Attracting more women to the world of computing

KINGSTON, ON – This week, Queen’s University’s School of Computing will host the Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing. The first in Canada held under the U.S. Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) umbrella, it brings together students, faculty, and professionals from around the province.

At Queen’s, about one in four computing students are women, a number that is higher than the national average but has not increased significantly since 2005. The number of female graduate students in the field is even lower, and as a result there are fewer female mentors for younger students.

“Many young girls don’t have an understanding of what computer science entails, nor how broad the field is, so they don’t consider it as a viable career option,” says Wendy Powley, School of Computing research associate, adjunct lecturer and conference chair.

The women in the School of Computing have worked hard over the years to provide outreach activities to introduce young people to the potential that a career in computer science offers. Among other things, Queen’s has partnered with Mount Allison and Trent Universities on an NSERC-funded project that allows university students to go to local elementary schools to carry out computing-related workshops with young girls.

The number of women in the field has decreased dramatically since the 1980s. While the reasons behind the decline are not clear, the fact that computer science is often associated with math and engineering – both historically thought of as “masculine” fields – means many women may not consider computing to be an option. It has also proven difficult to break the stereotype that all computer scientists are “geeks.”

The conference will provide both undergraduate and graduate students with a chance to present their work and share their ideas and network with others in the field.

Positive mentors who provide support and encouragement are often the reason young women end up in the field. Anna Belkova, now in her fourth year of undergraduate studies at the School of Computing, was inspired by her high school math teacher. “She was a female, and she put so much of herself into her teaching and made everything logical and simple to understand,” says Ms Belkova. “I’ve been in love with it ever since.”