Challenges with WiCS

Here, we highlight some challenges we’ve encountered to the need for and helpfulness of programs like WiCS. We present our viewpoint on these challenges, and we discuss why we believe Women in CS groups are necessary despite these challenges.

As a disclaimer, we do acknowledge that any of the points below can be serious concerns when deciding to actively promote women in tech. However, we hope this discussion shows why one might question these concerns.


Challenges List

Creating programs for women creates an image of weakness and need, which can lead people to believe that women are outsiders to the field, and may lead women to feel a sense of otherness themselves.

The reality is that this problem is unfortunately significant, and has in fact been getting worse. Doing nothing is unacceptable in the face of such an alarming situation. And the only way to eradicate systemic issues such as implicit bias is to explicitly call attention to them via gender-based advocacy. In addition, we believe that such groups can actually help improve the perception of women in technology. Far from creating an image of women as needing extra support, these groups can hold technical events, encouraging more people to believe that women can indeed lead and take on technical work. Furthermore, these groups can encourage a sense of community rather than otherness for females in technology, increasing their innate sense of competency.

Advocating for the gender in tech issue takes women’s time. In the workplace, these are women that often could be spending this time advancing their technical careers, but instead take time off to attend gender in technology conferences, interview female candidates, and act as mentors for female interns. At college, these are women that could be spending their time on other technical endeavors.

First of all, we are not advocating for all women to be forced to take time to tackle the issue of gender in tech. We think it’s possible to start solving this problem without forcing people to be involved - we think it’s important that women in tech not feel obligated to put more time into these efforts than they can afford. As long as everyone is informed thoroughly of the problem, it is up to them to decide if they would choose to take their time to fix the issue.

We don’t think this is a problem for women alone to tackle! People of all genders can take steps to ameliorate the gender gap in tech, and we need to create expectations for everyone to work on this issue - not just women in tech. In some cases, such as mentorship positions, it’s likely that the role will be best filled by a female role model in tech. However, there are ways for other genders to help. For instance, for tasks such as organizing women’s conferences, help from any gender would be useful. We should enumerate the ways in which all genders can help with this cause, and we should encourage companies and universities to spread these tasks amongst all willing employees or students as evenly as possible.

Again, we think it’s important to keep in mind that the gender gap in technology is a serious issue, one we think matters. To solve this problem, it may be the case that individuals in this generation will need to take some time to change the status quo. But with effort, as we get closer to solving the problem and more women join technical fields, this time investment will start to fall away.

If we create groups to support women in technology, women will spend their time with those groups and not join more gender-neutral technical groups and activities.

We think the formation of WiCS may have actually led to an increase in the number of women in other technical organizations! It is likely that WiCS has overall helped increase the number of women in CS majors at the college, and even if those women are less likely to be a part of other tech organizations, the overall number may have actually increased. So if the end goal is to improve women’s ability to access technical opportunities, we don’t think that forming WiCS was undesirable.

Some might fear that women may be seen as less technical as they join WiCS over other technical organizations. This problem is easy to fix by modifying the sort of events that WiCS holds. By holding technical events, WiCS can become a setting for women to excel in technical projects; by educating others on what these clubs do, we can alleviate any assumptions that women in WiCS are somehow less technically competent than women in other technical organizations.

Furthermore, we can encourage collaboration between various student organizations, allowing students to attend events and activities organized by both WiCS and other student groups. This way, if there is a program (like a technical project series) organized by another student group, members of both organizations can be involved. To facilitate such collaborations, it may be useful to assign point people on WiCS and on other student organizations to communicate about events being planned, to decide what collaborations would be productive, and to divide work between the student groups.

Finally, we can make membership for student organizations like WiCS and other technical organizations have low barriers of entry, so that someone who is a member of WiCS may be able to participate in other organizations’ events or activities at least in part, without placing too much strain on their time.

Gender diversity in tech is really not a big issue in the grand scheme of things; why worry about it at all?

For this question, we refer you to the majority of the rest of this document - the Why We Care and Current Stats section in particular should be striking. Tech plays some role in solving many of the world’s foremost problems, and helping more women enter tech will accelerate the process of finding solutions for these problems as well.

Creating groups like Women in CS provides women with opportunities that those who do not identify as female may not have. Many actions taken by such groups seem to benefit the minority unfairly. Why is this ok?

Firstly, while we do believe that in some cases, female-only events are useful, this is absolutely not always the case. We think that there are some programs where exclusively catering events to women is appropriate, and others where including all genders is necessary and beneficial. We think having a mix of explicitly gender-inclusive events and events catered to women is useful for balancing some competing factors: creating opportunities for women while avoiding excluding other genders from opportunities, or creating environments for female voices to be heard while allowing other genders to provide crucial opinions and learn from the conversation.

There are various reasons why women-only events are valuable. Groups like Women in CS seek to help women find equal opportunity and encouragement to join tech. To achieve this goal, it is sometimes beneficial to have events and opportunities for women. Firstly, these activities correct for the lack of opportunities for women and for the systematic bias that women fight through their journeys in tech. Moreover, such programs might create especially welcoming environments, where women feel comfortable expressing their opinions on potentially sensitive issues related to gender. These programs may also encourage increased participation in technical discussions and environments. Furthermore, these programs may provide women with female mentors and role models, which can help them envision themselves in technical roles in the future, and give them access to mentorship and advice when navigating being a minority in technology.

To see examples where all-female events might be useful, consider these cases. A mentorship program between upperclassmen and underclassmen at a college campus may benefit from being restricted to female mentors, for the sake of providing access and visibility to female role models in technology. It might be valuable to cater a lunch with a tech company representative to women, because women may be more likely to ask questions and seek opportunities in this setting. Furthermore, it may be useful to ensure that community dinners or some other socializing event is primarily female, to serve the goal of the organization to foster community ties between women.

When should other genders be involved? When can involving allies be beneficial?

In various settings, including all genders is crucial. We’ll run through some particular examples and reasoning here, but in summary, allies should be included whenever possible! It’s wonderful to have more people on board with correcting issues of gender in tech.

First, we think including all genders in conversations about the gender gap in tech can be useful. In fact, we would go so far as to specifically encourage other genders to attend these conversations in some cases. Having everyone participate in these conversations encourages more people to participate in fixing the problem, and helps gather varied opinions. Of course, by having some discussions on the challenges of women in tech catered to female participants, we can create parallel settings where women are comfortable expressing honest opinions on the topic.

Second, including other genders in technical programs or mentorship programs may help change the perception that women in technology are in any way less competent. For instance, by pairing a student with a female mentor, the student may build further examples of successful women in tech. While this reasoning is valid, we do not think it should substantially change the number of other genders included in these programs, as there are other avenues (such as publicly featuring female role models) to gain this benefit.

Third, we may want to include other genders for opportunities that would not exist for them otherwise. However, in some cases, as discussed in a previous answer, women-only programs might be beneficial. In these cases, whenever it is possible to direct individuals to similar available opportunities outside of Women in CS, we would suggest doing so and providing any necessary direction or resources. When this is not possible, it may be useful to encourage individuals to create these opportunities for the broader community.

In general, events hosted by groups like WiCS can be intimidating for allies to participate in. It’s always good to include messages like “All genders are welcome” on publicity, and to publicize in alternate venues when advertising an opportunity for all genders.

Women just don’t want to be involved in tech; the reason we don’t have more women in CS is because they don’t want to be here! Alternatively, women are just not suited for STEM. Why are we forcing them to do this?

First, we do not believe that women don’t want to do STEM or are in any way unsuited for STEM. Programmers were initially female in the days of Grace Hopper, and women have always participated in making technical discoveries, sometimes without credit. Furthermore, when universities put into place programs to combat some of the factors keeping women out of the field, their numbers skyrocket (at CMU, for instance). Absent conclusive scientific evidence of innate difference, we believe that equal aptitude should be assumed.

Finally, even if you don’t believe this, remember, the goal isn’t necessarily 50-50 representation- the goal is equal opportunity for those who want to be in this sector. Currently, this is far from being achieved.

Opportunities for advancement in tech are readily available. Women in tech just need to try harder to make use of these opportunities, and do not need any extra programs.

It may be that these opportunities are theoretically available to women. Unfortunately, in practice a variety of factors contribute to the systemic discouragement of women in such fields. Please see the report page on Potential Problems for an extensive list of such issues. While there are some women who “make it” through incredibly hard work, that by itself does not indicate that there are no systemic factors that make it more difficult for women to succeed in technical fields.

Aren’t WiCS groups exclusive of other minorities? Why is it ok to focus on women?

We agree that there are many other underrepresented minorities in the technology sector, which similarly deserve attention. Indeed, the Harvard WiCS group partners with minority groups such as the LGBTQ community for events. In the end, we feel that this issue of gender is worth our attention because of its widespread nature. Women, after all, represent slightly more than half of humanity. In addition, we believe that increased awareness of issues such as implicit bias extend to many other minority groups, such as those based on race.

I’ve experienced various challenges with gathering student participation, funding, and faculty support for Women in CS on campus. How can I move forward?

Any of these issues can be difficult problems to overcome. Please see the Building WiCS section for suggestions with regards to such issues.

What can we do that’s effective? I’m lost on where to start.

Please see the Interventions section!