Women In Computer Science at Williams College

In the junior class, I counted 20 female-identifying computer science majors, out of a total of 75. In the senior class, the number is 15 out of 47. So, a little under a third of CS majors are female-identifying, and almost half of all students at Williams are. This is, obviously, disproportionate, but the disparity is nowhere near as big at Williams as it is at other institutions. The chair of our department is a woman! And we have multiple amazing female professors. But... it is still disproportionate.

This summer, I was lucky enough to work for an amazing computer science professor (who also happens to be female) alongside two other female CS majors. This semester, in my Human-Computer Interaction elective, which is taught by another female CS professor, I’m working on a project with an all female group. Contrary to what you might expect, in the past few months, I have found myself surrounded by women in CS!

Let it be known that this is definitely not true of all CS-related activities and spaces on campus. For example, most nights at my Algorithms TA sessions, I’m the only woman there along with around 10 men. Working alongside my male classmates does not at all make me uncomfortable. Most of them are my friends, and I love working with them and feel very supported by them. I have noticed, however, that when working with other women and female-identifying people in computer science, a certain feeling of competitiveness is missing (in a very good way). I did not notice this dynamic until it was gone, but I’ve realized that I feel a heavy pressure to prove myself when I’m working with men. One of my TAs is a woman, and I’m not sure it’s a conscious decision, but I always find myself addressing my questions to her rather than the other TAs. I think I’m much more comfortable revealing my confusions and questions to other women because I’m not afraid that they’ll judge me or label me in some way. I have sometimes thought, and I’ve heard other women say this too, that I’m not a “real” CS major (because I don’t go to hackathons, I don’t think I want to be a software developer, and I didn’t grow up coding video games for fun). But why am I feeling that way? I am a computer science major, as real as they come. I’m doing the work. I’m learning the stuff. I’m ~coding~ the ~things~.

It’s interesting to think about the fears and pressures that crop up when you’re a minority member working in a group.  The pressure to represent your identity well is a subtle, but very real, stressor. While I have experienced this with CS, I’m lucky enough that it does not leak in to the rest of my everyday life. This snapshot I have with identity stress has opened my eyes wider to the privilege I have in other areas of my life and has made me a more sensitive person. It is now easier to understand why and how some people may be representing themselves differently depending on who is around them.