Purple and white balloons accompanied simple, hastily-made signs with “She++” scrawled in black marker dotted throughout campus. For most, the phrase is a foreign combination of a word followed by plus signs. But to tech-heavy individuals, the message is clear: these posters were directing foot traffic to a female-focused computer science lecture in the UU forum.
Playing off the coding language C++, Friday night’s She++ event provided a dedicated space for women interested in computer science and similar fields. Elizabeth Burd, the vice-chancellor of learning and teaching at the University of Newcastle in Australia led off the guest presentations by sharing sound advice for women trying to break into computer science.
Video game industry veteran Brandii Grace dispelled some myths about why women aren’t prominent in these fields, shooting down the archaic idea that women cannot comprehend the subject matter while positing as the theory that women view technology differently than men. Jillian Greczek and Orjeta Taka, USC robotics grad student and iRobot lead roboticist, respectively, followed with presentations explaining the impact of robotics in the medical field.
Joining the Q&A panel were former PCC students Natalia Alonso and Lan Dang. Alonso, a Cal State Northridge computer science student, and Dang, a software engineer for Jet Propulsion Laboratory, were invited to show current PCC students that there are opportunities in these fields and that attending a community college does not hinder the abilities of budding techies.
“I just really think that if you’re into something, just do it,” said Dang. “Don’t let feeling like you’re the only one there stop you.”
Dang oversees a local group of Linux users and realized she’s usually the only woman at the meetings. While she recognizes this as a problem, she’s against the idea of dragging women into the field just for the sake of diversity. For women who feel out of place because there are so few in relation to men, she offers some inspiring advice.
“When I hear people talk about joining these women’s groups, I’m just like ‘join any tech group,’ you know,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to be the only one there, just make your mark there.”
Originally a computer engineering student, Alonso turned to computer science which felt like a more comfortable career path to her. Like Dang, Alonso has ties with NASA and JPL since her senior project consists of a collaborative effort on CubeSat, a small, compact satellite for space research.
Although she agrees that She++ and similar events are great experiences, the fact that women still need to seemingly prove their abilities is problematic.
“It’s awesome that we have events like this,” she started. “But it kind of sucks that we’re still asking these questions [like] ‘why do women want to get into computer science?’ I don’t know, the same reason that anyone would be interested in any particular thing. It’s just because they like it … not [because] they have some ulterior motive like ‘I’m proving something to someone.’”
As complicated as the event sounds, the event’s origins lie in a simple classroom conversation. This conversation sought to find a reason why there was a disproportionate amount of men compared to women in computer science classes. Waverly Chin, one of three women in her class, found it necessary to fix this issue.
“I think that it’s very important to create these sorts of events and definitely a community, because women make up 52 percent of the workforce but only make up 20 percent or less of the technology industry and that’s a huge problem,” she explained. “Maybe women need to be encouraged, or they never thought about [computer science], or they don’t know about it, so I decided that I would start this event and get it going around PCC.”
Originally planned for an audience of about 60, word of mouth turned a small gathering into a proper crowd. Time factored against Chin and her team, however, as they only had six weeks from start to finish with a mere one meeting per week.
Additionally, a lack of funding posed a major threat for the organizers. The search for sponsors was particularly tough at first. Without the assistance from the PCC Foundation, the event would not have come to fruition. Up to 80 percent of funding came from the Foundation, according to Chin.
Despite the obstacles, the event found success based on its turnout. The forum was a sea of white T-shirts printed with She++ across the chest. Although aimed at women, the lecture was not exclusively for women. In fact, half of the audience consisted of men, which is the type of support that creates positive environments for everyone.
“One of the things that I really want to get out there is that people shouldn’t be afraid of programming, [both] men and women,” she noted.
As a result of the event’s popularity, plans for a second event during the spring semester are in the works.