Building a Community for Women in Tech

CEWiT Intern Mikaela Gilbert leads a discussion on entrepreneurship.

In the last five years since it was founded, the Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT) has made a name for itself on the Indiana University campus.  With over 6000 affiliates, CEWiT exists “to encourage and promote the participation, empowerment, and achievement of women students, faculty, staff, and alumnae in technology.” CEWiT’s mission statement reads “the nation’s first and only large-scale interdisciplinary, university-based initiative” of its kind. While there are other similar organizations at other institutions, CEWiT is the only large-scale organization that does not focus on a specific department.  CEWiT believes “technology is a catalyst to excellence in every field” and has affiliates in 35 academic programs at Indiana University Bloomington. CEWiT reaches affiliates through a variety of events and workshops designed to help women learn and improve technology related skills.  They do this in a variety of ways including workshops on a variety of topics, internship and research opportunities and even an annual two day conference in the spring.

CEWiT statistics for the 2017-2018 academic year.

CEWiT does all of this because women are an underrepresented minority in technology fields. The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that 26% of professional computing jobs were held by women in 2017.  That number drops drastically for women of color, only 3% of these positions were held by African-American women, 5% for Asian women and only 1% of these roles were held by Hispanic women.  CEWiT’s main focus is to get all women more involved in technology, but Student Alliance Groups such as Black Women in Tech aim to give minority women a community and a voice at the table. CEWiT believes “Women are integral to the impact technology has on the world” and is trying to reverse some of the things that cause this gender disparity in technology.  In an article for Forbes, TechGirlz founder Tracey Welson-Rossman discusses three main systems holding women back in tech, Societal Influences and Bias, Education, and Workplace systems.  “Society’s deep-seeded assumptions about women in tech inform  the expectations of teachers, parents, counselors and peers. This perception can be directly and indirectly conveyed to girls, molding their own levels of interest and expectations,” says Welson-Rossman. This bias results in less computer science education for girls at the K-12 level, which directly effects the number of women in university programs since theses program often emphasize expertise and experience over exploration.  A Wired Magazine article “Women and Minorities in Tech, By the Numbers” uses infographics to show the gender and race disparity in technology and computer science. This article states more women are now earning college degrees than men, but the number of women studying computer science is falling.

Gender gap in Computer Science from Wired Magazine.

Women gaining technology education is only half the battle, once women enter the workplace, they often face the same patterns and biases that exist in education.  “This implicit and unconscious bias informs employee development programs and even workplace policies.” These biases result in blatantly sexist comments, microaggressions, backhanded compliments, lower pay, and sexual harassment or assault.  Forty-two percent of women say they have faced discrimination in the workplace, according to the Pew Research Center.  In an article for The New Yorker, a woman working for Tesla recalls that at one point there were more men named Matt on the team than there were women.  This discrimination happens on a daily basis for some women and it is often never rectified or even reported.  Knowing you will face such hard things on a daily basis can deter women from pursuing their interest in technology.  Increasing the numbers of women in technology is a significant part of the battle, but unless the system is changed women may always be the minority.  CEWiT’s main focus is raising the number of women in technology at the collegiate level, but they recognize that once students graduate they face another battle. The Center hosts Empowerment Lunch and Learns and other workshops to address topics such as Microaggressions and Gender Biases in order to help prepare women for conflicts they might face daily. CEWiT recognizes the problem is more than just a numbers game.  For women to really thrive in technology systematic changes have to occur.

Student discuss their experiences with entrepreneurship.

On the campus-level though, CEWiT is making a difference.  In their 5 years CEWiT has become a well know organization on the IU campus. One student intern, Sara Dobbins, says when she tells people where she works they already know what CEWiT is versus when she used to have to explain. Sara also says CEWiT is “one of the only places on campus where I think women really feel empowered to collaborate and just take a load off and be themselves.”  CEWiT has become a place where students can learn skills and build a community of other women who face the same challenges that they do. Tara Aggarwal has been involved with CEWiT a little over a year but says that CEWiT has become more than a community for her, it is her back bone, something that she has come to rely on.

The Center of Excellence for Women in Technology knows they are fighting a large battle, but that small victories can be found in the community that is built and the skills students learn as a part of their programming.