Penn's all-female computer science program encourages women to embrace coding

While gender gaps are narrowing in most science, technology, engineering, and math fields, the share of women studying computer science has declined from a peak of roughly 35 percent in the mid-1980s to less than 20 percent today. But at Penn, budding female computer scientists are making their presence known through the Women in Computer Science (WiCS) residential program.

“We may be a minority in the major, but this program makes me feel like I belong to a group,” says Rachel Han, a freshman in WiCS. “Through WiCS, I’ve become more involved in all aspects of computer science.”

Founded three years ago at King’s Court English College House, WiCS is comprised of an energetic group of women who hold regular field trips, tech workshops, and outreach and social events. Most of all, the WiCS community—currently made up of 15 freshmen and sophomores and a handful of upperclassmen mentors—is a place for women interested in computer science to find support and guidance.

“What women in this field really need is someone to turn to when they first get to Penn,” says Sally Kong, a digital media design major interested in augmented reality technology, and currently the program manager for WiCS. “I came to Penn without any coding background, but women in this program encouraged me and helped me.”

Among WiCS’s popular events are “Code Nights,” held regularly at King’s Court’s rooftop café, where housemates come together to work on homework and share coding skills.

The WiCS program also engages in diverse tech-related activities. In September, WiCS members travelled to New York City’s “Maker Faire” and this month, the group plans to visit the Philadelphia Game Lab. On Sunday, Nov. 16, WiCS is hosting a coding workshop in which Penn students can learn to build a simple, interactive app using Processing, an open-source programming language and development platform.

In the spring, the group will bring back “InspiHer,” an opportunity for high school girls to visit Penn and learn about careers in technology. Last year’s event included workshops on programming, artificial intelligence, and interactive media, and a lecture by Nadia Heninger, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and an expert in cryptography and cybersecurity.

As the WiCS program grows, Penn women continue to work toward bridging the gap in computer science. The program’s founders, Gabby Moreno and Trisha Kothari, are on promising career paths at IBM and Affirm, Inc. Meanwhile, new students are just beginning to explore careers in computing. Han came to Penn intending to major in systems science and engineering, but the support she’s received from WiCS has encouraged her to pursue a degree in computer science.

“This is more than just another academic program,” she says. “We spend a lot of time hanging out together, and the upperclassmen really help advise us. It’s like a second family.”

Women in Computer Science