Women in Computing conference comes full circle

The Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing brings together leaders in research, education, and industry as well as students for inspiration and engagement.

Wendy Powley, Assistant Professor at the Queen's School of Computing, speaks during the Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing (CAN-CWiC). (Photo by Doug Martin/Queen's School of Computing)

Wendy Powley, Assistant Professor at the Queen's School of Computing, speaks during the Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing (CAN-CWiC). (Photo by Doug Martin/Queen's School of Computing)

The drive to bring women in technology together and to inspire and engage the next generation is only getting stronger, bigger and better.

The Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing (CAN-CWiC) – which began as an Ontario-only event in 2010 – attracted 750 participants from across the country in early November and brought together leaders in research, education, and industry as well as students. To meet the demands of the increased attendance and travel needs, the conference was hosted at the International Centre in Mississauga for the first time.

The Queen’s School of Computing played a key role in creating the original event and Assistant Professor Wendy Powley continues to be the general chair of the organizing committee. Over the years, she has seen not only amazing growth but a strengthening of the conference’s roots with many attendees coming back to contribute once they have established themselves professionally.

“The really cool thing about the celebration now is that we are seeing it come full circle,” she says. “So many of the people who were presenting at the event – we had five parallel sessions running at the same time – were people who attended the conference in the past as students.”

The Aspirations in Computing awards recognized high school students from across Canada who are interested in computing. The awards were given out at CAN-CWiC for the first time. (Photo by Doug Martin/Queen's School of Computing)

The Aspirations in Computing awards recognized high school students from across Canada who are interested in computing. The awards were given out at CAN-CWiC for the first time. (Photo by Doug Martin/Queen's School of Computing)

Queen’s alumni still play a prominent role as well, not only presenting and giving back to the conference but also bringing their current companies on board as they search for diverse, employable talent.

The event is also an opportunity for students and young professionals to meet their peers and hear from those who are already working in the technology field. One key topic brought up during the conference was “impostor syndrome,” where one doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud. It was the focus of a panel discussion that included three Queen's alumnae - Morgan Klein-MacNeil, (Comm’11), Dr. Kelly Lyons (PHD '94), and Dr. Amber Simpson (PHD '10), all who attended the first conference.  By bringing it to the forefront at the conference, attendees come to realize that they are not alone, that they are not an impostor.

“The first time I ever heard about imposter syndrome was when I attended this conference in 2010 as a fourth-year student,” says Klein-MacNeil, now the AVP, Air Canada Partnership and Loyalty Program Technology at TD Bank. “I remember that panel very vividly – there was a woman speaking who had a PhD and was just incredibly technical and brilliant. Hearing her speak was just the biggest relief for me. It was so reassuring to know that this is a normal feeling, and even people who are super smart, confident, and collected are going through the same thing. I still share that story with many women I mentor.”

Another goal of the conference, Powley points out, is to keep Canadian talent here by bringing industry leaders and students together at various events, including the dinner, where they can build connections and share information.

“We had 750 women in this room for the dinner, many of them looking for jobs, many of them wanting to stay in Canada,” Powley says.  “Through the conference the attendees find out that success doesn't have to mean going to Silicon Valley. There are excellent opportunities here in Canada and excellent companies to work for.”

New at this year’s conference was a forum specifically for graduate students and an inclusive teaching workshop for faculty members and high school teachers.

Another new initiative, in collaboration with the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) in the U.S., was the Aspirations in Computing awards, which recognize high school students and provide valuable encouragement at a stage in their lives when they may need it.

The students first had to apply and submit a short essay about why they are interested in computing and what they want to do in the future.

A small recognition perhaps, but the result can be significant.

More than 750 participants from across Canada attended CAN-CWiC, which was hosted at the International Centre in Mississauga for the first time. (Photo by Doug Martin/Queen's School of Computing)

More than 750 participants from across Canada attended CAN-CWiC, which was hosted at the International Centre in Mississauga for the first time. (Photo by Doug Martin/Queen's School of Computing)

“Reaching out and offering a few words of encouragement to a girl makes a huge difference and the hope is that if they are recognized for contributions in computing and future goals they will continue on to study computing,” Powley says, adding that 29 girls from across Canada were recognized at the event. “The hope is that this will help promote young students considering going into computing, that it provides the nudge, the confidence to follow this path.”

Inspiration and engagement – and that’s important because women still are underrepresented at most computing programs as well as in the workplace.

“Companies are searching for talented developers and they have realized that a diverse workforce is more productive and produces better solutions" Powley points out. “Given the gender imbalance in computing, it is important that we reach out to encourage more young women to enter the field and support and encourage those who are currently in our programs.

To learn more about CAN-CWiC, visit the website.

Find out more about the Queen’s School of Computing.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Queen's Gazette.