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Lack of women and non-binary people in computer science remains a systemic and social issue

Students, faculty and tech workers believe more needs to be done to create supportive environments for women and non-binary people in tech, Kayla Zhu reports

In Vanessa Landayan’s high school computer science and robotics class, no one wanted to be her partner for projects—she was the only girl in the class.

Her classmates would refer to her as “woman,” and it “became like a meme,” says Landayan. 

Landayan, who is now a second-year Ryerson computer science student, says she has faced similar experiences in one of her predominantly male labs in her first year of university. 

Before she handed in her assignment at the end of class, she compared solutions with one of her classmates. They ended up getting the same answer, but solved it differently. As he was explaining his solution, another classmate told him to slow it down because he thought Landayan had “no idea” what he was saying.

“That was so rude…because I knew what he was talking about,” said Landayan.

The lack of women, non-binary or gender non-conforming people has been a known issue in the field of computer science that is commonly unaddressed. According to Statistics Canada, in the 2017-18 academic year women accounted for only 27 per cent of mathematics, computer and information sciences students at post-secondary institutions. The statistics on non-binary people in the field are unclear. 

According to 2013-14 and 2017-18 figures,  the female enrolment rate in computer science has only increased from 25 to 27 per cent since 2013. 

Last year, Ryerson’s computer science program saw a 22 per cent enrolment rate for students who self-identified as female. While this was a significant increase from the previous year’s 15 per cent enrolment rate, some female computer science students still feel the isolating effects of the gender disparity. 

Liyan Al Hamlawi, a fourth-year Ryerson computer science student and vice president of the Women in Computer Science club, says that seeing the lack of women in the classroom can be discouraging.

“I would isolate myself just because it was weird how I would be the only female in a class, or one of very few,” said Al Hamlawi. “You start to second-guess your decisions.”

Wendy Cukier, a Ryerson business management professor and founder of Ryerson’s Diversity Institute, says she believes the lack of women representation in computer science is largely an institutional issue. 

“When you have some universities that are close to 30 per cent, and others that are hovering around 10 or 15, you know, the issue is not the pool,” said Cukier. “The issue is the strategies and the intentionality.”

The ‘leaky pipeline’ for women and trans people in tech

Cukier says that women in computer sciences face obstacles at multiple levels, including the “socialization of girls,” the stereotypes of the tech sector and what professional opportunities young women think there are for them in the tech industry. She believes that these issues play a big role in how girls see themselves and their ability to excel in math and technology at a young age.

“Societal expectations and stereotypes are one of the biggest barriers,” said Cukier. “If you think about the tech sector, you think Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. There aren’t a lot of high profile or [diversity among the] women who immediately come to mind.”

After coming out as a trans woman five years into her job at Broadcom in Bristol, England, Katy Montgomerie said she was met with supportive coworkers and safeguarded by “decent” human resources policies. However, it wasn’t a perfect experience. 

Montgomerie said there were times where she had said something in a meeting and felt like she wasn’t being listened to in the same way as before she came out.

“Societal expectations and stereotypes are one of the biggest barriers”

Currently, Montgomerie is a senior engineer working in application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) design. She writes code that maps out transistors in computer chips, primarily ones that go into modems. 

While Montgomerie says she was always “naturally quite good” at math, Montgomerie mentions that getting into her career she had the “generic ‘You’re a nerdy man in tech, so you should be good at this’” experience. When she was younger, she said she was told that boys excel at math and girls “aren’t so good.”

“I went through school, college, university and looking for a job, all before coming out, which I think did shape the direction I went,” said Montgomerie. “I think that I had some kind of bonus or privilege or just general guidance that I benefited in some way from that.”

Social and professional obstacles don’t end once women leave education and enter the workforce. Cukier refers to the phenomenon of women going into tech companies and either leaving or switching between similar positions in terms of pay and seniority as the “leaky pipeline.”

“There are issues in terms of recruitment policies but also the pervasiveness of what’s often referred to as ‘bro culture,’” said Cukier. “That is often very alienating for women. Some organizations are working really hard to address that, but overall progress has been pretty slow.”

Women at tech companies are often evaluated for promotions differently than men, says Inmar Givoni, director of engineering at Uber Advanced Technologies Group Toronto—an Uber branch that works on machine learning for self-driving cars.

“What we know from studies, and what I’ve observed around me, is that men often get promoted based on potential and women get promoted based on what they’ve already proven,” says Givoni. 

Why we need more women in tech

Throughout her career, Givoni was often the only woman on her team, the only woman in a leadership position or the only woman with technical experience on a team. Up until now, all of her bosses were male.

Givoni emphasizes the importance of having women in all levels of a tech company in helping to create safe spaces for collaborative problem solving, also adding that more people are able to engage in technical discussions in a non-hostile environment. 

“At the end of the day, you have a process where a lot of people contribute to ideation and to problem solving, and that actually leads to a better solution,” says Givoni. 

“I feel like women’s style of communication lends itself more easily to that.”

Cukier says from an ecommerce perspective, increasing participation from not just men in tech roles is a “solid business case” because they represent a significant portion of the market. 

Historically, new technologies and products were designed with the “average user” being a “white man of a certain age,” says Givoni. This ranges from office temperatures that were calibrated for male bodies, to algorithms that only accurately detect Caucasian faces. She says that tech companies need a diversity of thoughts, ideas and perspectives in the room so that “they know they’re building the right solutions.”

Givoni said that this means including a variety of women’s voices and people of different ethnicities in decision-making.

“What we know is that it’s too hard for a person to completely think outside of the box. So you need to just have a lot of boxes in the room,” said Givoni.

Solutions for closing the gap

For Landayan, representation is important but she also feels that the larger computer science culture needs to be reevaluated.

“It’s not just talking about the representation and leveling the ratio,” she said. “It’s about the micro-aggressions and the stigma, the little things.”

Visibility of women in the field and having a support system are important for women in science, says Al Hamlwai.

The Women in Computer Science club’s mission is to recruit more women into computer science, empower current female students and foster retention of women in the program.

The club hosts networking events with industry professionals, professional development workshops, cram sessions and a high school ambassador program.

“Finding out about a few other successful trans women in tech was kind of a relief because I felt like, ‘Well, if they can do it, then I can do it’”

“With this club, it’s more to empower [women] to show them that they’re not alone and that there are opportunities for them,” said Al Hamlawi. “We’re here to support other females.”

In addition to providing opportunities and support, Cukier says that universities need to be accountable for implementing real recruitment strategies and measuring them.

She also believes that in addition to encouraging women to go into computer science, she sees real opportunities in alternative pathways into the tech industry.  

“People are increasingly focusing on the importance of emotional and social intelligence,” said Cukier. “We know that, for example, looking at artificial intelligence companies, they have real needs for computer science grads, of course, but also project managers, salespeople and marketing people.”

For Montgomerie, having trans role models in the industry was important for her personal experience as well as paving the path for the future. When she found out that a highly-respected trans woman named Sophie Wilson—inventor of the Acorn RISC Machine processor, a chip found in 95 per cent of smartphones according to the European Patent Office—worked at her company, she said she felt like her coworkers were more acceptant of her gender identity.

“Finding out about a few other successful trans women in tech was kind of a relief because I felt like, ‘Well, if they can do it, then I can do it,’” said Montgomerie.

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