A Woman in Computing Science?
Though my story began in the city of Allahabad, India, the story that is relevant for now is my journey as a woman in computing science. That side of the story goes back into my early school years, when computers were still new to India and households were only beginning to have one at home. It was early 2000's and my first memory of a computer, studying in a school in the metropolitan city of Gurgaon, is that of a dark, air-conditioned laboratory in the basement of my school. It was always an adventure to go there and work on computers with my friends. We must have been in Grade 4 or 5.
The first time I felt passionate about computing science was in Grade 8. We were studying Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) for that year and as the final project, a friend and I had to design a website. My dad, who had moved to Canada when I was two years old, had sent me many DK Eyewitness books by then and after looking through my collection, we decided to build a website on being an explorer. Grade 9 was Microsoft Visual Basic and Grade 10 was Structured Query Language(SQL) and databases. The computer lab was no longer the dark one in the basement; it was now a nice room on the top level of the school, an open area with computers lined along the perimeter.
I changed schools in Grade 11. I decided not to take computing science. Instead, I decided to learn Economics as my fifth subject; the other four were predetermined for me — Physics, Chemistry, Math and English.
I passed Grade 12 with flying colors. My mom and I explored which undergraduate programs I could apply for and we chose a three-year Bachelors in Computing Science (Honors) from University of Delhi. As that neared its completion in 2014, I applied and got accepted to the Masters in Science (Computing Science) at University of Alberta, Canada. I moved away from my mom and moved in with my dad’s family. I completed my MS in 2016, decided I wanted to learn more about technology in education, and pursued a Masters in Educational Technology from the same university.
You know how you sometimes go through life and it is some years later that you look back to wonder about why some things happened the way they did? I am at that point now. I read the article, No need to pinkify on Code Like A Girl, and I had this immense urge to look back at my education through my school years and beyond, and understand how I got to be where I am today.
As I thought more about it, a number of questions came to my mind and though I do not have all the answers, I hope that we can at least start a discussion and find answers together. This article is divided into sections, where in each section, I attempt to answer the following questions in order:
· Why did I (and my friends) choose to be in computing science?
· What was different about my graduate and undergraduate degrees?
· What did the Indian education system do for those of us that chose computers?
· Who is a woman in Computing Science?
· Is it enough to get the younger generation of girls interested when there are bigger challenges that we have not tried to mitigate?
My views are my own and my hope is to learn and understand the world I live in better. If you feel that I am misinformed or under-informed in any way, please feel free to point me out to sources where I may broaden my outlook.
I had an interest in computing science but in my school years, I could not decide on my profession — I started with wanting to be an archeologist and study dinosaur bones to being a historian to visit the Pyramids.
Where did all those ambitions go? Why did I choose to be in computing science? I asked my mom after reading No need to pinkify why she encouraged me to take computing science. I had always liked computing science in school but this was about deciding a career path. She said that in India, it had a huge job market (it still does) and it offers the opportunity to work from home.
I asked my dad the same question the next day during brunch and he said being in Canada and a professor, he knew it was going to be a great field to be in. There was lots of research to do in it.
I did not learn a programming language until I started my undergraduate degree. As I mentioned earlier, I did not take computers in Grades 11 and 12, which is when Indian education introduces programming languages. I decided to pursue computers because I had some interest in it and I was a good student. I am sure I could have done well in the BSc Electronics too, had I wanted to do that.
My friends during my BSc were 5 other girls with whom I hung out during and between classes. I never asked them how they ended up being in the degree. They were my companions. That was all that mattered.
After talking to my mom and dad, I contacted a couple of them and asked them two questions:
- Why did you choose to do a BSc in Computing science?
- What role did your parents play in this?
I ask the second question because in India, our parents have a huge say in what we do. They pay for all our education. ‘Interest’ does not always fly in the Indian society to do something — there is always the question of how it makes you independent eventually and allows for a good career.
All of my friends now are working for software companies; they work in teams for their company’s products with clients all over the world. They are my best example of women in computing science because they are in the industry.
My first friend said that she took computers in Grade 11 and 12 and her comfort level in programming led her to believe that she could do well in the field. By the time she graduated from school, she had made a couple of games in C++ and she was fairly confident it was a line of work that fit her. She said her parents supported her decision to go into this career.
My second friend said that upon graduating from school, she looked at all her options — “I was not good in teaching, biology, public speaking or any form of creative work.” That is why she chose computers — there wasn’t another place she thought she could fit. She had no inclination towards it as such. Her parents wanted her to be an engineer, and since she did not get into a great college to study engineering (the competition for engineering degrees in India demands numerous other articles) and this was the closest to landing the same kind of jobs with some extra years of education after the BSc, her parents were okay with it.
My third friend had decent marks in Grade 12. Computers had a big job market when we were entering university and her parents thought this was the field for her to be in. They wanted her to do something that had scope — something that would not lead to a dead-end career in India. Computers gave her a chance at a promising career and she took it without any interest in it.
My fourth friend had not opted for computers in Grade 11 and 12 either because she did not like the way it was taught in earlier grades. Similar to my second friend, she had lower interest in other subjects and this was something she could see herself doing. Her parents supported this choice due to the numerous job opportunities later.
Whether we came into the BSc with any interest in computers or not, we all went on to do very well in our classes. I did my MS while my friends did a Masters in Computer Application (MCA) in India and have well-paying jobs now. They never looked back at the choice that they made. Their reasons for taking up computers were justified. Their reasons give rise to other questions such as why the other subjects were not as interesting, but I am not trying to find those answers. They are not my questions to ask or my answers to find.
3. What was different about my graduate and undergraduate degrees?
When I started my education in Canada, I did not realize until months into my program how few women were in my department. The ones I met were International students like me who had come from India, Brazil, China or Iran, while some were immigrants from the same countries. That was the first time I realized there was a big gap between the number of women who pursued higher education in computers back home and in Canada.
In India, there is no mention of why we should have chosen computers as women. We were not treated any differently than our male counterparts when it came to being encouraged into a profession. We were more in number (55%) than the men in our program and my friends said that the ratio of female:male did not change in their Masters programs either.
That led to the shattering of an impression I had about my home country — I expect to see gender divides in such fields of study more in India than in Canada, and yet it is the opposite. I never felt like I was someone unique during my BSc because I was surrounded by women who were as intelligent or more than me. We all grew up without taking any special computers programs outside of school. We did not hear about special coding clubs for girls. And yet, we all found our way into computers.
What did the Indian education system do for those of us that chose computers?
I was discussing this with one of my friends and she said that there was always a stress on STEM subjects. We never truly choose our classes in India. The Indian education in high school is divided into the categories based on undergraduate degree requirements.
The first (and only) choice we get is in Grade 11 when we can decide between the non-medical (physics, chemistry, math), medical (biology, chemistry, physics), commerce (economics, accountancy, business) and arts (history, civics, geography). English is mandatory and that leaves one spot open. At my high school, the non-medical students could choose between computers, fine arts (painting), economics, and physical education; the medical students also had the option of math. The arts students also had the option for psychology. To do any undergraduate degree related to sciences, the non-medical combination is a minimum. You are still eligible to apply for social science degrees with that combination, but once you take arts in school, the doors to a science degree later are shut.
At the high school I went to, the year I was in Grade 11, there were eleven classes for Grade 11, i.e., the students were divided into eleven ‘sections’ based on their choice. There was one section that was mostly medical students and some non-medical, six sections of only non-medical students, and three sections for commerce. Each of these had around 35 students each. There was one more section for arts with nine students. Does that say anything about the stress my education puts on STEM?
I remember debating between arts and non-medical at one point and my mom said non-medical was better because I could still go into social science subjects later in university if I wanted but I would never be able to go from History to convincing someone I can do well in Physics.
Who is a woman in Computing Science?
I realized through my MS that I was interested in something else, and my professors did too. I have written extensively about my education here, if you would like to read. I decided to pursue a MEd in Educational Technology and while doing that program, I figured out I just wanted to teach computers. I loved being a teaching assistant to undergraduates during my MS and what would be better than to teach young minds computing science? I am currently working towards my teaching certificate.
I will always think of myself as a woman in computing science because that is where I discovered my passion for teaching. I may not do research in it or work in the industry but I love teaching computing science. When I become a teacher, will I no longer be a woman in Computing Science? It does not matter what other people think, but the fact that I have this question is disturbing to me because it shows me how little I know about who a woman in Computing Science and STEM is. Do we count teachers in this category?
I told my mom about the discussions I had with my friends, the coding clubs for girls that I hear about, and my computers education, and I asked her what was missing. I can share my story but as a researcher and writer, but it must have a conclusion. What am I missing? Why are there not enough women in computing science? Why are there so few women researchers and women at high positions in those industries?
She said it was because of the nature of the jobs and women. As a new professor who gets hired into the university, it is a couple of years before you become tenure-track and then more years before you become a full professor. All that time in between is spent researching and publishing papers. But if you decide to have a child, you will have to take a break most likely to care for the child. You might not be able to give as much time to your research because the child will take priority. And even when he/she gets older, you will come back home from work and leave your research at work. It’s different for men. This is true in industry jobs too. We could lose hours spent towards getting that promotion.
Is it enough to get the younger generation of girls interested when there are bigger challenges that we have not tried to mitigate?
I love the fact that we are trying to get more girls into coding and STEM but I feel it is not enough to do just that. We need to look at further barriers that stop women from staying in, never mind succeeding at, these jobs. Is there a social construct that restricts women knowingly or unknowingly from being involved in these jobs?
If I think about my friends in India and the Indian society, I can say that yes, there is a social construct that restricts women from these jobs and it is the fact that a man is always thought of as the provider or bread-winner for the family while the woman is the one who nurtures and takes care of everyone at home. She may be able to work, but her work is not her priority. This isn’t necessarily true for all families in India but it is for a good many of them. If I revisit this article in five years, all my friends will be married by then. My intuition is most of them would have stopped working by then or moved into jobs where, if they take time off because of children or they cannot give as much time to work, they will not be at a disadvantage. Another possibility would be that they would continue working without aiming for promotions because their home will be their priority.
My aim was to understand my history and ask the questions that I have with an attempt to voice the questions and concerns that you might have had too, because without addressing the hard questions, we will not get anywhere fast.