Wisconsin women in computing build community

UW students at the Grace Hopper conference

While 2014 may present a tough labor market for many workers, the job outlook for computer science graduates remains rosy.  In fact, figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the lion’s share of new STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math) created in the next decade will be those involving computing.

But with women making up just 14 percent of computer science undergraduate degree recipients at major U.S. research universities—according to 2010 figures cited by the National Center for Women & Information Technology—women run the risk of missing out on tremendous career opportunities.  Fortunately, women who choose to study computer sciences at UW-Madison can find both intellectual reward and a supportive community of peers.

Each year since 2008, the Department of Computer Sciences has funded a contingent of graduate and undergraduate students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a major national conference.  Most people simply call the conference “Grace Hopper” in reference to its namesake, the late U.S. Navy rear admiral and computing pioneer whose career spanned private industry, the military and academia. 

Last October, 17 UW-Madison students attended Grace Hopper in Minneapolis.  One of them, Ph.D. student Somayeh Sardashti, won the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) student research competition at the conference for her paper, “Exploiting Spatial Locality for Energy-Optimized Caching.”  Sardashti’s work focuses on understanding sources of energy inefficiencies in computer systems, and proposing new ideas to address these challenges.  (After the conference, Sardashti had the good fortune of finding out that the related patent she had worked on with Professor David Wood was chosen as one of seven finalists out of over 360 disclosures in the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s 2013 innovation awards.)

Ph.D. student Lena Olson, who also specializes in computer architecture, has now attended Grace Hopper four times.  She finds it an inspiring place for women in a heavily male field.  “Our images of computer scientists are usually men.  It’s exciting to see thousands of women who are all computer scientists," she says.  "I enjoy networking and going to talks outside my area."

In addition to attending professional conferences, UW-Madison women in computing also share support and provide guidance to others through WACM, the student chapter of ACM-W (ACM Women in Computing).  The student group runs a mentoring program (chaired by Sardashti), a series of technical talks called “WACM Explains,” social events and opportunities for community outreach, such as introducing local schoolchildren to computer science.

WACM’s mentoring program combats the isolation that some female undergraduates in computer sciences may feel.

"Lots of undergraduate women don’t know other women” in computer sciences, says WACM president Emily Jacobson, a Ph.D. student who specializes in binary analysis and instrumentation.  “We’re trying to build up that community.”

By pairing undergrad CS women with their graduate-student counterparts, WACM provides students with another resource to turn to for academic help, advice about applying to graduate school, and other matters.  There’s an enhanced sense of being part of a supportive student community.

WACM also helps the wider student community through “WACM Explains,” a series founded by Olson, the group’s vice president, based on an idea she picked up at a Grace Hopper conference.  The talks illuminate topics that many students struggle with, such as Linux or the merits of attending graduate school versus taking a job in private industry. 

While “WACM Explains” is open to all students, both male and female, it also provides a chance for students to gain exposure to successful women in the field.  At least half of featured speakers or panelists are women. 

"We want the talks to be interesting, but also for people to be exposed to women who are authoritative about something and who have a lot of experience.  We’re slowly changing everybody’s perspective of what it looks like to be a computer scientist or video game designer,” says Olson.