Deputy Features Editor, Siobhan Ali, speaks with Ashley Llewellyn Women in Computer Science Society, and how they are approaching the hurdle of entering such a male-dominated industry.
Founded between 1410 and 1413, the University of St Andrews is the oldest university in Scotland and the third-oldest in the English-speaking world. However, the university only began admitting women over 450 years after its founding in 1876 and it took a further 189 years for women to be allowed to graduate at the same level as men of the time.
This is interesting as the BBC recently reported that nearly six out of ten first year students at Scottish universities are women. This depicts the leaps and bounds women have made in Scottish education in the comparatively short time they have been able to participate.
The same study by BBC, however, also highlights continued gender imbalance in certain courses; 85% of Scottish students studying engineering are male. demonstrating the relatively low participation of women in traditionally male-dominated subjects. These sentiments are echoed by head of Fawcett Society, a leading charity organisation promoting gender equality, Sam Smethers who notes that “women are still underrepresented in math, science and engineering subjects.” Therefore, this is only a step, albeit a significant one, in a long battle against gender imbalance in education.
Facing a lack of diversity in the University of St Andrews’ computer science department, third-year Ashley Llewellyn was part of a minority in a male-dominated subject and many of her peers switched courses due to lack of encouragement and support. Recalling her own experiences of mansplaining, mocking from her peers and disparaging accusations that women are ‘stealing their place in the course,’ Ashley was inspired to tackle this issue. She decided to do this by founding the Women in Computer Science Society in January 2018 to promote diversity in tech in St Andrews.
The society aims to promote diversity in tech and foster an interest in the subject by creating a constructive and positive community and highlighting positive role models for young women. Ashley highlights the importance of ‘bringing all these girls together and creating a support system and network’ to tackle hurdles they face throughout their course.
Through the society, hopefully, women will not only take a casual interest in tech but can potentially choose the subject as an additional module in their first or second years. Contradicting perceptions like ‘I’m not smart enough’ or ‘I’m not good at maths,’ the society is inclusive and welcomes both men and women from any discipline. Ashley also stresses the importance of having male and female members in the society, as male allies are crucial to helping open dialogue about the problem of diversity in tech and supporting women in tech.
Over the last year, the society has grown exponentially to nearly a hundred members and is now affiliated with the University of St Andrews Students’ Association. The team hosts a range of exciting events such as pub quizzes and CV skills workshops, offering a perfect blend of enjoyable social events and informative help sessions.
You can also learn different coding languages such as Python and Java as the society runs lessons for all skill levels, from beginners to experts. Women in Computer Science has also gained sponsorship from several tech companies such as Google, Bloomberg, and Softwire. In collaboration with Google they run several events such as the recent Virtual Google CV workshop where employees gave tips and advice and offered personal one-on-one review sessions. The team is hoping to host more events for their ever-growing group of members and in the coming months have some interesting plans in store. For example, Ashley’s own experience at a hackathon, during which she was one of ten girls out of a group of a hundred computer programmers, has inspired her to organise an-all female hackathon in St Andrews.
Members can also look forward to talks from leaders in various tech industries and female-led panels. Another new concept is a mentoring scheme to give advice and help young women adjust to the demands of the computer science course, thereby creating a sense of solidarity amongst the female computer science cohort.
This, the team hopes, will combat the high rate of female students that drop out of the module and provide successful role models to help young women excel.
An ambitious but incredible opportunity they are working towards is sending a couple of their members to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in the United States. As well as listening to highly successful women in the field, they will be able to chat to representatives from leading tech industries and be recruited for internships and graduate jobs. Helping women secure internships in tech companies around the world, Women in Computer Science Society wants to highlight the importance of women being involved in the higher echelons of tech industries.
Women’s input is essential, they feel, as they offer different and important perspectives. Hopefully, this will encourage a higher proportion of women to join a startlingly gendered industry where, according to Women in Tech, women make up only 17% of the UK tech industry. This, the website points out, is significantly lower than other sectors.
Ashley also believes more can be done to support young girls to pursue STEM subjects and tech in school which will translate to greater success in higher education and in the work force. While a large proportion of girls excel in maths and sciences at primary level as they move up through school they face discouragement and resistance from participating in traditionally masculine subjects.
Indeed, The Herald reports that prevalent gender stereotypes are major factors that determine subject choice and therefore, prevent women from taking STEM subjects for A-Levels/Highers and from applying to computer science and other tech courses at university.
Various programs can be introduced in secondary schools across the country to ensure a greater involvement of women in the tech industry. For example, Ayrshire College launched a Strategic Plan between 2014 and 2017 to “challenge gender stereotyping in career and learning choices.” Their plan was comprised of several projects such as social media campaigns, short films and events like the annual ‘Girls in ICT Day’ and ‘Ada Lovelace Day.’
Promoting positive role models for budding computer scientists and fostering an interest in the subject, these programmes worked to combat dangerous negative stereotypes about women in sciences in an effort to tackle a serious gender imbalance. West College Scotland also unveiled a female-only computer science course to promote the subject with women and address their underrepresentation in these industries.
These are a few examples of efforts to bridge the divide men and women in the industry. Combined by societies such as Women in Computer Science, women will hopefully be supported at each stage of their careers in computer science, fostering real and significant change within in the industry.
Women in Computer Science Society can be found on Facebook @ stawomenincs where you can keep up with their events and find out more information about how to get involved.