The Female Perspective: The Challenges and Triumphs of Being a CS Undergraduate
By Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS
Note: this was the feature article in Click! Magazine, 2017, volume I.
In the fall of 2016, CS @ ILLINOIS welcomed the most gender-diverse class of freshman in its history.
Forty-six percent of the incoming CS-engineering students were women, double the percentage of freshman women from the previous fall.
That׳s good news for the computing and IT fields, which have been trying to attract more women for years—especially since studies indicate diverse teams lead to more innovation and better business performance.
“When people are different from us, we tend to listen more carefully, which means the ideas presented in a group are better,” noted alumna and CS @ ILLINOIS Teaching Professor Cinda Heeren (PhD CS ’04). “This is where innovation happens. If you perceive everyone to be like you, then the group becomes an echo-chamber because you assume everyone has the same opinion as you.”
However, growth in the number of women CS students does not mean that men’s interest is declining. Demand for a CS @ ILLINOIS education is skyrocketing as evidenced by the huge increase in overall applications—from 844 in 2010 to 4,599 received in fall 2016 for about 400 seats.
Parents and students alike are becoming increasingly aware that a CS degree makes graduates incredibly marketable. According to the non-profit organization Code.org, which aims to broaden access to CS education, there currently are more than 500,000 U.S. computing-related job openings in every industry across the nation. And a University of Illinois College of Engineering survey indicated that CS graduates self-reported an average starting salary of $85,000.
CS Associate Head and Director of Undergraduate Programs Lenny Pitt has a theory about the explosion in interest. “Young people—men and women—have a better understanding of how CS impacts the world because everything they do is CS-related, from social media, to information gathering, to entertainment, to recreation,” said Pitt. “They also understand the utility and power of computing because more of them can take CS courses in high school or even earlier.”
Added CS alumna Mary McDowell (BS CS ’86), CEO of technology company Polycom: “CS is no longer about back-office automation or gaming. CS is becoming a discipline that touches on so many aspects of life—it impacts everything.”
Holistic Review of Undergraduate Admissions
At the same time that the application pool was growing exponentially, the College of Engineering (COE) and the campus admissions office conducted a holistic review of undergraduate admissions to ensure they were identifying the most highly qualified students who were also good leaders, communicators, and team players.
The admissions process continued to consider each applicant’s standardized test scores, high school GPA, courses taken, and essay. However, the process broadened the definition of leadership.
“For some very competitive majors, the temptation was to just look for activities that related to the major,” said Sue Larson, COE assistant dean and director of Women in Engineering, who was involved in the admissions review process. “We believe students can show leadership in a variety of ways—from having a part-time job, to being a captain of their sports team, to being involved in theatre, to leading their computer science or math club.”
The result? A deeper pool of highly qualified women applicants to choose from, which ultimately led to a more gender-balanced freshman class. In the larger scheme of things, could the computer science field finally be on the road to achieving gender parity? Well, maybe.
Women’s interest in studying CS gradually increased during the field’s early years through the 1970s until female enrollments peaked around 1984. Then, for reasons not completely understood, interest from women dropped off and kept dropping until it bottomed out in the early 2000s.
“I remember a time around 2004 when we celebrated 25 women total, not 25 percent,” said Professor Heeren, referring to the fact that one in four CS-engineering undergraduates today at Illinois is a woman.
Experiences in CS @ ILLINOIS
So what type of experiences have female students had over the years attending CS @ ILLINOIS? One of the earliest bachelor’s degree graduates, Sandra Rankin (BS CS ’74) transferred into CS her sophomore year, when the College of Engineering established its CS degree—the College of Liberal Arts had offered a Math & CS degree since 1965. “There were two of us [women] out of 64 students and I was often the only female in a class,” Rankin recalled. “It didn’t bother me because I had the same experience all through high school.”
According to Rankin, the newness of the field made for a level playing field between the men and women students. “Very few people would have come into CS having had any real experience with computers,” she said. “We were all starting off in about the same spot, which is different from what happened after PCs were introduced and guys started spending all their time playing on the computer, which gave them an advantage over young women.”
CS alumna Rita Patel Jackson (BS Math & CS ’88) started at Illinois in 1984, when women made up a quarter of the CS undergraduate population. “Tech was on a high, CS was still a new, cool field to be in,” said Jackson, who is the Director, Cognitive Industry Solutions at IBM in Chicago. “By the time I graduated, there was a bust and things were tough, but I was a specific demographic so I ended up with two job offers.”
Although the curriculum was challenging, Jackson enjoyed being in CS. “I couldn’t see myself doing anything else because I loved computer science and technology,” she said, noting how the promise of an interesting, well-paying job helped motivate her. Group projects, though, were difficult because the male students didn’t always take her seriously. “I had to learn quickly how to talk their terms, and I learned who was forward thinking and could handle working with women in technology.”
Jill Zmaczynski (BS CS ’00) remembers the positive things about CS in the late 1990s when there weren’t many other women undergraduates. “There were a lot of scholarships and job opportunities for women CS students and not a lot of competition, so that worked out to my advantage,” said Zmaczynski, who landed a job at GE Global Research Center after graduation. “Also, if there was another woman in a CS class, you automatically had a friend, someone you could work with.”
Zmaczynski, who transferred into CS her sophomore year, had a strong network of engineering friends that she’d made her freshman year while in the Civil Engineering department. She was also very involved with the Society of Women Engineers, a College-wide student-run organization. “SWE was my saving grace,” she said. “I needed that group of friends.”
Although she had no programming experience, Melisa “Mo” Kudeki (BS CS ’11) decided to major in CS because she loved working on her computer and hanging out with friends online when she was younger.
“When I started at Illinois, I met a lot of people who’d been programming since they were 10, so I was definitely a little intimidated,” said Kudeki, who works now as the lead iOS engineer at VINA, a start-up company that makes a networking app for women. “I quickly found my community in the ACM student group, which was super important to my success. It was great being surrounded by and collaborating with a community of such smart people.”
Kudeki thought of leaving CS at times, especially since programming was initially difficult for her. But she decided to stay because there really wasn’t anything else that interested her. Things changed dramatically the summer before senior year when she was working at Facebook and she fixed a bug in the software’s News Feed. “Suddenly programming was fun,” she said. “It was a small thing, but I saw how it got pushed out into the real world and millions of people were benefitting from my fix.”
Every so often, Pooja Mathur (BS + MS CS ’09) questioned her choice of major—particularly after working on a programming assignment into the wee hours of the morning. Mathur stuck with CS because of the opportunities the degree would provide. “No matter what your interest might be, a CS degree would make it possible for you to find a job in any field,” said Mathur, who has worked on video games, Xbox, operating systems, data analytics, and cloud computing at Microsoft during her career.
Connecting with a support network at Illinois was invaluable to Mathur, who found her niche with the Women in Computer Science (WCS) organization. “There was always a group of women I could go talk to,” she said. “We could help each other, and it was helpful to have more senior students to talk with about things.”
In addition, Mathur said, the department faculty and staff did a good job of supporting the female students. “Even though I had to study hard and I hadn’t been coding since I was four, there were still people around who wanted me to be there and succeed,” she said. “They all knew our names and their support made it feel more welcoming.”
Encouraging and Increasing Women's Participation
Today the Department supports a chapter of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), a talent pipeline initiative to increase women’s participation in computing and IT fields. NCWIT recently awarded CS @ ILLINOIS a $100,000 grant to support the recruitment and retention of its female students.
In addition to supporting its current students, the CS Department encourages under-represented groups to study computing through highly regarded outreach efforts like the free Gems summer camp, which introduces middle and high school students to the broad field of computing and its applications, and ChicTech, which was launched as part of a $1 million NSF grant that former Director of Undergraduate Programs Sam Kamin received in the mid-2000s.
Initially, ChicTech was a traveling roadshow that touted the benefits of majoring in CS to students at Illinois high schools. Mathur got hooked on CS at a ChicTech visit when she was in high school. “At the time, I didn’t even know CS was something I could do,” said Mathur, who later joined WCS and returned to her suburban Chicago high school to encourage young women to pursue CS in college. “It sounded so amazing to me and I wondered why I hadn’t been doing this before.”
Today, ChicTech is managed by WCS and includes an on-campus weekend retreat for high school girls. Last spring, 61 high school girls participated in U of I student-led programming workshops and other fun activities.
One thing that current and former female students have in common is a phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome—a feeling that their success can be explained by luck or factors other than creativity, intelligence, or hard work despite all their notable accomplishments. In essence, it’s a feeling of self-doubt that occurs among high achievers—more so among women than men.
Despite the progress they have made, many female students deal with feelings of doubt, which often manifest themselves freshman year and revolve around programming. “As an incoming freshman it was scary because I had minimal programming knowledge,” said current BS + MS student Corly Leung. “A lot of people don’t have programming experience but you don’t realize that because the few that do are always bragging about it.”
Senior Amanda Sopkin felt a similar sense of intimidation her first year. “It was kind of overwhelming starting out because I was in class with students who had taken 3-4 programming classes in high school and I’d only had one,” said Sopkin. “But [the CS faculty] do a really good job with introductory-level classes by keeping things challenging for students with lots of CS experience, while leaving time for students who are just learning what a For Loop is.”
Once Sopkin made it through the required 125 and 225 course sequence, her insecurity lifted. “You develop the confidence that you’re going to get through it,” said Sopkin, who got an added confidence boost after attending the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, which is the largest gathering of women technologists in the world.
“The conference had a big impact on me because I could interact with women computer scientists at all levels,” said Sopkin. “The conference probably has an even bigger impact on women who aren’t lucky enough to go to a school with as many women CS students.”
CS senior Brianna Ifft had a similar positive experience at the Grace Hopper conference as a sophomore, having earned a travel award to the event from WCS for being the most active member. “I’d never been in a place where there were that many women pursuing the same thing,” Ifft said. “I felt so supported and realized we could do this and be equal to the guys.”
Junior Sylvia Haas, who is studying Statistics & CS, experienced the Imposter Syndrome her first year as she struggled with CS 125, the introductory programming class. “I didn’t feel like I fit in,” Haas recalled. “But I had an amazing TA, who not only helped me with the coursework, but he gave me advice on what classes to take and he introduced me to other students who had been through what I was experiencing.”
Later, Haas became a course assistant (CA) with CS 125 and the follow-on course CS 225, helping the teaching assistants (TAs) with instruction and grading. “These connections have been helpful, too, because I know I can reach out to my fellow CAs or even the TAs and I’ve gotten to know some CS faculty, who I could go to if I needed help with something.”
Another thing the alumnae and students have in common is a reliance on support networks to get them through. Ifft found her community with the Women in Computer Science (WCS) student group, where she took on a leadership role with the ChicTech retreat event. “I’m not sure that I’d have stayed in CS if I weren’t involved with WCS,” Ifft said. “They provide a great support network that you can tap into to collaborate on homework and projects. I’ve also met friends through the group.”
Haas found her community by volunteering with the CS @ ILLINOIS Gems summer enrichment camp for girls. Last summer, Haas ran the camp that drew 350 young women and included one-week camps for middle school girls and a 2-week-long camp for high schoolers. “We tried to create a network for the high school students by inviting them to help with the weekly camps for the younger girls and a lot of them even attended our fall campus ChicTech retreat,” said Haas, who has stayed in touch with many of the high school girls.
Her freshman year, CS senior Sathvika Ashokkumar felt a little isolated living in a dorm that was more than a mile from Siebel Center, so she began hanging out in the ACM student office and was soon helping plan HackIllinois, the popular 36-hour student-run programming competition held at Siebel each winter. Since then, Ashokkumar has also helped lead Reflections | Projections, a student-run tech conference.
“Illinois is a really good, collaborative environment,” said Ashokkumar, who has acquired leadership and organizational skills from her ACM involvement that translate into the classroom. “With so much event responsibility I’ve learned how to handle stress and I have the confidence now to do things. I’ve also learned that anything is possible if you have the confidence and you keep trying.”
A self-described theatre and arts person, CS junior Kate Milleker did fine her freshman year, but seriously considered dropping out her sophomore year when she took a succession of three rigorous, programming intensive CS courses. Life improved dramatically for Milleker when she discovered her passion this past summer working as an instructor at a Chicago-area Girls Who Code immersion camp for high school students.
“We showed them how they can use CS to do things in medicine, fashion, and other areas,” said Milleker, who plans to apply her computing skills to technical theatre after she graduates. “It was rewarding to teach the girls and I feel like I have an obligation to be a role model for these girls.”
This semester, Milleker co-founded the first Champaign-area chapter of Girls Who Code, which meets each Sunday at Siebel Center and is teaching middle and high school girls how to program and problem solve.