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Female MSCS majors lead charge against gender biases


Written by Megan Hussey and Kailey Favaro









Cory Kieras ’20, a computer science major at St. Olaf College, recalled one of the first times she faced gender discrimination.

She was competing with an all-girls team at one of her first robotics competitions in high school.

“The referee was announcing each of the teams as they came onto the field, and he said, ‘Oh look! It’s the all-girls team. I wonder if they even know what a wrench is,’” Kieras said. They did, in fact, know what a wrench was.

The number of women in the computer science department is increasing; Kieras is one of eight female sophomores, which is double the yearly average. But because women are still in the minority, many often feel they have to fight harder for their voices to be heard.

“There’s so much mansplaining [in the department],” Kieras said. “One time, I asked a guy for clarification on a software, and he responded, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll do it all for you.’”

The Manitou Messenger spoke with five female computer science and math majors about the bias they faced at St. Olaf and about the student-driven campaign #ILookLikeAMSCSMajor working to combat racial and gender stereotypes within the departments.

As a cluster manager, Maria Kloiber ’20 felt she needed to prove herself in her role. Cluster managers are assigned groups of computers – clusters – that STEM departments use for research. Currently, Kloiber is the only female cluster manager.

“Sometimes in meetings, I felt like I didn’t need to be there because no one was talking to me. No one was even making eye contact with me,” Kloiber said.

Kloiber acknowledged her own “imposter syndrome” – a false sense of “not being good enough” despite sufficient qualifications. Even though she was a cluster manager for a semester, she never felt comfortable stepping up and taking on her own project because she was the only female in the group.

“I feel like I haven’t been able to prove myself yet … I don’t want to be seen as a lesser member of the team. I want to be seen as an equal and as someone they can respect and trust,” she said.

Computer science major Danica Meier ’20 has also noticed that a lack of respect for women is common in tech.

“I think the tech industry is just known for being extremely unfriendly towards women. It’s very hard to be respected and get ahead,” Meier said.

Kieras asked one of her computer science professors about the gender biases.

“I asked … why he thought more women weren’t in CS, and he responded, ‘When things get technical, women don’t tend to be as interested,’” Kieras said. “I couldn’t believe he said that to my face.”

“I think the tech industry is just known for being extremely unfriendly towards women. It’s very hard to be respected and get ahead.” – Danica Meier ’20

When faced with these biases, Meier said the best thing to do is stick together.

Many of these women find support in the Linux Ladies, a student group that aims to promote gender and racial diversity in tech. Recently, they launched the #ILookLikeAMSCSMajor campaign in an effort to address these issues.

Women and people of color within the math and computer science departments gathered in Regents Hall of Mathematical Sciences on Thursday, March 1 to celebrate the #ILookLikeAMSCSMajor campaign. Attendees were photographed holding whiteboards that read “I look like a computer scientist,” or “This is what a mathematician looks like.”

The event, co-hosted by Kieras, Kloiber, Justin Pacholec ’18 and Omar Shehata ’18, was Kieras’s idea. She was inspired by the national #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign from August 2015 as a direct response to stereotypes of women in various tech industries.

Photographs from the event are hung on a bulletin board in the tunnel connecting Regents Hall of Natural Sciences to Tomson Hall.

“It’s important for people to see others who look like them succeed at something,” Kieras said.

One of the goals of the campaign is to show that not everyone fits the typical computer science and mathematics stereotype.

“The stereotype that it’s just a bunch of antisocial, computer, white male tech kids playing video games all day is not true,” said Elaina Brownlee ’20, a math and computer science double major.

When Brownlee tells people about her major, their responses are “complete shock and confusion,” which she assumes is due to old-fashioned ideas about women in tech.

As a teaching assistant for a software design course, Brownlee noticed that students more frequently asked her male colleague for help. When she offered to help them, they refused.

“[The students] would say, ‘No, I’m fine. I’m just gonna wait to talk to him,’” Brownlee said. “You’d think that just being a TA, grading their homework, grading their labs would give me some sort of authority but I had to earn it and go above and beyond to earn it.”

After solving a problem with a student’s code, Brownlee felt she finally earned that authority.

“From that moment forward, [that] student’s attitude towards me totally changed. All of a sudden, he was interested in the projects I had done when I was in the class and he asked me other questions on the code I was working on … It was as if I needed to prove that I was capable of helping him,” she said.

Brownlee hopes the campaign will only be the start of what is sure to be a long conversation about diversity in the department.

Computer science professor Olaf Hall-Holt also has high hopes for the future of the department.

“This is a time of potential change for the program,” he said. According to Hall-Holt, St. Olaf’s first female computer science professor, Elizabeth Jensen, will join the faculty in the fall of 2018.

Computer science major Bridget Koehler ’19 views her experience in the minority as a learning experience.

“It’s still not fun at times,” she said. “But I think I’ve also learned to be more confident in myself and learned to speak up and not back down just because I’m a woman. I’ve definitely grown in that way and it’s been a challenge, but I try to see it as more of a positive thing.”

Both Brownlee and Kieras have secured internships at Microsoft Headquarters in Seattle this summer. Kloiber is uncertain about her summer plans, but has high hopes for the future.

“I want to make sure that the women that come into the department later don’t have to deal with these issues,” Kloiber said.“It should be a given that people feel safe in the department.”

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