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Students Celebrate Women’s Roles at Computer Science Conference

Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference poster

Empowerment and opportunity are two words not always associated with the computer science world for woman—but they should be.

Recently seven W&M Computer Science students attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Portland, Oregon, and returned fully inspired about the field and their future careers. Zheng “Eddy” Zhang, one of our Ph.D. candidates in Computer Science, attended as a funded 2011 Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship recipient. Funding for the other six students to attend was provided by campus grants and donations from our generous alumni and friends.

“The conference really opened my views of computer science,” says Jessica Chen '14, who is planning to double major in Computer Science and Chemistry. “At first I thought the only decent job in computer science would be software development. After attending different panels at the conference, I learned how many more opportunities computer science has to offer.”

Created to increase the visibility of women’s contributions in computing, the conference brings together more than 2,000 women from more than two dozen countries to foster collaborative proposals, networking, and mentoring for junior women in the field. Through this sharing of research and career interests, the conference hopes to move women in computing to the forefront.

“It is true that women are outnumbered by men in the computer science world, but that makes it all the more exciting,” saysCarolyn McKenna '14, Sarah Kunkler '12,  Jessica Chen '14, Jennifer Thorne '11, Katie Moore (Ph.D. candidate) Sarah Kunkler '12, a double major in Computer Science and Mathematics. “Knowing that women are succeeding in something that frankly some people don't expect them to succeed in is really great. There are a million career opportunities in the field and it is something that more women need to jump on.”

Co-founded by Dr. Anita Borg and Dr. Telle Whitney in 1994, the conference was inspired by the legacy of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a visionary and pioneer in system design and programming. Conference presenters are leaders in their respective fields, representing industry, academia, and government. Top researchers present their work, while special sessions focus on the role of women in today’s technology fields.

"It was amazing to see how many companies are actively seeking women," says Erica Cole '12 who has a final job interview with a company she met at the conference. "There are more opportunities than I could have ever imagined, and women are in high demand."

“I definitely made some great connections at the Celebration,” says Jennifer Thorne '11, who graduated with a B.S. in Mathematics and a minor in Computer Science and is now a student in the College’s Computational Operations Research master's program. “I came away feeling empowered.”

For several of the students who attended, the best part of the conference was hearing from a superstar in the field, keynote speaker Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

Conference keynote speaker Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook

“She had so much to say about being a 'technical woman,’” says Chen. “It was interesting to hear how she was able to function well in the workplace without much of a background in computer science by being confident in herself.”

Carolyn McKenna '14, undeclared and considering computer science, also found Sandberg inspiring. “There was so much of what she said that resonated with me, things I hadn't thought about before.”

Others found inspiration through working directly with conference presenters.

“Christine Chiu, the Manager of Research and Executive Programs for the Anita Borg Institute, was probably the most interesting person to me,” says Katie Moore, Ph.D. candidate in Computer Graphics. “I volunteered under her for several hours at the Senior Women's Summit. From working with her, I saw the great potential for women in both academic- and industry-related fields.”

Still others were encouraged by fellow students.

“One of the most interesting people I met was a young woman named Joy Buolamwini, a senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology,” says Thorne. “She exuded passion and enthusiasm. She is extremely accomplished and seems to throw herself into projects that help others. She also gave an interesting talk titled ‘What if Android Based Devices in Ethiopia Could Help Prevent Blindness?’"

Through interacting with student peers from around the country, the William and Mary students were able to gain insight into and appreciation for their experience here.

“Although many schools that were represented at the conference have larger computer science departments in terms of both faculty and students, this does not necessarily make them better,” says Moore. “One student I talked to came along with 15 other female students she hadn't met before. That's not likely to happen at William and Mary.”

"Most of the students there had taken many of the same classes, and knew most of the same programming languages," says Cole. "However, where most of the other students came from more technical colleges, I found that the 'roundness' of the rest of my education exceeded theirs. With a liberal arts education, we have more experience in writing and communication, allowing for better career opportunities when it comes to working directly with customers."

So what would these students tell other women considering the field?

“Computer Science is in a constant state of flux, which is a great thing; new developments in all facets of this field are highly desired,” says Moore. “Talented women and men are clearly a hot commodity, so jump in!”

“It's a great field with so many opportunities,” says Chen. “The field really needs more women because of the differing perspective, or thought process, we bring to it. For woman in the field, a prevalent issue seems to be a lack of confidence. I walked away from the conference feeling inspired, knowing that by believing in myself, I can do the job just as well as anyone else.”

“Conventional wisdom about what is important in a field may be biased,” says Thorne. “You can be anybody you want to be. Don't get intimidated. There's no one best way to have a computer science career, and it's never too early to get advice. I would also repeat two quotes from Grace Hopper: ‘Well behaved women rarely make history’ and ‘A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.’"