Back in 1975, UCI alumnus Barbara Kew was one of two female computer science students in her class and, as she has noted, female ICS role models were scarce. By 2017, Kew had been inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame, and the number of female ICS undergraduates had grown to 685. Furthermore, there is now a plethora of available resources and mentors, thanks to UCI’s Women in Information and Computer Sciences (WICS) student organization.
WICS was started at UCI in 2006 to encourage women to pursue degrees and careers in computer science, and although the focus is on supporting women in computing, it’s not an exclusive group. As co-president Katie Yeh explains, “Our club is not just for women.” The fourth-year computer science major, who finished her coursework a quarter early and will soon start work as a software engineer at Intuit, adds that WICS is “very inclusive; everyone is welcome, including members of the LGBTQ community and men.”
Co-president Ericca Go, also a computer science major graduating this spring, agrees, saying that WICS events are a “weekly resource for all students, helping them get to know their peers and prepare for their careers.” Similarly, all students can act as a source of encouragement for women, given that gender equality in the workplace still has a long way to go. In particular, Yeh explains, “the way women are perceived in tech remains a problem.”
Both students have been involved with the organization since starting at UCI four years ago.
Go also joined almost immediately, because she was aware of the gender gap and wanted to find a social and career-focused community in which she felt comfortable. “I’m more confident because of WICS. I believe that it has opened many doors for me, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without it,” she says.
The organization offers technical and professional workshops, including a resume-building workshop that both Yeh and Go attended to get feedback and to learn what companies look for in a candidate. WICS also offers mock technical interviews, company tours and numerous networking opportunities, in addition to tutoring and mentorship programs and a variety of social gatherings — such as last year’s retreat in Lake Arrowhead, attended by close to 50 people.
“Social events have helped us build a community, and they allow our members to form friendships,” says Go. WICS also holds Lean In sessions, which Go says helps members move beyond surface-level questions and open up to each other. Member involvement is “very easy,” says Yeh. “Membership is keeping up with our newsletter and Facebook events. You can be a member even if you can’t attend the weekly meetings.”
In addition to all of these activities, WICS focuses on community outreach programs and conference sponsorships.
Empowering the Next Generation
WICS hosts month-long classes each quarter at local schools. Through Google’s IgniteCS program, WICS has developed an after-school program for high schools, where mentors visit for two hours, twice a week, to teach computing concepts and coding. “We’ve been able to connect with and teach hundreds of young students during the time I’ve been involved with WICS outreach,” says Go, who was herself introduced to computer science through an extracurricular program in high school. She excelled in math and science but wasn’t passionate about those fields, so a teacher recommended a two-week summer workshop focused on computer science, which motivated her to major in computer science.
WICS offers similar classes at middle schools through the Aspire IT program, sponsored by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). Unlike at the high schools, where the focus is on language-based coding, the younger students learn how to use MIT’s Scratch and App Inventor — which incorporates a drag-and-drop block-based language — to create applications on the web and for their phones.
NCWIT also funded a WICS mentorship program for undergraduate UCI students called Explore ICS. The four-month program paired an ICS major student with an undeclared (typically female) student. The program hosted two events per month, each focusing on a different major to introduce the students to the various majors and minors of the School of ICS.
In addition to these community outreach and mentorship programs, WICS raises funds to send members to technical conferences. Last year, through the BRAID (Building Recruiting And Inclusion for Diversity) initiative,WICS provided scholarships to around 30 students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), the largest gathering of women in technology. The funding covered the flight, hotel and registration fee. Both Yeh and Go attended GHC, as well as informatics student Kristen DeVore, who said the experience changed her life by affirming her confidence not only in her design abilities but also her “place in the tech field.” According to Yeh, the GHC scholarships are a “great way to empower women.”
Forces of Change
Yet there’s still much work to be done. Yeh admits that she’s disheartened when she hears people talk about how it must have been easy for her to get an internship because she’s a girl. “It sucks that they think I got the job because I’m female and not because of my knowledge or hard work.”
Go agrees, saying that “it’s definitely a struggle and can cause imposter syndrome, which can get into your head and cause you to underestimate yourself.” Go says she was also told that earning the degree would be extremely difficult and time consuming, but she wants others to know that’s not true. “Don’t be discouraged. It’s not as hard as you might think, and there are a lot of women who are doing amazing in the ICS major and in the tech field. You can do the same.”
Both are encouraged by an increased awareness of the gender gap, along with the growing number of initiatives, scholarships and programs. They were also pleased to see the number of GHC attendees grow from 15,000 in 2016 to 18,000 in 2017. Go is happy that “an increasing amount of people are getting behind this cause to teach the younger generation about opportunities offered within the tech field.”
Furthermore, both have been greatly encouraged by role models here at UCI, such as recent graduate and past WICS president Katie Khuu, who now works as a software development engineer at Expedia. Another inspiring recent graduate is Shirley Zhu, a past WICS VP who is now a software engineer at Microsoft. Yeh and Go say that it helps to see successful women in the tech field. Perhaps all four will someday join Kew in the ICS Hall of Fame.
Go aims to “work on projects she’s passionate about and that help others,” and Yeh will continue “reaching out to other females and giving back to the community.” Both admit that they were “very ambitious” with their goals as WICS co-presidents this year, but their determination to help aspiring female tech professionals is a positive force of change. As Go says to those who might doubt themselves: “Don’t let other people get into your head. There are a lot of resources and women who are willing to help you.”
— Shani Murray