In honour of International Day of Women & Girls in Science on Saturday, February 11, we sat down with UBC Computer Scientist, Dr. Rachel Pottinger, to discuss her experiences of navigating computer science as a woman.
Computer science was not really on the radar for Rachel Pottinger while growing up. She was not coding at a young age like many of today’s computer scientists. In fact, she was leaning toward mathematics or electrical engineering when she reached post-secondary. But computer science won out in the end.
UBC CS: STEM (and computer science) is notoriously under-populated with women. How did you start out in computer science?
RP: “I didn't come to computer programming super early. I took my first class in high school, but I dropped the class because it was very hard and I didn’t think I was any good at it. The class was actually run by the University of Pittsburgh, and we took their college exams. Interestingly, I was the only person in the class who ended up with a good grade on the exam. So obviously I was doing quite well. But what put me off was I didn’t think I was a natural. That’s because there was a guy sitting across from me who had been programming since he was a kid. It all seemed to come so easily to him. For me, it didn’t come easy, so I concluded I was not cut out for computer science.”
UBC CS: So why DID you get into computer science?
RP: "My mother was pushing me toward taking electrical engineering. But on day one at orientation, I met my now husband, and he was into computer science. He told me about a really great prof teaching the course, so I decided to drop physics and take that class. The prof was really good and the class was great. I had the same prof the next term and another course he taught the following term. I was officially a groupie! By then I needed to declare my major, so I chose computer science. 22 of us graduated and only 2 were women, not that we really noticed or cared at the time. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I looked back and recognized some of the hurdles I had to overcome being a woman in computer science."
UBC CS: What were the hurdles?
RP: In one of my undergrad classes, I had the top grade in the class and a guy had the next highest. When the prof was discussing marks, he said, “You got the highest grade in the class? You? Really?” Also, later on in that class, I was researching statistical info about the percentage of women in CS graduate school at the universities I was interested in. I commented that Duke was doing quite well because they had 29 per cent women, which was good at the time. Sadly, that stat is still considered quite good because we still haven’t come very far. One of the guys at the back of the class called out, “We must be making it too easy then.” The prof laughed and so did all the other guys. It’s that kind of attitude that wears you down as a woman over time.”
UBC CS: You commented that we still haven’t come that far. Why do you think that is?
RP: "I think some of it is the nature of computer science. So if you look at our department here at UBC, the people who are in combined majors typically skew higher female. I think that bias is that women tend to be more interested in the application of things. An example is our COGS program, which blends computer science and psychology. That application and combination seems to appeal more greatly to women than men, according to our stats. And, I will say that my research does tend to follow the stereotype that women tend to be more interested in things that are clearly relevant to their lives than things that are just sort of standard straight up computer science, right? But if you look at our teaching side, it’s much more gender balanced. This is consistently what is happening with faculty positions across Canada and the US."
UBC CS: What types of messages do you try and give to young women starting out in CS?
RP: "I try to point out at the beginning of my classes that there are many students who have little experience. Because it's very easy to hear the voices of people who have a lot of experience, and it can make you feel like an imposter. I want to make sure the women, and all underrepresented groups are heard too. I also say to them that just because you may hear someone else has a lot of background in a particular subject, does not guarantee success. If I see anyone struggling, I get them support. I stop, and I connect with them. I use early alert on a regular basis."
Dr. Pottinger joined UBC CS in 2004 and has served on the CODE committee (Committee on Outreach, Diversity and Equity). She came from the University of Washington where she spent 7 years in graduate school. During that time she was also active in designing and participating in mentoring programs and committees for girls and women, including:
- Making Connections high school mentoring program for girls and under-represented minorities, 2000-2004.
- Tutor for women and underrepresented minorities
- Designer and organizer, UW undergraduate women's mentoring program
- Focus on Women in Computer Science Committee
- Co-creator and co-moderator of lists for pre-tenure and job hunting PhD women in Computer Science: Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research
- MentorNet Mentor
International Day of Women and Girls in Science recognizes the critical role women and girls play in science and technology.