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Princeton Women Make Computer Science a Home for All

In the spring of 2010, students and faculty of Princeton’s Computer Science Department received an email invitation that was hard to turn down: a Friday evening “study break” in the computer science building that featured goodies from The Bent Spoon, a popular Palmer Square ice creamery and bakery.

Kay Ousterhout'11

The email’s authors, Kay Ousterhout and Jen King, both members of the Class of 2011, were on a mission to lure more women into the male-dominated study of computer science. “Given the remarkably low number of women in the computer science department,” they said in the email, “many of us have decided that it is long past time we create a group to support and promote women who are interested in computer science.” The invitation cited a November 2008 New York Times article titled “What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?”

Ousterhout, who went on to doctoral studies in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, recalled, “In our graduating class, there were only six women out of about 40 computer science majors. … We hoped that making women more visible in the department would help encourage more freshman and sophomore students to take the intro CS course and eventually major in computer science.”

The initial email drew a strong student response, and the new group, the Princeton Women in Computer Science (PWiCS), was off and running. “We never had any trouble getting students involved, especially because we used food as bribery,” Ousterhout said. At one early event, called Cupcakes and Course Advising, upperclass students offered advice about classes to take.

“We heard the same story from many of the students,” she said, “That they were enjoying the introductory course but didn't know what classes to take next and whether the fact that they hadn't been coding since middle or high school set them too far back compared to some of their more vocal and confident [and male] classmates.”

Since then, PWiCS has developed a multifaceted approach to its main goal of providing support and encouragement to women in computer science. In addition to providing advice and mentoring, the group hosts events such as course enrollment study breaks, dinners with professors, lunches with companies and much more.  Another important aspect has been its outreach program to Princeton-area communities, schools and Girl Scout troops.  These events are meant to get young women at the middle school and high school levels interested in computer science. 

PWICS students at Grace Hopper 2014

PWICS students at Grace Hopper 2014

Each year the CS department and School of Eingineering send a handful of stundents to the Grace Hopper Conference.  The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is the world's largest gathering of women technologists and is designed to present the research and career interests of women in computer science. It includes presentations of current work by female computer scientists (both in industry and academia), networking opportunities, interviewing opportunities, and countless presentations by leading women in their areas of computer science.

In the past few years, PWiCS also has received funding from the Computer Science and Engineering departments to send students to the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing — an opportunity to meet other women in tech and also to find internships and jobs.

Elisse Hill ’15, who served as president of PWiCS in 2014, started attending PWiCS events as a freshman, after beginning her Princeton academic career as a chemical engineering major. She credits the organization for her decision to shift into computer science.  

“A personal experience that framed my interest in joining PWiCS was attending my first event, which was a frozen yogurt study break,” Hill recalled. “All of the women were incredibly welcoming and easy to talk to about classes, majors, and school in general. The experience was so positive that it really sparked my interest in computer science as a possible major.”

Pallavi Koppol ’16, who succeeded Hill as elected president in 2015, joined PWiCS as a board member at the end of her freshman year and formerly served as chair of the group’s outreach efforts.  “I wish I had been able to attend computer science workshops as a middle schooler or high schooler,” Koppol said. “Having been exposed to computer science earlier in my life might have influenced me to make different decisions, or to realize what my true passions were earlier. I really wanted to have

Pallavi Koppol

Pallavi Koppol'16

 the ability to provide that opportunity for current middle school and high school girls, so the position really appealed to me. I loved the work, as outreach chair.” 

Professor Andrea LaPaugh, one of the early faculty backers of PWiCS, had firsthand experience with gender disparity while earning her doctorate from MIT in the late 70s. “I was one of the first woman doctorates from MIT in computer science,” she recalled. “I was in the theoretical CS group, and was lucky enough to have one or two other women in the group at all times over the six years I was a grad student.  All the woman in CS would get together for support, just as PWiCS provides now, but the numbers were small and we were battling a climate that approached icy at times.”

“PWiCS has made a big difference, not only supporting woman as a minority but in encouraging woman to participate in all kinds of programs like hackathons, high school outreach and internships,” said Professor LaPaugh, who joined Princeton in 1981 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “I think PWiCS has enriched the whole CS student body, not just the women, with their information and activities.  The group provides a much more active, celebratory support than what I experienced as a graduate student, which was more focused on survival.”

Indeed, these days PWiCS is helping more and more women celebrate computer science.  In September 2007, the CS department enrolled 62 concentrators, of which 8 were women  (13%). Three years later, the department enrolled 132 concentrators, including 28 women  (21%). And in September 2014, the department had 87 women among 313 concentrators (28%).  There is still a long way to go before the department reaches parity, but with a strong support system and critical mass achieved, computer science at Princeton is a more welcoming place for all. 

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