CEDAR FALLS | Sarah Diesburg, a computer science assistant professor at University of Northern Iowa, knows firsthand the experiences that are currently shaping the lives and futures of her female students.
She has been the lone young woman in a class, where a few male colleagues would give her creepy stares. She has seen the surprise in someone’s eyes when she explains that, in fact, she is the computer programmer they’d been waiting for.
“It’s just sort of these unconscious biases that make us feel a little bit like, maybe, we’re not a natural fit here, that we’re always combating,” Diesburg said.
To combat those biases, Diesburg recruited the few young women who are currently computer science majors to form a new student group on campus: Women in Computing.
Diesburg took a handful of computer science students to the Grace Hopper Celebration, a technical conference for women in computing, last spring, and then planted the seeds for a campus club.
The Women in Computing club began last fall with the mission of recruiting young women into the field; retaining women already studying computer science; and developing professional skills.
She said nationally about 18 percent of computer science graduates are women. That number is about 9 percent at UNI, where the computer science department is a relatively small one on campus. That amounts to about 19 women in a program of about 200 people.
Michaela Leinen, a UNI senior studying computer science and Women in Computing club president, said she was actually happy to see that she would be one of the few women in her computer science courses when she first came to UNI.
“I think in Intro to Computing is really where it starts nesting, because you make friends with these guys because they help you and you help them, and it just continues,” Leinen said.
But she said after attending the Grace Hopper Celebration in Phoenix last year, she began to understand the importance of having female friends who have the same interests and a safe space to share her frustrations and triumphs.
After all, the women in Leinen's class can relate to her “only discouraging moment” during her computer science studies, where she partnered with a male classmate who took over the programming duties and didn’t let her contribute.
“That does happen more often than you think,” said classmate Stephanie Smith, a junior studying networking and systems administration and vice president of the Women in Computing club. “Whenever you work with a guy, it’s like he automatically takes over. It’s like, ‘Well, when do I get my chance?’”
Elizabeth Myers, a computer science sophomore, has noticed the same trend but she said she has also found classmates who are adapting. She said she partnered with a male classmate who dominated their work sessions, until she explained how his assertiveness pushed her away. After that, Myers said the pair worked well together.
Danielle Heim, a networking and systems administration junior, also stressed that there are plenty of male classmates who have no problem working with their female colleagues.
Still, Heim has found the club to be useful for another reason.
She said her first year as a computer science major -- where a class of 22 fell to a class of about seven by the end of the year -- was tough and almost led her to switch majors.
“I was like, ‘All right, one more semester. You don’t have to do Ada (programming language) anymore, so we’ll see what happens,’” Heim recalled. “Then, fall started and I actually had Diesburg for networking and I had so much fun, like, I learned a new language.”
The kicker, though, she said, “Diesburg really pushed me to get into Women in Computing, and then also I had circuits with Michaela and Stephanie, and so I met them.”
While the group is open to male allies, the women say they still run into classmates who wonder why they get “all these extra things.” Smith pushes back, saying it’s about equal opportunities.
“It’s not necessarily about pushing us above everybody else and saying we’re better. It’s just saying, ‘Hey, you can do this if you want to. It is possible for you to become a computer scientist. It’s possible for you to program. It’s possible for you to do all these things that we as young women don’t necessarily know we can do or are never told that we can do that.’
“It’s just really great. I love it. I’m glad to be a part of it. I think it’s awesome,” Smith concluded.