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Undergraduate women in computer science turn to each other for support


DTH Photo Illustration. Female-identifying computer science majors at UNC Chapel Hill turn to each other for support as they navigate being in a male-dominated department.

When senior Jessica Davis made a Facebook post asking other female-identifying computer science majors to connect, she wasn’t expecting many responses. She was simply looking for a few other female-identifying students who might want to share their experiences in the field.

“I’d love to have especially other women in comp sci that are supporting each other, because it’s such a small presence of women in comp sci," Davis said. "So I feel like we should do whatever we can to support one another, because it’s already hard enough." 

She said the general culture of the computer science department can cause students to be short with their peers, shutting each other down instead of collaborating. 

“I have had a couple different experiences where I have had a male friend that’s also asking a similar question, and I got completely shut down, like, ‘Don’t you think that you should know this?’ and they took the time to work through pretty much the exact same logical problem with them,” Davis said. 

Davis said she has had so many similar experiences to this that she no longer thinks it could be a coincidence. 

It seems Davis is not alone in her thinking — 19 female students responded to her Facebook post within a day. 

Junior Marigrace Seaton is another computer science student with similar experiences in the major.

“Ever since high school comp sci classes, there have been men in my classes who haven’t liked the fact that I am as talented or more talented than them,” Seaton said. “It’s not something that they outwardly express, it’s shown in their tone of voice toward me and their unwillingness to accept my help.”

Seaton said there have been times when she's asked male classmates for help and then been told by other students that they only obliged because they were interested in dating her. 

“There’s a kind of damsel in distress attitude in that way,” Seaton said. 

She said none of her computer science professors have been women and that women on the faculty are few and far between. She looked up to former department head Diane Pozefsky, but Pozefsky has since retired. 

While there are some resources, like the Women in Computer Science Club and diversity and inclusion panels, some of these students think the department should work toward broader cultural changes to become more inclusive and supportive. 

The computer science department’s diversity and inclusion coordinator declined to comment for this article. 

Davis thought bias trainings for teaching assistants could help. Seaton wished there were more female professors. 

Some students appreciate the steps already taken towards a more inclusive computer science department. 

“I do think the department makes good effort to be diverse and inclusive,” junior Jill Pownall said. “For example, there are a good number of female TAs, and there are hackathons like Pearl Hacks and Queer Hack that aim to provide spaces for those groups to feel comfortable in the CS setting.”

Pownall said one of her professors started grading exams with the students’ names removed after he read a study that STEM professors subconsciously give students with traditionally female names significantly lower scores. 

Of course, female-identifying students in the major also have each other to lean on. Davis said she will contact every student who comments on her Facebook post to see if they would join an online group of female computer science majors. 

“I personally would love to be able to have some sort of group of girls that I can go to that know where I’m at, know what I’m going through,” Davis said.

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