Computer science department’s Women’s Initiative seeks to foster inclusiveness

Angela Jones is a graduate of BYU’s computer science program and now a mentor with the Women’s Initiative. (Laurie Bradshaw)

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Leadership in the BYU Department of Computer Science recently organized a Women’s Initiative to make the major a more inclusive environment. Jennifer Bonnett, an academic adviser for graduates in computer science, has headed the Women’s Initiative Committee since its conception in 2017.

“The primary goal that we have is to integrate the men and the women in the department to try and make it a more inclusive culture,” Bonnett said.

To accomplish this, the initiative has organized events for both men and women that give students the chance to work and serve together so they can get to know each other better.

In addition to fostering inclusiveness, the initiative is also working to ensure that women have the resources they need within the program. “We’re trying to keep people from dropping out, finding out why women switch from the major,” Bonnett said.

BYU computer science graduate Angela Jones now works as a mentor with the Women’s Initiative to help “mentor, recruit and retain” students, she says. Her own experience helps her understand the struggles that female computer science students face. She said her own class had only three women.

“It’s very isolating,” she said. “That’s the biggest problem.”

The initiative is also focusing on more long-term goals. Over Summer 2018, it hosted “Girls Code,” a camp that teaches programming skills to girls ages 8-11.

“One of the reasons why we initiated Girls Code was to expose younger women at a much earlier age; junior high tends to be the point where girls start to fall away from STEM, so we decided to try to catch people at an earlier age,” Bonnett said.

Jones echoed this statement, adding, “Once they’re in middle school, the social pressure is really tough. … We hope that by catching them early, they realize that they can do anything.”

Robbyn Scribner, assistant director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, said that even when women do enter science, technology, engineering and math fields, such as computer science, their attrition rate is much higher than men’s.

“STEM, and tech companies, in particular, have traditionally had very low numbers of women, and the women who do enter these fields tend to leave quickly,” she said.

Scribner also referenced a study done by the Women Tech Council on the attrition rates of women in STEM fields that states, “The trouble for many women within the technology industry comes after graduation. The American Psychological Association found that women accounted for ‘more than 20 percent of engineering school graduates over the past two decades,’ but that ‘nearly 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field.’”

Both Jones and Bonnett said many female students experience Impostor Syndrome — a feeling of doubt in one’s accomplishments and a fear of being exposed as unqualified or a fraud.

“A lot of the male students will be extremely confident, like, ‘of course I can do this,’” Bonnett said. “It’s surprising the number of women who apply who don’t have that attitude. A lot of times the women who are so concerned are actually scholastically doing so much better than the men who are so sure.”

Jones noted that many women may not realize how flexible careers in computer science can be.

“I think the real answer is to have people know how cool computer science can be and what a great option it is,” she said. “People can work from home. It’s super flexible; it’s super creative. With computer science, with the demand right now, it’s just so huge. You can pretty much do anything you want to.”

Jones also said having greater diversity in computer science can only strengthen the field.

“If we can diversify who comes to the program, everyone will be better,” she said. “The whole program will be better.”

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