated,” de la Torre said. “So the dropout rate for girls is so high even though they start in it, they have interest, and it’s not because they can’t do it. It’s because they feel like, ‘well, I’m not doing as well as the guys.’”
WiCS seeks to provide a community of other women computer science majors to counteract these commonly expressed sentiments and increase retention rates in the program. De la Torre said it’s important to foster confidence in female freshmen computer science majors, because once students finish introductory classes, the playing field becomes increasingly level for all students.
Mobile, Ala., junior Katy Atchison, publicity chair for WiCS, said she joined the organization to find a place with people like her — students with a strong interest in computer science who maybe weren’t as confident or experienced with coding.
“I personally joined it just because there aren’t that many girls in computer science,” Atchison said. “Most of the people I’d talked to in my major were really into gaming and coding and that’s it. And I was like, that’s not me at all. I don’t fit in with these people at all, so it was nice seeing an example for me.”
McKinney junior Jordan Hurt, vice president of WiCs, echoed some of de la Torre’s experiences in intro level computer science courses.
“I had the worst time in my data structures class. I was in the professor’s office hours like 6 hours a week,” Hurt said. “I joined WiCS because it just made me realize that other people were going through it, too. It’s just I only saw myself. And being able to talk to the other girls about it makes you realize, okay, it’s not just me. It’s fine.”
De la Torre said retention of women in the computer science program may help alleviate some of these feelings of inadequacy that beginning majors may experience.
“I have this feeling like I have to prove myself,” de la Torre said. “I always feel like I can’t just show up and be in the major like everybody else. I have to show up and show I have the answer to a question, and I can do the program the best to prove that I deserve to be there. Which is totally just a mental thing that you put on yourself, but it’s because you’re the only girl or one of three girls.”
Atchison said she watched a TED talk about a professor teaching an intro level Java class that illustrated one example of this disparity in confidence levels between male and female computer science students.
“When the guys got stumped on a program, they would come to his office hours and say, ‘Hey, there’s something wrong with my code.’ And when the girls got stumped on the same things, they would come and say, ‘There’s something wrong with me. I’m not cut out for this major,’” Atchison said. “I feel like guys are more conditioned to try and fail. They see it as a challenge, whereas girls are like, you have to maintain this level of perfection which is just kind of impossible in computer science when you’re learning.”
About 15 women meet each Monday for study sessions and professional development experiences. Hurt said the club was first chartered last year, and the club officers are in the process of molding the organization’s goals and practices. Club meetings can range from relationship building, resume workshops and visits from technology companies like Google. Atchison said these companies are trying to diversify and want to reach women and minorities, so the club provides a group for those corporations to visit when they want to speak to women in computer science. The club sometimes partners with other student organizations like Computing for Compassion.
“Because we’re so new, we really get to shape what we want to do,” Hurt said. “I think we’re going to spend a lot of this semester hammering out what we want this to look like.”
Above all, Hurt said, the community aspect of WiCS has had the biggest impact on the women computer science majors at Baylor.
“We had to figure out a lot of this on our own,” Hurt said. “If we help the girls younger, then it just saves girls in the major, and it just saves them the worry that we had to go through.”
The club also provides a safe place for students to voice their insecurities and get reassurance from their peers.
“Girls are conditioned to be perfect,” Hurt said. “Society wants you to be perfect and stuff, so it’s very hard in computer science because it has to be perfect, but it takes a long process to get there. So the guys are more willing to try and fail and girls are not nearly as willing to try and fail. So we are kind of the support system for that, when you do try and fail we have people to catch you and remind you, hey, if the guys are doing it, we can do it, too.”