she++ documentary on women in CS earns national attention

When Ayna Agarwal ’14 and Ellora Israni ’14 enrolled at Stanford, studying computer science was the furthest thing from their minds.

“Even though I grew up in Silicon Valley, I never thought computer science was for me, because I never saw anyone who looked like me doing it,” Israni said.

Ellora Israni '14 (left) and Anya Agarwal '14 are the founders of she++, an organization devoted to increasing the number of women studying computer science. The group recently released a documentary that has earned national attention. (Conrad Corpus for she++).

Ellora Israni ’14 (left) and Anya Agarwal ’14 are the founders of she++, an organization devoted to increasing the number of women studying computer science. The group recently released a documentary that has earned national attention. (Courtesy of Conrad Corpus).

After taking introductory computer science classes, however, Agarwal and Israni were hooked. In April 2012, they hosted she++, Stanford’s first conference for women in technology, with 11 female speakers from companies including Dropbox, Google and Pinterest.

Since then, she++ has grown exponentially, developing into a nationwide community that has been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch and The Huffington Post. This spring, she++ will release a documentary, launch a mentorship program and host its second annual conference, which will be free for Stanford and high school students.

“We’re really trying to show you what it means to be a woman in technology,” Israni said.

The 12-minute documentary, which includes interviews with Stanford students, alumni and professors, will be released on April 1, and Agarwal and Israni will host a special screening at Cubberley Auditorium on April 3. The film’s trailer, which was uploaded to YouTube two weeks ago, has collected more than 15,000 views.

Agarwal and Israni said that they had been inspired to produce the documentary after noticing a trend in the demographics of their upper-level computer science courses.

“We saw that in the progression of computer science classes, the number of women really decreased,” Agarwal said. “We wondered why there was no conversation about this.”

The documentary pieces together footage from the first she++ conference with interviews from students and experts in the field of computer science, including Jocelyn Goldfein ’97, Facebook’s director of engineering, Sandy Jen ’03, a co-founder and the Chief Technology Officer of Meebo, and Shubha Nabar M.S. ’05 Ph.D. ’08, a senior data scientist at LinkedIn.

Sophia Westwood ’13, a computer science major who was featured in the documentary, said that many young women avoid computer science because they mistakenly believe that it is “not very social, not very creative and not the most exciting.”

Westwood said that these misconceptions are harmful, as they prevent parity in the field and exclude women from the opportunity to learn a skill that is becoming crucial in today’s technology-based world.

“Being able to code is becoming similar to having the ability to read or write,” Westwood said. “Everybody needs to have a voice in shaping technology, and the way you have a voice is by having a computer science background.”

To incorporate male perspectives on the topic, Agarwal and Israni interviewed Professor of Computer Science Eric Roberts and Keith Schwarz ’11 M.S. ’11, a lecturer in the computer science department.

Roberts commented that he has personally seen the “barriers to women entering computer science” at Stanford. According to Roberts, while CS106A has near gender parity, women often take the class later in their Stanford careers, when they may have already decided on a course of study and will therefore be less likely to pursue a degree in computer science.

While Israni and Agarwal hope to inspire more female students at Stanford to study computer science, they have also reached out to women of all ages across the country. In what Agarwal referred to as a “call to action” at the end of the documentary, viewers are encouraged to sign up for she++’s new mentoring program, which will be launched this month.

Agarwal and Israni have contacted female computer science students at 15 schools around the country to serve as mentors for the program.

“We realize that so many other organizations are doing a great job in designing distance learning curricula and workshops where people can learn to code,” Agarwal said. “We are simply pointing them in the direction of those organizations.”

About Mary Harrison

  • james

    Nice article. I never understood why females have so little interest in computer programming. It is like half the country’s brainpower is not being used for this skill. Google, Facebook, Microsoft are paying astronomical salaries for CS students out of Stanford. As a guy I encourage more women to consider a career in this field.

  • Meghan

    As a woman and a computer science major in my third year at a university in the US, I have recently decided that I don’t want to be a programmer due to the treatment I get when working with others. My viewpoints are not heard in class discussion unless one man listens and says “Hey maybe we should listen to her”. I often get lower grades in assignments than other men who have done similar and sometimes the same work in the case of group projects. It’s not worth any salary to be treated that way, and that treatment doesn’t stop in the undergraduate environment, it continues into high paying and professional environments as well. As far as why women might not bother in the first place, it’s because we’re not encouraged to, simple as that. Often women in computer science come into college knowing much less than their male counterparts for prerequisite knowledge and this can have a large effect on how well they do in their first courses, all because no one taught them or encouraged them to look into programming. That’s what I can tell you about why women don’t go into computer science, and if they do they often don’t stick around.

  • Zack

    I’m sorry to hear how you feel. I’m also a CS undergrad in a South Florida university. The number of women in our classes is also very low, but I don’t believe any of them shares the same feelings like you. Some of our faculty are also women. I don’t think you should leave your major (if you really like it) the market is huge and I’m sure most places won’t treat you differently based on your sex. Good Luck

  • Chris

    Great project! Really happy to see this. Just one request from a fellow woman in the computer field : Please please use a different logo. Women are not well-represented by high heels or the color pink. We have been trying for decades to end the association between women and fashion/beauty stereotypes. And we’re also working very hard to end the pink=female trope. Women cover the entire range of human experience. Pink and high heels are not good representations of that diversity. And especially for women and girls who don’t think of themselves as wearing high heels or pink, it’s just another barrier to participation. Please consider using a more gender-neutral image for your program.