Coding: Inclusion and Breaking Stereotypes

December 17, 2014

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By 2018, the information technology industry will only be able to fill half of its available jobs. According to estimates by the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) and The United States Department of Labor, there will be more than 1.4 million total new computing-related job openings when considering growth and replacement needs.

The NCWIT, as well as industry experts and educators, continue to explore how to deal with the predicted influx of information technology and computer science jobs. The majority of them are proposing the same answer: females.

Dr. Linda F. Wilson, professor of computer science at Texas Lutheran University, says many young women are not encouraged to enter Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses.

“I think many females believe computer science is only videogames or that we all work in isolation,” Wilson said. “That’s not true. Computer science and information systems are team-oriented fields. Anyone with an interest should consider it. It’s true that it’s difficult, but I encourage individuals with strengths in STEM to pursue it.”

After receiving her bachelor’s in math from Duke University, Wilson pursued her master’s and Ph.D. in computer engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. She was the only woman in most of her classes.

“I had a grad school advisor ask, ‘What makes you think you can be an engineer?’” Wilson said. “I took that as a challenge. I was a math major with an interest in computer science and I’m truly an engineer and a mathematician.”

Wilson, who did post-doctoral research at NASA and Motorola, credits the encouragement and support of her father with her persistence in the field of computer science.

“Both of my parents were high school math teachers and my father was actually asked to create the first computer science class at Canyon High School in New Braunfels during the early 1980s,” Wilson said. “As he learned, I learned, and I learned to program on my own. Computer scientists and programmers or coders are problem-solvers. We use computers as our tools like chemists use chemicals. The Internet would not exist without computer scientists. Skype and Twitter would not exist without computer scientists. Most medical advances are because of computer scientists. This field teaches logic and critical thinking skills and seeks people who are detail-oriented and precise. I think there are many young women who would do very well.”

The United States Department of Labor projects that females will account for 51 percent of the increase in total labor force growth between 2008 and 2018. In September 2013, Information Systems Professor Sam Hijazi started Knowledge Is Power—a Facebook group of more than 200 from all over the world who engage in open dialogues and problem solving regarding their professions. Not only is Hijazi an advocate for women in these fields, he said these discussions bring together individuals from varying backgrounds.

“We all speak the programming language,” Hijazi said. “One person might speak Arabic or English or Hindi, but we all know Unix or Linux and Big Data Analytics or Java,” Hijazi said. “The programming language unites us. Facebook is just the medium.”

Hijazi also believes coding and information systems are often considered too technical and areas that lack creativity. It’s quite the opposite, he said.

“Coding is very creative and whatever you output can show your creative side,” Hijazi said. “People think computer science and information systems are dry fields but the truth is they’re constantly changing. People might think it’s too technical, but it’s actually very human. This is why people might like Google versus Bing or Microsoft Word versus another word document program. When we code, we have to decide how creative we have to be. You have to be able to communicate difficult, technical ideas in ways people can understand them.”

This emphasis on creativity, as well as problem solving, is something he thinks females should be encouraged to explore within these fields.

“My teenage daughter has been encouraged just as much as my son to pursue information systems and computer programming,” Hijazi said. “She’s actually the one who plans to go into a career in those areas while my son prefers business. I think our society limits people, especially women, by telling them they want to be some predetermined profession like a nurse or a teacher. We shouldn’t determine for them. We should encourage everyone to explore positions in the technology industry.”

And while both Wilson and Hijazi admit the areas of computer science and information systems are tough to understand, they urge people to not shy away from taking even introductory level courses.

“I tell my students all the time: nothing happens overnight,” Hijazi said. “We don’t move to Germany and speak German the next day. While there is the same excitement with learning a new language when it comes to programming, there is still the expectation that it takes time. It’s about setting goals and attaining them by being very structured and mentally disciplined.”

Senior information systems major Whitney Rayo loves the challenges that come along with her chosen field of study.

“If someone would like to follow this path they need to understand that tasks require full commitment and patience,” Rayo said. “Often times, solutions do not immediately present themselves and having these requirements can help.”

While Rayo said being one of the only females in her program can be intimidating, her persistence to prove others wrong is a driving force.

“Often times it is difficult, because the mentality is that females can’t be as intelligent as men,” Rayo said. “I try and keep a cool disposition and continue to do things the right way as much as possible. I do a lot of research and keep up with information, so I know what I’m talking about and know that I’m right if the occasion calls for proving it. My advantage, which I think most women and those often repressed have, is the drive and ability to prove those who oppress wrong. What I mean by this is that because of the mentality that women are not as intelligent, I always make sure I perform tasks efficiently and correctly.”

Rayo plans on joining the military and developing a successful career where she can advance both personally and professionally.

“My experience here has taught me many things and I know I am changed for the better from it, but I believe TLU still has a lot to offer in shaping who I am,” Rayo said.

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