See all NewsEngineering News

Providing Support, Opportunities Key Initiatives for Women in Computing

Stephanie Diao and Caryl Henry outlined how WiC reaches its goals to bolster the Northwestern community

Stephanie Diao and Caryl Henry discuss the Women in Computing group, which hosts a variety of events such as hack nights and tech talks and provides technical training for members, and also holds outreach events with area high schools.

Stephanie Diao (’21) made it very clear what Women in Computing (WiC) means to her — support.

During an October 28 virtual presentation, part of Northwestern Engineering’s One McCormick lecture series, Diao, now a fourth-year student majoring in computer science and the WiC external president, told how as a first-year student she felt insecure and unsure about her engineering ability — a feeling other women in computer science often experience in a field traditionally dominated by men.

Julio M. Ottino

WiC, with more than 120 members who primarily study computer science, electrical engineering, or computer engineering, helps Diao feel less alone.

“If it hadn’t been for WiC, I might not be doing computer science right now,” Diao said. “I might have quit and done a different major or settled for not achieving my dreams or my goals. WiC has helped me become a more confident, empathetic, and strong person, and I hope other WiC members feel the same way.” 

At the lunchtime event via Zoom, Diao and internal president Caryl Henry (’21) provided an overview of WiC, a Northwestern community for women, non-binary, and trans folk who are passionate about technology. WiC hosts a variety of events such as hack nights and tech talks and provides technical training for members, and also holds outreach events with area high schools. Students can also benefit from mentorship from older members of WiC, providing them with academic and professional guidance. 

Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering, called WiC “one of the points of pride for McCormick.”

When WiC was launched in 2012, propelled by Computer Science Chookaszian Family Teaching Professor Sara Owsley Sood, “the idea was to change the culture of the place, and make this flow out and change the culture of McCormick,” Ottino said. In 2012, Ottino recalled he had the means to support a group in computer science, with the goal to send students to the Grace Hopper Celebration.

But that’s not why WiC has flourished.

“Not because you have money and a focal point, something functions,” Ottino said. “It functions because somehow organically, a group acquires (and) forms leadership and is a continuation of leadership. I’m delighted how Women in Computing has evolved since 2012.”

Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest annual gathering of women in technology and engineering, is indeed a highlight for many WiC members. Held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the five-day event drew 66 WiC members – the biggest contingent Northwestern has sent to the conference.

With Northwestern’s funding assistance, WiC has organized a trip to the annual conference for its members for a “life-changing” experience, Henry said, adding that some attendees found their professional path and received job and internship offers with their dream companies at the event.

“We might be able to put an estimate on the number of interviews our members have been able to get collectively, but I honestly don’t know the number of how many new friendships have been born just because people have gone on this trip,” Henry said. “I have met so many people within CS, not because we had a previous class (together), but simply because we were both able to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration trip through Women in Computing.”

The One McCormick lecture series provides faculty and students with a venue to present their efforts each week in an effort to build community and enhance connectivity amongst the dynamic network at Northwestern Engineering. Initially, the series is focusing on the student experience, including diversity, health and wellness, and student success. 

The program kicked off October 7 with a presentation by Leah Payne (’22), a chemical engineering major and president of the Northwestern chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. The series continued October 14 when computer science major Emily Jenkins (’22) discussed the Northwestern chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. On October 20, the Northwestern chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers was represented by president Luis Zaragoza (’22) and vice president Kevin Mendoza Tudares (’22).

The next event is Wednesday, November 11, and will feature the graduate student faction of Northwestern’s Society of Women Engineers chapter (GradSWE) and the Women in Science and Research (WISER).Registration is required to attend.