Women make up only 18 percent of graduates with a degree in computer science in the United States, yet studies show that companies with a more diverse pool of employees outperform companies with a more homogeneous workforce. To help Knox College computer science majors understand the job prospects, benefits, and frustrations of stepping into a largely male-dominated field, the 2020 Computer Science Virtual Career Summit's final session focused on women in CS.
About 20 students, faculty, and staff joined Knox alumni Carol Craig '89, founder/CEO of Craig Technologies; Paige Lowe '14, software development engineer at Zillow Group; Ellie Poley '10, senior software developer at Adobe; and Bishakha Upadhyaya '21, a computer science student ambassador and teaching assistant. Pre-submitted questions were posed by Tehreem Anwar '20, who moderated the discussion.
The May 19 session was part of a computer science career summit that moved online for the spring academic term.
The panelists said their Knox liberal arts education gave them skills that have benefited them throughout their careers. All of the participants said that their Knox computer science classes were helpful, and that other skills they honed at Knox—such as writing and communication—have really made a difference in their day-to-day jobs.
The panel discussion touched on several topics, including how to evaluate inclusivity in a company and how employees can acknowledge bias, yet not let it hinder how they are perceived or dictate the roles they are assigned on a team. The panelists cited how they often were not as confident as male colleagues when it came to negotiating salary or requesting roles with more responsibility.
Lowe, currently working at Zillow, remembered a poster that she used to see when she worked at Facebook. “It said, ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’” Lowe recalled.
“I think it’s important to approach things thinking about the worst case, best case, and most likely scenarios,” she said. “Even if you’ve failed at something, you’ve tried to make a change.”
When it comes to applicants, females who are in managerial positions have to be cognizant of the implicit biases they bring to the job, said Craig, whose career path included a stint in the U.S. Navy and who now runs her own company.
“It’s incumbent on management to show how they welcome diversity,” she said. “That can be reflected in the job descriptions, on the website, in policies, but it’s really important to ask questions during an interview.”
Poley also said that asking questions was important, and so is reviewing company policies. “For example, what are the health policies? What are the family leave policies? It’s important to read between the lines on job postings. Some companies expect their employees to dedicate their lives to the job, but a company that stresses a work/life balance and mentorships will probably have a more well-rounded team.”
In addition, the panelists discussed discrimination they have observed or experienced, as well as microaggressions. Microaggressions include when women are assigned stereotypical roles, such as being asked to be the recorder at a meeting. Finding community is important to combat such issues and to help with the loneliness of being one of the few females on the job or in class, they said.
At Knox, the Women in Computer Science group has been one way for women to bond.
“The Women in CS group got together to plan an event, but then we realized that we all shared similar experiences,” said Bishakha Upadhyaya '21, a current Knox student.
Lowe suggested finding online groups. “Women are not monolithic. Look for different perspectives, and support women’s voices,” she said. “Be willing to speak up, to put yourself on the line when there is a problem.”
Charles Broomfield, a senior majoring in CS and business, attended the presentation. “While geared towards women, the presentation held a lot of lessons for men,” said Broomfield. “Since the CS landscape is still overwhelmingly male, it is necessary that it is not just women that instigate change in the field in order to better the environment for all workers.”
The career series was funded in part by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, as well as Women in Computer Science, the Bastian Family Center for Career Success, the Office of Alumni Engagement, and the Department of Computer Science.