Opinion | Op-eds

Hacking the system

“The odds are good but the goods are odd.” As a woman and a prospective computer science major, I can say from experience that I am almost always in a sea of guys, whether in CS classes or hackathons. According to the Columbia CS department’s statistics, only 31 percent of the current CS majors from CC and 29 percent from SEAS are women. My CS buddies, who stay up coding with me until 3 a.m., refer to me as the “token girl” of our group. Consequently, I am no stranger to the “women can’t code” jokes that come with the territory. When we talked about forming committees with x number of men and y number of women in discrete math last spring, my friend leaned over and said, “Ha! Women can’t be on committees.” Yet despite all of these comments and stereotypes, CS may actually be one of the best fields for women right now, especially at Columbia.

Jokes are made, and testosterone levels run high, but I don’t actually think the male computer scientists view us females as inferior. Above all, CS culture respects talent and creativity; at hackathons, we listen to each coder’s pitch and watch them all demo their apps without knowledge of where they study or which company they represent. The prominent stories of college-dropouts-turned-tech-geniuses imply that CS talent is not driven by formal education but by individual innovation. Furthermore, our culture revolves around making jokes at our own expense all the time. We ridicule ourselves for having no social lives; we readily admit that whether our code is working or not working, we still never know how to explain it; and we grumble about the time and energy we all throw into coding (but secretly know that the rush we get when our program finally works makes all the sweat and tears worth it).

The Columbia community is especially supportive of women in CS, with a club, Women in Computer Science, devoted to that exact purpose. WICS’s panels, conferences, information sessions, mentorship programs, and free food have made my guy friends envious time and again, despite my reassurances that they’re actually allowed to attend as well. This sort of community and support is incredibly valuable, as collaboration is one of the most essential keys to success in CS. When you spend hours and hours writing a piece of code, it becomes incredibly hard to take a step back and reorganize or debug it. A fresh pair of eyes can zero in on errors very quickly.

Perhaps we women worry about the disadvantages more than we need to. It is true that there are many more men in our field, but we can very well use that to our advantage. More and more people are learning CS each day, and although there are so many relevant job opportunities, we must still make ourselves stand out in the pool of applicants. Being a woman helps.

My father used to tell me that there are three important considerations when picking a career: 1) Can you find a job? 2) Will you stand out in the field? 3) Do you like what you’re doing? 

For women falling in love with CS in college, so long as we don’t get intimidated by the testosterone levels, or feel like we are entering the field too late (we’re not!), we may have stumbled upon the perfect career path—and we’re not alone. Within the past four years, the percent of women CS majors at Columbia has gone up by approximately 10 percent. Websites like Codecademy allow us to pick and choose lessons in our own time and comfort zone. Initiatives like Girls Who Code help young women everywhere discover CS at an earlier age. In New York City in particular, we are surrounded by hackathons: From hackNY at NYU this weekend to J.P. Morgan’s Code for Good Challenge in mid-October (where I will happily be playing the part of “token girl” on my team), we can be inspired by other coders and professionals (while also getting lots of free food)!

In the meantime, instead of worrying that we’ve hopped on the CS train too late, we should focus on how we can apply our knowledge of other fields (for instance, previous prospective majors that we dumped for CS) to exciting cross-disciplinary projects. By doing this we can translate another stereotype about women: our “natural” inclination for being people-oriented, to designing and implementing amazing applications that appeal to human users. If we can flip these stereotypes on their heads and embrace the CS culture, silly jokes and all, I fully expect to see more and more women coders in the years to come (numOfWomen++?), and maybe even boost the gender ratio some more when we declare our majors next spring.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore. She is a member of Women in Computer Science.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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