Behind the Screens @ UofT WiCS

Edited by Jasmine Ryu Won Kang

With university going online this year, the usual hustle and bustle of the UofT Student Union's club fair held at King's College Circle during Orientation week was lost. Most clubs took a proactive approach and leveraged their social media platforms to attract potential members.

I got to virtually sit down with the co-presidents of the UofT Women in Computer Science (WiCS) club, Anjali Parikh and Micaela Consens, and talk to them about the club and its goals. It has been running at UofT for a while, but recently gained a surge in popularity.

Why did you join WiCS?

Anjali: I joined the club's executive team last year. I had been to a couple of events in my first year and they were great. I felt it gave me a good community, a place for me to find other women in computer science because there aren't many of us. It's also hard to make connections in classes.

I was the director of events last year and I helped organize these events. I enjoyed spending time with the team and getting all this positive feedback from other women in CS. When interviews for the co-president position were taking place, I decided to apply. I thought I could do a little more outreach with the position.

Micaela: When I started at UofT, I already had some programming background. So I went straight into CSC148 in the fall. It was a pretty male-dominated course and I had some bad experiences with it. I ended up coming out uninterested in doing CS.

But when I met with my professor at that time, Prof. Diane Horton, she became a big help. She set up meetings with other female students in CS courses she taught. They were people she thought would be a good match for me to make friends with. There were these two girls, Lana el Sanyoura and Justine Chen, who ended up founding the club "Hello, Girl". They met with me a bunch of times in my first year and told me about their experiences in CS. This made me feel like it was a place I wanted to be part of. So I joined WiCS to hopefully return the favor to someone else.

Your club is dedicated to the Women in Computer Science and aptly named so, what is your interpretation of the name?

Micaela: We aren't the founders, so we can't speak to why they choose the name. But it's about the representation in computer science. There's a large percentage of Canadians who picture a man when they think of a scientist. It's the same when they think of computer science too. 

Anjali: I think it's a great name. It's official and signals a specific community in computer science. We didn't choose it, but I like it.

Your website says that your “goal is to do our part in closing the gender gap in computer science by encouraging the participation of female students in computer science”. There is so much power in your vision. Why do you think it’s important to talk to and motivate female students within the university space/setting? Why do you think it’s important for women to be represented in the field?

Micaela: We find it important to close the gender gap because women lack the same amount of recognition men get. There are a lot of different elements to it. Women are less likely to get promotions and equal pay compared to their male colleagues. Their contributions have also been historically overlooked.

The idea is that we want to draw attention to the contributions of women. We want to show women they can succeed. They can get recognized for their achievements in computer science. That they're as valid as any of their male counterparts, which is obvious but not so much. Things are changing a lot right now, people are leaning more towards this acceptance.

The club was founded to support women in computer science because women are a minority in the field. It is also important to recognize the additional struggle women of color and other marginalized groups face. They are less likely to get recognized for their contributions. The goal is not only closing the gap for women. It's to make sure that every single minority in computer science has a chance to have their achievements recognized. To make sure they feel like they're a part of the field. At the end of the day, everyone should be welcome in the community.

Anjali: There are a lot of times, especially in university, where women don't speak up. When we're in teams, the males are usually leading the meetings and coming with ideas. All the women have great ideas but they're less likely to speak up about it.

I remember attending an event, where they said women are more likely to experience imposter syndrome. This is true even if they're fully qualified for the position. They're more likely to feel that in any aspect of the job they're in, which is sad. The point of the club is to empower women, to give them a voice. To tell them that you have a voice and people feel the same things you do. You're not alone in these situations. You need to speak up, need to fight for yourself, and you need to use your voice.

Your club recently featured women role models in the STEM field and asked for your followers/audience to nominate such role models. How do you think will women representation in STEM influence the industry? What are the positive outcomes of making women visible in various STEM fields?

Anjali: One great positive outcome that comes from showcasing women in STEM is it encourages a lot of younger students to pursue this field. When you're younger and think of STEM-based fields, it's a very male-dominated place. This means that you are less likely to pursue a STEM career. So giving recognition to the women who contributed to this field is important. It showcases to other women, other younger generations, that this is a field that can go into and succeed in. That there are other women in that field to support them and help them navigate through it.

Micaela: When we worked with the STEMHub Foundation, we were lucky to have a lot of contact with their founder, Dr. Adeola Olubamiji.

Her position for showcasing women and minorities in STEM fields was, "you can only be what you can see.You want those young kids to see people that look like them, who are in jobs that they never thought of pursuing. And then they see people that look like them. And they're like, okay I could do that. That could be me.

Many universities and schools have shifted learning in the digital space because of the pandemic. Extracurricular and club activities are shifting as well. What do you think are the potential challenges of running an organization online and how do you/will you overcome them?

Anjali: A large challenge that we're trying to overcome is getting people to come. When we used to have events in school, there was always an incentive of food and merchandise. People see that this event is happening and come to it. Of course, they learned a lot through the events, and some people were interested beforehand. But it drew in bigger crowds.

Now when everything's online, people might forget about it. It's a lot different. Our challenge of outreach and getting people to remember that this event is coming up. What we're trying to do this year is leverage our social media platforms. We're also trying to create interesting events so that people are drawn in based on the event and it's the content. We're also hoping to host some giveaways and pique people's attention

Micaela: Another challenge is there are a lot of people from around the world, stuck in their home countries. This creates a time zone conflict. In an ideal world, we would find a time to host our events that would be great for every single time zone. That would fall into the window of the time that most people are awake around the world. That's not always possible. We do want to encourage UofT students, as a member of the computer science community, to attend. It doesn't matter where you are in the world right now, you are welcome to come to our events

Are there any projects or plans that your organization is looking forward to this coming school year? Please share them with us!

Anjali: We have a collaboration with Accenture coming up on October 28. It will be a panel session with Accenture engineers, women predominantly. There will also be a trivia night with a giveaway.

Micaela: We do have other events coming up with Google, Microsoft, and potentially Firmex. We hope to host a hackathon at some point. These are all things that are still in the works. We're gonna take it, depending on what the pandemic situation is. It looks like we are hosting a virtual hackathon, but let's see.

Anjali: We also have a Minorities in CS (MiCS) spotlight event on our social media. Throughout the year, we're going to try to post about as many people as we can, on our platform. We have a first-year FAQ session that we're planning on doing. We are going to try to answer questions that first-years have. When I was a first-year, I was so curious about everything and would have loved answers to all these questions. We'll be running all these on our social media, to get more engagement as people grow interested.

While there has been a lot of progress in reducing the gender gap in professional settings and the current work/study-from-home situation, do you believe this increased usage of technology could inspire more female students or women, in general, to step into the tech?

Micaela: Women pioneered the field of computer science. Later, they were quite forcibly removed from participating in it as it became popular. I do hope that the pandemic does have a silver lining and encourages more students towards the CS field. They can see the value in jobs that allow you to work remotely and maintain job security. Most people in computer science had an uncomplicated transition to work from home. There are advantages to this. I do hope younger girls and people of color people who normally wouldn't be drawn to these kinds of jobs can see the opportunities. But I am worried people could be oversaturated with screen time and turned off to the idea of continuing to ...

Anjali: ... a career where you have to look at a computer all the time.

Micaela: Yes. There are some good things. I hope it'll be mostly a good thing. But I also see how some people might not be interested anymore.

Anjali: There's also talk of introducing CS education early on in schools, especially in Ontario. I think it's part of the curriculum under the reformed education plan. They are trying to incorporate a little bit of coding or live experience with tech early on, which is so amazing. I wish I had more experience when I was younger. Even if you're not in computer science, having some technical background is important. Learning a skill or language would be great for everyone. So I love that they're doing that for younger kids. Hopefully, this will encourage all types of children to pursue the field in the future.

Your club recently collaborated with the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) team in their Get with the Program(ming) workshop to talk about your club and its importance of women in the CS community. Could you elaborate on it?

Anjali: Yes, it was one of the workshops that WiSE had conducted for the summer. It was for 14 to 15-year-old kids. We introduced our club as well as what we do but mainly focused on women's contribution to the CS community. We went through Scratch and helped them create a cool, fun little story on music. Scratch, if you're not familiar, is a basic, beginner-friendly coding experience. It's intuitive, and you can learn a lot from it. The aim was to introduce these 14 to 15-year-olds to computer science in a fun way. Hopefully, this can get them excited about choosing CS as their prospective career. Like I mentioned, it's important to start early on and encourage young girls to pursue this field. That's the only way you can have more women in the field.

Both clubs are dedicated to women in science - what do you believe is the significance of this collaboration? Do you think such collaborations with other clubs would help with your goal, considering CS is an interdisciplinary field?

Micaela: We do want to make it a priority, now that everything's online, to collaborate with other clubs. There's a wider audience we can reach and get more attendance for our events. We're also trying to make an effort to collaborate with clubs that align with our interests. So the first collaboration that we have for this year is with the computer science student union. We're collaborating with them because we overlap in the disciplinary field. WiSE is another club that is super important to have at U of T. As we discussed, women are not only excluded from computer science but also other scientific fields and engineering. So working with them solidifies this idea that women shouldn't be competing against each other in male-dominated fields. They should be supporting each other.

We really want to send the message that the only way to succeed as a woman in CS or any STEM field is not by competing with fellow women, it's by supporting them and uplifting them.

Since this year's orientation was online and there are people across time zones navigating all this new tech for the first time, do you have any advice for first-years who might have missed it?

Micaela: The advice I would give is you don't need to be in the computer science stream, like in the major/minor/specialist, to take CS courses. You don't need to have that label to be good at CS. You don't even need to be enrolled in that degree to be a computer scientist. You [can] contribute so much to the field and you don't need to have that degree.

Anjali: I remember my first year was stressful. I would say don't put too much pressure on yourself [and] work hard. Learn what you want to learn. And if POST happens or doesn't happen, it's not a result of you not being good enough. It's how it is sometimes. Work hard and do your best. Don't be like this is the be-all and end-all. There are always ways to learn technical skills if that's what you want to do with your career.

What was your best moment or memory that you experienced at the club?

Micaela: I love working at WiCS. All of them are my favorite memories. But a particularly good memory I have is when Anjali, Alex, and I decided to run the STEMHub raffle. We were a three-person team at this point as it was over the summer. We were [working hard] to get this raffle recognized by people and get participation. We were so stressed because we wanted to contribute. We reached out to companies to make sure we had big prizes. We made so many graphics to post every day or every other day to keep people up to date with the raffle. We wanted to get people interested, to understand that we wanted to support the Black Lives Matter movement within our sphere of influence.

We were super hyped about this and freaking out because it seemed like we weren't getting that many donations in. Then one day, Dr. Adeola Olubamiji sent us a screenshot of the PayPal donations that came in. It was $8,000 at that point.

I just remember, like the three of us were like losing our minds, like we were so happy. Like, that was a really good memory. It was a virtual memory. But it was good.

Anjali: It was really good. Yeah, we were so stressed because we wanted to give this foundation as much as we could. We were trying to push this raffle out as far as we could because we had great prizes. We had an Xbox and a whole bunch of cool merchandise. We needed to get as much as these prizes are worth and hopefully a lot more than that. And people came through. I'm extremely grateful to everyone who contributed. These are university students, who are pitching in money. A large contributor was a startup but still, a lot of it is from students. We're grateful that Stem Hub used these funds to create more events for younger students, encouraging them to pursue STEM careers. So we're grateful that we were able to contribute even the small part that we did. That was one of the best memories at WiCS.

Micaela: Yeah, the collective power of good. Knowing that the people we make these events for and that we work so hard for, are willing to work hard for us. That their hearts are all in the right place. Especially during a pandemic, when they're like students and they have no money, they all put forth money for this.

Anjali: Yeah, it wasn't just us though, we contacted other university student groups, like Ryerson, McMaster, Waterloo, and UBC. Every one of them shared this initiative. We're so grateful for all the student groups who came through [especially] because this was in the summer. People were on a break or working but they all came through and all helped us and we're extremely, extremely proud of the student groups that all contributed to this campaign.

Any last comments:

Anjali: I just want to mention that Women in Computer Science, yes, it's a club geared towards women, but we want all minorities ... to feel comfortable, and to feel like they have a place. We want everyone to feel comfortable and included in CS. And if you're ever struggling, you know, reach out to us, we're here for you. And that's what our main goal is, is to create a community."

Check out their social media platforms on Facebook, Instagram, TwitterLinkedIn, and Website.

Anjali Parikh is in her third year, pursuing a Computer Science Specialist. Micaela Consens is in her fourth year, pursuing a Bioinformatics specialist, Computer Science major, and Biology minor. Although Alex Tran couldn't attend this call, she plays an instrumental role in this organization. She is in her third year, pursuing a Computer Science specialist.