The power of networking stems the flow from the leaky pipe

York computer science Professor Eshrat Arjomandi can remember a time when she was one of only a handful of women studying computer science at university. It was a lonely road, filled with challenging and gruelling course work, hours of study and the isolation that comes from being a female in a male-dominated profession. It was with this experience in mind that Arjomandi, together with colleagues in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, formed a small ad-hoc group in 2004 with a mission to support and mentor a growing number of young women choosing to study computer science and engineering at York.

Above: Some of the members of York’s Women in Computer Science & Engineering group. Pictured from left are: Professor Natalija Vlajic, students Mary Kuruvilla and Neha Durwas, Professor Melanie Baljko holding her daughter Erma (the group’s youngest member), student Anna Topol, WiCSE coordinator Eshrat Arjomandi and PhD candidate Foroohar Foroozan.

Known as Women in Computer Science & Engineering at York University (WiCSE), the group falls somewhere between a student club and an association. WiCSE is unique, said Arjomandi, in that it brings female faculty members and students together for informal networking, professional development and important personal support.

The activities of WiCSE are funded by a $40,000 donation to York University two years ago from Canadian journalist Catherine M. Cragg. A long-time supporter of women in engineering and computer science, Cragg, who died on Sept. 14, 2006, recognized the importance of advancing women in computer science and engineering through mentorship activities. The funds allowed WiCSE to build a presence in the Faculty of Science & Engineering and undertake official professional development activities.

Cragg, said Arjomandi, "had a unique vision recognizing the contributions that women can make in computer science and engineering. We have been using the funds to support our activities and fund social events. We also send students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing,  which is a series of conferences in the United States designed to bring the research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront."

Faculty members involved in WiCSE include Arjomandi, who is the group’s coordinator, and York computer science Professors Aijun An, Mariana Kant-Antonescu, Melanie Baljko, Uyen Trang Nguyen and Natalija Vlajic. The group also consists of a number of students including Neha Durwas, Mary Kuruvilla, Anna Topol, Foroohar Foroozan and Stephanie Wilson. "All undergrad and grad students are invited to our events," said Arjomandi.

For Professor Melanie Baljko, WiCSE provides an essential support service to female students in computer science and engineering. Baljko, who has a long-standing interest in the challenges women face in computer science and engineering, has investigated a phenomenon referred to as the leaky pipe syndrome. "I have a longstanding interest in how to encourage women to start careers in computer science and engineering. I have been part of several initiatives at other universities and here at York to find out why the attrition rate is higher among women in computer science and engineering," said Baljko.

"I am particularly interested in why women come into computer science and engineering in smaller numbers and why the drop-out rate is higher," said Baljko. "There are also fewer women in higher management positions in the industry and even fewer in academia. Sociologists have studied this phenomenon called the ‘leaky pipe syndrome’."

Baljko said that research has shown that practical solutions are essential in retaining young women in the profession, and groups such as WiCSE offer an important lifeline for female students who are often coping with multiple demands for their time and who have few role models to emulate. "In our group we have seen that practical solutions work and what is most effective is the social networking that groups such as WiCSE offer to young women entering the profession."

A large number of young women enrolled in computer science and engineering programs in Canada and the United States either do not finish their studies or end up leaving the profession, slipping away in silence, explained Baljko.

"There is a disproportionate loss due to women switching to other fields of study," said Baljko. "We [faculty] in computer science and engineering are striving to provide greater social context for the material in the computer science curriculum, so, even early on in undergraduate studies, we can show our field’s usefulness to society."

A similar sentiment is conveyed by York computer science and engineering Professor Natalija Vlajic about the importance of networking with her peers and students. "There are only six women faculty members in York’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering," said Vlajic. "And our undergraduates in residence feel particularly outnumbered and overwhelmed by their male counterparts. I think that through WiCSE it is important to be a role model for these young women."

Gender-specific hurdles permeate the industry and academia; one prominent example took place in January 2005, in comments reportedly made by Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard University. Summers, speaking to a conference on women and science, maintained that women were reluctant to commit to an 80-hour work week; women had less aptitude for science and math than men; and socialization and continued discrimination perpetuate the first two scenarios. Eventually, Summers stepped down amid continuing controversy.

Overcoming such bias is just one facet of WiCSE’s role at York University. The other key activity centres on mentorship and providing role models for young women studying computer science and engineering, which is important to their success, said Arjomandi. With that in mind, WiCSE decided to use some of the financial support they received from Catherine Cragg to send students to the Grace Hopper Conference for women in computing and engineering.

"In addition to our events, the Grace Hopper Conference offers a wonderful professional networking opportunity, says Arjomandi. "Over the past two years, we have sent a total of five students to the conference and the results have been wonderful."

The latest Hopper Conference, named after Grace Hopper (left)  – a female pioneer in the fields of computer science and engineering –was held this past October at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. WiCSE received additional support from Faculty of Science & Engineering Dean Nick Cercone, which provided an opportunity for master’s students Neha Durwas and Anna Topol to attend the conference. Durwas described the conference as, "a bit surreal because we were right in Disney World. The conference was wonderful because I could see and meet women in my profession.

"There were 1,400 women attending the conference and they included professional engineers, academics, and graduate and undergraduate students," said Durwas. "There were also representatives from major technology corporations including Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, Symantec, and they were very aggressive in trying to pick out good talent for their company." So much so, that Durwas has since landed employment resulting from her experience at the Grace Hopper Conference.

Topol said the conference offered a unique blend of social and professional learning opportunities. "In addition to the professional development, there were sessions on how to balance family, children and a career in computer science and engineering," said Topol. "There was the technical aspect too which included high-end computing, signal processing and other areas."

For Topol, hearing the success stories of women in the profession offered tremendous inspiration. "I enjoyed the outstanding women on the panels. I was very inspired by Paula Goldman, founder of the Imagining Ourselves project. She has used arts and culture in an advocacy role to bridge the gap for women in technical professions and who are isolated due to their circumstances. 

"Her talk was very inspirational for me and I sent my resume to her because I am hoping to volunteer on the project next year," said Topol.

For both young women, the opportunity provided by WiCSE to attend the Hopper Conference has opened doors they never thought imaginable. It has also cemented their resolve to mentor and support other young women entering the profession.

"It will seem that there is never enough time to get everything done," said Durwas. "I tell others that it is important never to give up and don’t quit because the end result is worth it."

Both Durwas and Topol are vocal in their encouragement to other young women. "They are not alone because we have all gone through it and it is important to talk with other women and hear their stories," said Durwas.

Mission accomplished.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, editor, YFile.