Women CompSci Majors Talk Gender, Why They Love Their Field, and Jobs

When a group of female students from Bowdoin traveled this fall to Houston, Texas, for the world’s largest technical conference for women in computing, several returned with a solid offer for a job after graduation.

The women went to Houston ready to impress. All the work they had put into their computer science studies at Bowdoin came in handy during the highly technical interviews they had with recruiters at the conference.

In addition, they also had help from a student group called Bowdoin Women in Computer Science, which organizes an expedition each year to the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Grace Handler ’17 and Madeline Bustamante ’17 founded BWICS in 2014. Not only does the group academically support computer science students at Bowdoin, it also helps prepare them for professional success.

This focus came after Handler and Bustamante ran into trouble tracking down alumnae working in computer science. “Our initial goal was to provide a support network with peers, faculty, and alums,” Handler said. But female comp-sci graduates who had jobs in the technology industry were rare. “Once we saw that even if you do major in computer science you don’t go into the field, we started to focus more on pre-professional support,” she added.

Sending students to Grace Hopper, which is a popular destination for many technology companies, is part of this preparation. “Attending Grace Hopper is a key part of keeping this going,” said Associate Professor of Computer Science Laura Toma, who advises BWICS. “It is a powerful community building experience, in addition to being eye-opening in terms of career choices.”

Toma credits BWICS with greatly increasing the number of women taking computer science classes at Bowdoin. This year the department has forty-nine majors and minors. Fifteen of these are women (or about thirty percent) and thirty-four are men. Six years ago women made up merely ten percent of the department’s majors.

“Through this group, we’ve made progress in understanding all the issues faced by women [studying computer science]: What motivates them to take classes, what discourages them, what makes them disconnect, and what makes them thrive in class,” Toma said.