The Reality of Being a Woman at a Top CS School

Written by Reva Jethwani

Though the technology industry is one of the world’s leaders in modern society, it is critically underrepresented. Women were some of the first pioneers and trailblazers of computer science, but over time, the notion that computers are solely meant for men became the primary narrative. This idea extends to academia as well. According to US News, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is ranked #5 for Computer Science; the school is considered prestigious for the field of study and brings in hundreds of students. What is the experience like for women studying here? Is this narrative prevalent in the everyday classroom? Five Women in Computer Science (WCS) officers share their experience…

Classroom Culture: what influences it?

When asked about the general ratio of men to women in computer science, the responses were as follows: “5 girls to about 30–40 guys”, 65:35, 2:1, 70:30, and “mostly guys”. The officers are able to reflect on a more male-dominated ratio — the majority find it to be jarring, while some don’t find it immediately distinguishable. Meghan Lu, a CS + Statistics major and WCS Social Co-Chair, notes this ratio makes her scared she’ll be listened to less in discussion sessions, making her have to put her guard up, and “setting apart the bro culture of CS.”

But what is the “Bro Culture” of CS? Essentially, there appear to be more casual relationships amongst male students in computer science classes, allowing more networking. Lu asserts that even though these relaxed interactions are seemingly friendly, they allow for more connections and this level of casualness is not the experience for their female counterparts, saying “women feel like they have something to prove so they can’t be as bro-y.”

All interviewees discern that the male-dominated ratio does not affect the atmosphere of the classroom in lectures, saying they are “too large for a single person to affect the atmosphere.” In discussion sections, however, there is a considerable difference in everyday interaction. Rayna Wuh, a CS + Philosophy major, spent a large majority of her class time online due to COVID-19. As she started this semester in person, she felt the effects of the male-dominated major: “I think one of the reasons why I was actually able to be comfortable in CS was the online aspect. The beginning of this semester was overwhelming for me because there are certain events where it’s like ‘oh my gosh, there are so many men.’” Upon further reflecting on her in-person experiences at the university, and even her CS Honors course, she realizes she was “being interrupted or talked over in a way that [she] hadn’t previously experienced because of the [online] format of the classes, so that was a little bit of a jarring experience.”

Implicit Bias

Though the culture of the classroom is significant, what truly matters is how it impacts students’ learning. Almost every officer recognizes that they have not experienced sexism in discussions overtly, but each one remarks they feel some form of imposter syndrome or internal insecurity. One officer realizes, “sometimes you walk into the Siebel Building, and think, oh, people probably don’t think I’m a CS major.” She had such internal dialogue specifically when she was wearing makeup and a cute outfit, indicating “it just doesn’t fit into the stereotype.” The participants oftentimes have thoughts of “maybe I don’t belong here,” and there is always a feeling of needing to prove themselves in order to feel a sense of belonging. While this issue might seem to be an individual experience, it is a common theme amongst all interviewees. Noopur Shanbhogue, a CS + Philosophy major and Co-President of WCS, says “I feel like it’s a lot of implicit things — the people you’re seeing, what everybody else looks like, what kind of preconceptions you have, and what level everybody came in, because I feel like lots of guys got into coding at a younger age.” Male students, for the most part, have less of a barrier of gender compared to their counterparts. While these experiences do not explicitly affect students’ learning, they do impact their sense of confidence and belonging in the classroom, which can subtly detriment one’s academic performance. When a student believes, “I can’t achieve this,” or “I don’t belong here,” it is significantly more difficult to navigate daily tasks.

One notable observation is the connection between prior experience and confidence in the classroom. Anushree Berlia, CS major and WCS Treasurer, states she is not affected by male-dominated discussion sections and lectures. Growing up in India, she began learning CS in 7th grade and was “obsessed with it.” However, she remembers “A lot of the time I would be the only girl in my class. In a room full of 40 boys, there would be just me. I’ve faced this experience a lot of times.” Berlia is the only interviewee who came to U of I with extensive CS knowledge and experience being the only girl in the classroom, marking a connection between experience and confidence.

On the other hand, Rayna Wuh came to UIUC as a Political Science major and later transferred to CS + Philosophy. As someone who came into the university with no prior knowledge or interest in the field, Wuh says the support and mentorship she received during her freshman year was the reason she stuck with CS. Otherwise, she notes, “if that were the environment that I had originally been accepted into, I think it would’ve affected my sense of belonging and thinking this is something I could actually do — if I felt some of the ways I felt this semester my freshman year, I don’t think I could’ve transferred to CS.”

While the sample size for this interview is small, the connection between experience and confidence/sense of belonging is distinguishable and an interaction to further explore.

The Influence of the Professor

When examining the culture of the classroom regarding gender, it is necessary to analyze the influence of the professor. Every officer says they have only had one to three female CS professors throughout their entire college experience, and one even identifies she hasn’t had a single female TA. The majority of students feel the gender of the professor makes little to no impact on their learning experience; it is typically the students. However, upon reflection, some began to notice subtle influences in discussion sections, saying male professors “have more leeway to be funnier or more fun in the classroom,” and “I feel like just being a woman you have to seem more professional and people will cut you less slack if you get something wrong.” Another officer observes, “one of my TAs is not a man and she’s so good at explaining things, just to see somebody so good at explaining these things and is not a man or particularly a white man, is pretty comforting and cool to see, and it makes the learning environment better too.” So, having a female professor or TA makes some more comfortable, but each participant believes the professor usually plays a small part in the classroom atmosphere.

How to Support Your own Learning

To offset things like imposter syndrome, our officers recommend several coping mechanisms that have helped them navigate CS at UofI! All resonate with “feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing”, especially when everyone around you does. Rachel Huang, CS major and WCS Co-President, says she signs up at the same times are her friends so she doesn’t feel like the only girl in the classroom. “Remind yourself that you’re not alone, and no matter where you started, you can learn it!” exclaims Shanbhogue. Having upperclassmen and other role models you can look up to is incredibly valuable, and can help increase your sense of belonging. And one of the best things you can do to support your learning is to ask questions, “even if you feel like it’ll make you look stupid!”

Why We Should Increase Representation in the Technology Industry

Though battles such as implicit bias and imposter syndrome appear to be experienced on an individual level, they stem from a more complex root issue. When women, like our WCS officers, feel as if they don’t belong in a space, it oftentimes comes from a lack of representation. All but one have had zero formal learning surrounding underrepresentation in the technology industry. Most officers learned through social media or word of mouth, and nearly everyone says they inferred it by seeing so many organizations highlighting women in STEM, just like WCS: “Honestly, I feel like there are WCS organizations and I was in one of those in my high school and just the fact that they needed to have WCS club, that kinda clued me in and I was like ‘oh, maybe I’ll be the minority here.’”

When asked if they thought representation was necessary within the industry, each participant emphatically agreed. Most have had little experience with computer science coming into the university, and this experience was not taught to them growing up. Girls are infrequently encouraged to enter into stem fields or garner any sort of interest in computer science specifically; this has changed in recent years, but historically, implicit bias stemming from women’s role in the technology industry restricts their participation. Increasing exposure and encouraging young women, even from elementary school, can limit the barrier to entry as they grow older. While all might not have an interest, it makes the opportunity available and would hopefully decrease how intimidating this major appears to women applying to college. One officer observes, “I never had that like, ‘oh my gosh, I love video games and I love my computer.’” For some of our participants, the interest came from a space occupied by non-male individuals and teaching that surpassed the stereotype of being a “hacker in a basement,” and reflecting, “it was so cool. I didn’t know technology could be used like this.”x Increasing accessibility to this kind of teaching could heavily combat gender underrepresentation.

WCS committee members at a committee-wide social last fall!

How WCS has Helped our Officers!

On a more positive note…

WCS has been a huge encouragement for everyone! The sense of community, acceptance, and support is overwhelming, and all feel a safe space within the organization. An officer says WCS has been “definitely been a place where I see very strong women and I’m like, ‘oh if they can do that, I can do that!’” It’s given so many a sense of mentorship, and when they feel like they aren’t good enough, “WCS has an answer for it.”

The WCS community is incredibly inviting — even if you’re not in computer science or don’t identify as a woman, we strongly encourage you to join! Having a place where you feel safe and heard is one of the greatest ways to support your own learning.



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The official Medium account for Women in Computer Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign