Like most universities in the U.S., Yale awards more computer science degrees to men than women. Indicative of the so-called “leaky pipeline,” which describes the phenomenon in which women drop out of educational programs in STEM fields, this gender imbalance has long been a source of concern for Yale.
But the undergraduate organization FloatYale aims to be part of the solution to this problem.
According to its website, Float’s mission is to empower, inspire and celebrate women in computer science. Founded in January 2014 by Christine Hong ’15 and Victoria Nielsen ’16, Float promotes gender minorities in computer science through a mentorship program, workshops, speakers and an annual hackathon.
Hong said that her motivation for starting the organization was to create a support network for women in computer science — something that previously hadn’t been available to students at Yale. Additionally, she hoped the organization would be proactive in teaching practical skills, such as web development.
Current president Payal Modi ’17 said that while the organization is aimed at promoting women and gender diversity in computer science, the organization’s events are open to all genders.
“Including men in the conversation is important,” Modi said. “While it is important to have spaces that are gender- and minority-specific, it is important to include them in the picture and help them understand the things they can do to help and increase awareness.”
Others also expressed the necessity of having support networks for women. Six female computer science majors interviewed said that issues relating to gender diversity become obvious during office hours, as well as while forming project groups in higher-level classes. Several added, however, that professors in the department have become cognizant of diversity issues and are making a concerted effort to address them.
Although gender diversity has always been a priority within Yale’s Computer Science Department, discussion around this issue has occurred only relatively recently, according to computer science professor Holly Rushmeier.
“We don’t have a coherent plan [for diversity] yet because prior to 2008, this wasn’t even a thing,” Rushmeier said. “Our major was tiny with a graduating class of 15 people. Then, the problem with the pipeline was that we were trying to get anybody in the pipeline.”
Rushmeier attributed the sudden surge in interest in computer science during the last decade to a variety of factors, including the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of Facebook, and “The Social Network” film. She added that computer science departments around the world are overwhelmed all of a sudden by the number of majors.
Last semester, Float hosted its first town hall meeting. According to Modi, last semester’s meeting largely consisted of discussion and the group plans on hosting one town hall meeting every semester.
“Float did a great contribution by having the town hall last spring,” Rushmeier said. “It raised issues [the Computer Science Department] wasn’t aware of — the sorts of things that were making people uncomfortable. There were individual anecdotes that people were not aware of. It hadn’t occurred to us that this was affecting some populations differently and discouraging some people.”
Most recently, Float hosted a dinner for their mentorship program, in which upperclassmen computer science majors were paired with underclassmen mentees.
Sonia Gadre ’20, a Float mentee from Lexington, Kentucky, said she joined the program to find a community of people, adding that sometimes computer science can be intimidating in the beginning.
Jessica Pancer ’17, Gadre’s mentor, said that she originally joined Float for moral support in computer science. Pancer is also the founder of Women of 323, a group she created for female classmates in CPSC 323, a high-level computer science course.
Rushmeier said that last year’s events surrounding race and inclusion on campus raised everyone’s awareness about diversity. She added that there have been many conversations regarding the progress of the department with respect to these goals, as well as what else can be done.
The Computer Science Department is committed to diversity in both students and faculty, Rushmeier said. Currently, they are putting energy into hiring a diverse faculty and addressing a shortage in graduate students.
“There’s the perennial problem of the graduate student population and faculty recruiting. It’s not choosing the diverse people from the applicant pool, it’s getting applicants in the first place,” Rushmeier said. “We have to work hard to make it known to the people we want to apply, ‘Hey, Yale is here, and we want you to come to graduate school here, and we want to hire you.’”
Float will host its second town hall meeting on Nov. 4 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.