The ACM-W society is one of the biggest advocates of women in computing. They dedicate several events and awards to celebrate prominent women in computer science and related fields. In September this year, the ACM-W Europe chapter held the second womEncourage event in Uppsala University, Sweden. WomEncourage creates an environment for women with similar scientific backgrounds to interact, network, and explore career opportunities. In this event, two hundred people are participating from twenty-eight countries including the Middle East, India, China and the U.S.A.
But why is there a need for events dedicated to women in computer science?
Gender stereotypes threaten women in male-dominated work environments with discrimination from three sources: men, other women, and self discrimination. Commonly, the ratio of women to men decreases rapidly in more advanced academic or professional positions. In her keynote, Prof. Åsa Cajander mentioned as a consequence of this phenomenon women are perceived less competent within a group and are assigned to the group’s social tasks. This leaves a woman feeling isolated in her team, and could eventually affect her performance.
A higher risk women face comes from within. Prof. Cajander called this risk the imposter syndrome, where a woman feels that she does not deserve her success and assigns it to chance or to other people. Some women also believe that similar success could have been achieved by a male-counterpart with less time and effort. Positive discrimination, such as scholarships offered for women or women quota systems, also threaten women. In many situations, this type of discrimination leads women to be more criticized for their actions compared to males, especially by other women.
Events such as womEncourage help individuals become aware of these risks and provide opportunities to mediate them. At the event’s core, it provides the opportunity to network; women get acquainted with each other in a friendly social-scientific atmosphere and share their experiences. Discussion groups further aim to build mutual understanding and empathy, and to evaluate different techniques to neutralize gender stereotypes. Aside from the social aspects of the conference, many scientific sessions are offered. Technical talks are presented by leading researchers and industry representatives. Due to the nature and purpose of the conference, however, the scientific content covers a variety of topics without going deep into them. One advantage of this model is that participants can choose to attend any session and learn about new topics with little-to-no pre-requisites. Several hands-on workshops also take place and provide basic training for new technical skills. The value of the workshops stems from the variety, recency, and the type of exposure they offer the participants. A career fair is also held as part of the conference. The fair provides women, especially students, with a rare opportunity to interact with industry representatives without being dominated by the males presence in other typical conferences. During this event, ideas are discussed, business cards are exchanged, and new collaborations are planned.
In addition, a Codess hackathon was co-located with the conference this year and took place one day before the main event. Five teams competed to design and develop hardware prototypes using a new Intel technology for a humanitarian purpose. Codess by Microsoft is another type of initiative that encourages gender diversity in computer engineering and development. Such technical challenges help women gain confidence and accept positive recognition.
One of the main topics in the conference was teaching and education of computer science. In the near future computer skills will not be restricted to a number of university programs or job titles, but will become essential tools in the hands of the skilled. The ACM-W society could take advantage of events such as womEncourage to expose women from other fields to computer science and provide them with the basics to empower them in their work. Currently, womEncourage reaches out to women who are already involved in computer science disciplines. Inviting females at school level to participate can bear many advantages. On one hand, this provides involved women a chance to act as mentors for these girls. Mentorship can help people reflect and understand the essential role they are playing in evolving computer science into a more gender-diverse field. Another advantage is encouraging young females to join computing by presenting them with successful female figures, and diluting the computer scientist’s stereotypes.
Events celebrating women in computing can push even further by encouraging more male participation. Creating a social-scientific environment with “an almost” equal gender participation (equality doesn’t necessarily mean diversity) can allow both genders to experience true diversity. Males could experience how it feels not to be the dominant gender, which could create empathy towards female colleagues. Women would get a chance to speak out their minds, sensing the support of other women in the group. The resulting discussions could eventually lead both genders to understand the value of diversity in liberating women to take active roles in their teams, and how that would encourage new perspectives and contribute to the success of the final product .
Additional links WomEncourage2015 video stream