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Innovative Program Empowers Female Students in Technology

Program Strives to Help Women Students in Tech Feel Less Isolated
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Program Strives to Help Women Students in Tech Feel Less Isolated

Jacqueline Deprey says she’s always been a bit of a tomboy.

Jacqueline Deprey (center, in maroon cardigan), a computer science student, works on a project with classmates in a game design and development class, Jan. 28, 2020, at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. (Julie Taboh/VOA)
Jacqueline Deprey (center, in maroon cardigan), a computer science student, works on a project with classmates in a game design and development class, Jan. 28, 2020, at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md. (Julie Taboh/VOA)

So perhaps it’s no surprise that she’s been drawn to a field that typically attracts more men than women.

Deprey’s love of computer science in particular was realized in high school when one of her teachers recognized her talent and drew her attention to it.

“I don’t know if it’s because I was good at it, that I enjoyed it, or if it was vice versa, but she really was the first one to point out this passion of mine, and the more computer science classes I took, the more I kind of fell in love with it,” she said.

Deprey said she especially enjoys working on projects that can be applied to the real world.

“And so I found that that tied in nicely with my side love for business, since in computer science we learn, what are the best ways to collect data to organize it? What are the fastest algorithms to sort it?” she said.

Deprey is now a senior at the University of Maryland where she’s double majoring in computer science, and operations management and business analytics.

Hidden figures

Deprey said she credits much of her success to a collaboration between her school and AnitaB.Org, a global nonprofit that’s helping advance women in technology.

Stephanie Rodriguez, vice president of policy and engagement for the organization, works with the university and 14 other institutions on an annual basis through a project they call BRAID.

“It stands for Building, Recruiting and Inclusion and Diversity,” Rodriguez said. “And it really focuses on a few strategies that leaders in undergraduate computer science departments can take to build more inclusive campuses.”

What started as a small group of women online in the early days of the internet has grown into a coalition of millions of women around the world, Rodriquez said.

The organization’s flagship event is the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, which is the world’s largest gathering of women in technology.

Deprey was one of more than 26,000 people attending the celebration in Florida last year.

“Through attending that conference, I think I was able to really recognize this passion in me and to know that there are other people who are fighting the same fight, who are also striving for equality,” Deprey said.

The opportunity also provided her with motivation, she said, to pursue her academic and professional career.

It was her second time at the conference.

Women technologists

“The first time, I was captivated by how many other women technologists were there, and it was truly inspiring to see the magnitude that was women in computing,” she said.

“Even if on a day-to-day I might have felt a little bit alone, just to have that support and know that these other women were fighting for the same things that I was, even if they weren’t always present or within sight of my support, was truly inspiring.”

It is not unusual for women like Deprey to feel that sense of isolation.

Women and minorities pursuing computer science degrees often feel alone in a field that is overwhelmingly dominated by men. While about 60 percent of all 2017 bachelor’s degree recipients in the U.S. were women, females made up only about 20 percent of computer and information science bachelor’s degree recipients, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

Jan Plane, a faculty member in the computer science department, is director of the Maryland Center for Women in Computing at the university.

A large part of her job is coordinating that needed support.

“We were working as a small organization, the Center for Women, trying to improve the culture for the women that are here,” Plane said. “And what BRAID did was bring a more national and upper-level administration emphasis to it. ... With having our chair involved, the data we were able to collect and the programs we were able to do, [it] just grew at an exponential rate.”

“We have increased since 2014, when we had around 300 women in our computer science program, to now 738 who are majoring in computer science,” she said. “Women need to feel empowered to do whichever kind of job they want to do. When they are such an underrepresented minority, women tend to shy away from these fields.”

Plane emphasized that in today’s job market, diversity is more important than ever.

“Financially, for the global economy, we need more people who are technologically educated, because there’s a lot of jobs, they’re very good jobs, and they also influence the design of things that are coming. And if women are not involved, it’s not going to represent them,” she said.

Plane also noted that research has shown “that diverse teams make the best products, and if not all voices are heard, then we’re not going to get the best products.”

Deprey agrees.

“I think by really trying to promote minority groups and giving them a seat at this table like BRAID has done with the University of Maryland, we’re able to take advantage of all of our different perspectives and really see what technology is capable of. And I’m really excited to be a part of that feature,” she said.

After graduating this summer, Deprey plans to move to New York City, where she will start in a full-time software engineering position with the file-hosting service Dropbox.