Women in computer science address challenges of the field


Fabian Fernandez

Dahna Hull, vice president of Austin Gigapower, speaks at a panel about her experience as a woman in high-tech industry on Tuesday evening.

Natalie Sullivan

Tracy Reindel, product manager at technology company PeopleAdmin, remembers being one of the few women in her computer science class in college. 

“I was never one of those geeky kids who had an interest in technology at the beginning,” Reindel said. “At first, I had no idea what I was doing.” 

Reindel said she now works to change that experience for other women.

At a panel designed to encourage women in technology fields Tuesday night at the UT Administration Building, Reindel was one of seven speakers who talked about experiences as a woman in high-tech industries. The panel — hosted by the Advocating for Women in Technology committee — was accompanied by a screening of the documentary “She ++,” a film created by female Stanford technologists Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni as a way to encourage more girls and women to study computer science.

Lecia Barker, associate professor in the School of Information, said one reason for the lack of women in computer science is cultural bias between genders.

“People tell boys that if they’re good at math they can be an engineer,” Barker said. “For girls it just doesn’t come up as much. People encourage girls to pursue happiness, and men to be breadwinners.”

According to the documentary, U.S. businesses will need 1.4 million computer scientists by 2020. At today’s graduation rate, only 30 percent of those will be filled by American-trained computer scientists. Barker said one problem the field faces is lack of exposure.

“One of the biggest problems is we have a country where kids and the adults that influence them don’t know what computer science is,” Barker said. “If you ask a high school kid if they’ve taken computer science, they’ll say yes when all they’ve done is Excel spreadsheets.”

Barker said people are working to fix these problems through initiatives by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which works to increase the number of women in technology. 

“We bring together communities of people because we want to change the systems in which women learn and work,” Barker said. “We reach out to organizations with young girls, like the Girl Scouts or 4H.”

Computer science freshman Rachel Metcalf said she chose computer science because of the creativity and freedom the field provides.

“A program can be whatever you want it to be,” Metcalf said. “So long as you have the skills to make it.”