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Digital dreams: empowering women to code

Digital dreams: empowering women to code

[Wendy Powley]
Photo by Garrett Elliott

Wendy Powley, School of Computing / Faculty of Education

Wendy Powley, Artsci'84 (Psychology), Ed’85,MSc’90 (Computer Science), clearly loves her work in computing. “When you solve a problem, there’s a programming high, a real endorphin rush,” she says. “I live for that feeling!”

Ms. Powley, a continuing adjunct in the School of Computing and a term adjunct in the Faculty of Education, is also a dynamic champion and mentor for women who want to study computer science and pursue careers in technology. These days, she is excited to notice more women in her classrooms. “In my first-year coding classes, about 45% of the students are female – a phenomenal increase from a few years ago.”

A mix of computer science majors and curious upper-year students in other disciplines, these women are learning to create code, or computer programming language. “If I can inspire them to try computing in that first course, many continue on. They get a taste of it, recognize the potential, and say, ‘Wow, this is great!’” Often, she notes, women feel excluded from computing, which is usually portrayed in the media as male-dominated, geeky, and for only the most brilliant. “It’s too bad! Women are missing out on very lucrative jobs and fun, diverse careers. And the workforce is missing the diverse population it needs to create the technology of the future.”

When Wendy Powley started out, few women chose computing as a career, “mostly because we didn’t know about it.” Today, she moves in tech-savvy circles, both at work and at home. Husband Gary (Comp’84) retired recently as senior systems specialist in the School of Computing, daughter Rachael is studying computer science at Western University, and son Michael, an engineering student at University of Ottawa, has an interest in computing.

But in her student days, Ms. Powley had no computing mentors to guide her. Originally a math major, she switched to psychology and then attended teacher’s college, before realizing that teaching junior-primary wasn’t for her. She took a job at Queen’s running a research study in the psychology department, where she had her first experience with programming. “I had to automate data collection and perform calculations on our streaming data using a personal computer – I was fascinated.”

This discovery sparked her to take undergraduate computing courses at Queen’s. Next, she completed her Master of Computing degree. In 1992, she was hired as a researcher at the Queen’s Database Systems Laboratory, and in 1999, she began teaching – and mentoring – other women. “Part of my role is to inspire and motivate others,” she says.

At Queen’s, efforts to attract more women to computing have been highly successful. Back in 2003, only about 20 per cent of the undergraduates enrolled in computer science were female, better than a North American average of about 11 per cent. Today, that’s jumped to 34 per cent at Queen’s, compared with about 15 per cent for North America.

What explains the increase in computing women at Queen’s? One factor is new programs, such as biomedical computing and cognitive science, that tend to attract more women, she says. But another factor is the promotion of opportunities for women in computer science. “The way to get more women into the field is to get more women into the field,” says Ms. Powley matter-of-factly. An increase toward gender parity results in a culture shift, one that is more cooperative, inclusive, and more inviting to women.

Building a network

So she took it upon herself to create new networks for women. Ms. Powley is founder of the Queen’s School of Computing ACM-W Chapter, an informal support and social group for students and staff to encourage female interest in computer sciences. “I tell my first-year students, ‘Computing will make you cry,’” she says frankly. “It can be frustrating – you have to be very persistent, you have to problem-solve, you keep going back. Sometimes you get into dark places where you don’t know the answer and what else to do. So building this network of women who can support one another is important.”

Building on this initiative, in 2010, she founded the Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing, which she oversaw for five years. Hosted by various Ontario universities, the annual event “fostered the idea of the need for support for women in universities, and started the conversation.”

Last year, the popular conference went national. The second annual Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Montreal this November is expected to attract 500 attendees, bringing together students, professors, and industry professionals to learn from, and network with, each other.

A national network goes global

Wendy Powley was also appointed as chair of the ACM-W Celebrations committee, a subgroup of the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society. She will not only coordinate the celebration in Canada but will supervise ACM-W Celebrations that occur annually worldwide.

“Organizing the conference is the best thing I ever did,” she says. “There’s the Canadian one, and now we have 28 regional conferences across the world. It’s great; they keep popping up!”

Wendy Powley’s influence continues to ripple out. She is proud of the accomplishments of her students, like Melissa Mangos, Comp’17, who founded Sudo, an organization that creates community through free coding workshops for girls and women in Kingston. “It’s a great initiative, and I’m so proud of Melissa,” Ms. Powley says. “It’s so satisfying to provide experiences that will have a lasting impact on young people.”

Learning early is an idea she strongly supports. She thinks computer science should be mandatory from kindergarten through high school, as it is in the United Kingdom. “Computing teaches problem solving, critical thinking, and how to manipulate data: these are abilities that everyone needs in the modern world,” she says. “If we want people to create the next cool app or medical breakthrough or new technology, we need kids to understand what tech can do and how to apply it in our society.”

[cover of Queen's Alumni Review, Issue 2, 2017]