All the Past We Leave Behind: W&M Women in Computer Science

From October 4-6, about 18,000 women packed into 2.1 million square feet of the glass and steel monstrosity of the Orange County Convention Center on the outskirts of Orlando, Fla. Six of those young women traveled to the Florida Panhandle from William & Mary eager to network, job hunt and socialize with women in the computer science and big data fields. They were able to do so, thanks in large part to private support.

Providing additional opportunities and propelling more women to enter the field of computer science is part of the mission of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. The conference has achieved its mission in regards to the department located on the ground floors of William & Mary’s McGlothlin-Street Hall. When the computer science department first considered sending students to the conference in 2010, the department graduated only 12 majors. Only one of them was female. Today, young women comprise 30 percent of the computer science department, which exceeds the national average that hovers around 16 percent, reports Professor Michael Lewis, chair of the department.

Professor Lewis, whose bright tropical sunrise of a Hawaiian shirt combatted spitting rain on a Thursday afternoon, tells the story of Grace Hopper, a pioneer in the field and the only computer scientist whose name the United States Navy has slapped on the stern of a guided-missile destroyer (USS Hopper (DDG-70)).

Born in 1906, she had a vision for technological innovation and accessibility that propelled her to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in 1934. In 1943, she joined the WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the women’s branch of the U.S. Naval Reserves during World War II — and enjoyed a successful naval career until the 1980s when she retired as a rear admiral. Professor Lewis explained Hopper’s technical accomplishments, from her fascination with nanoseconds to her development of COBOL, an early programming language.

“She was one of the early pioneers in this business back when computers were large and uncommon. She’s a good person after whom to name the conference,” he said.

By attending this conference, young women from William & Mary are fulfilling Hopper’s vision. They’re making the connections to create the future of technology, business and analytics. They’re helping pioneer the pathway for women in this still male-dominated field.

Shannon Harrington ’18 stood in line with 12,000 registrants the first morning of the conference waiting for the convention doors to open. “It was all women in computing. When I first started, you didn’t have a lot of females in a computer science class. Being in a room with that many women in the field was pretty cool.”

Inside those doors, a wonderland of opportunity awaited them. A who’s-who consortium of tech and financial organizations with large information technology infrastructures was waiting to recruit strong candidates at a moment’s notice for an interview. Google passed out swag to attendees, and Amazon simulated a theme park during after-hours events. Keynote speaker Melinda Gates inspired them with her personal anecdotes of struggle and success in the field.

The women were swept away in a world of possibilities, imagination and camaraderie. Ashley Roten ’18 describes the conference as “the best time of my entire life.”

Roten and Harrington had both heard about the conference throughout their college careers. Women who had previously gone to the conference visited their introductory computer science classes to share their experiences and encourage younger students to take advantage of the all that the conference has to offer. Word of mouth proves effective advertising to women in the computer science department. Professor Lewis refers to students who return from the conference and promote it as “evangelists for the program.”

Attending Grace Hopper introduces these students into a community of inspiring women driving the future of technology and alters lives through the connections made and job offers given.

For William & Mary women, alumni who make donations to the department that cover 100 percent of the costs for students to attend the conference are the reason why they have these opportunities. Beginning next year, funds from William & Mary’s Belinda Carmines Blankenship Computer Science Innovation Endowment will help support student attendance. Belinda Blankenship ’88 and her husband, Chip, from Louisville, Ky., created the endowment to provide creativity and innovation support for undergraduate students majoring in computer science. Citing Professor Deborah Noonan’s profound impact as a female faculty role model for Belinda while she was a W&M student, the Blankenships want to encourage students to excel and to foster an interest for women to continue in the field of computer science.

“We rely heavily on alumni giving for this,” says Professor Lewis, “and we are very thankful for alumni who donate because I think it’s a great opportunity for the students. I’d like to send more students earlier in their [computer science] careers, maybe persuade them to come see the opportunities. The entering class is 60 percent women. William & Mary as a whole is 58 percent women. I think that they’re just missing out on a lot of good job opportunities in computer science.”

All three seniors who attended the conference can relax slightly about what life after college holds: each received job offers at the conference. Thanks to the dual funding effort of the Blankenship endowment and alumni donations to the department that enabled their attendance, they’ll join the ranks of women who comprise the community to which they were introduced at Grace Hopper and continue to support other women in the computer science field. They are the next pioneers who follow after Hopper herself, and they are the future evangelists for the conference among the young women at William & Mary.

Roten is already encouraging attendance at Grace Hopper to her fellow computer science students.

“It was really beneficial for me to go and get all the interview experience and meet all those women. I really hope that the computer science department will continue to make this a priority. I would like to be a part of that once I graduate,” says Roten, who is moving quickly into the real world as she searches for housing and plans a wedding. She’s ready to tackle the next phases of her life because she took advantage of all that the computer science department offered.

“We’re supposed to be here for knowledge’s sake.” Professor Lewis pauses in the middle of his thought. He smiles, and mischievous crinkles appear at the corners of his eyes as he continues. “Knowledge is nice, but a good job is better.”