‘Too important to leave to half the population’
Computer Science alumni fund scholarship for female students
Fifty years ago UM’s department of computer science was created, sparking great excitement among students keen to study in this innovative new field. Over 600 students registered for the inaugural course in 1970 taught by the department’s founder – the late Ralph Stanton – who by then was already considered a pioneer in mathematics.
Though enrolment has steadily increased over the decades, female students remain a minority in computer science – something a group of alumni want to fix. They’ve established the Ralph G. Stanton Scholarship for female students in computer science.
Kim Wills, a third year student in the department’s co-op program, is the most recent recipient. She sat down with donor Barb Popel [BSc/71, MSc/73] to talk about the importance of women in the field.
Kim: WHY DID YOU WANT TO DONATE TO THIS SCHOLARSHIP?
Barb: My perception is there were more women in computer science back in the late 60s and early 70s than there are now. When I was a hiring manager in the 1990s we weren’t getting that many females no matter which university we went to.
Women are still underrepresented in a whole bunch of important fields like cybersecurity, privacy, data modelling, big data, social media and AI. It’s not just a question of bumping up the numbers, but getting them into areas that really do need women in them. Computers are too important to leave to half the population. More women need to bring their talents to the table.
Kim: WAS IT INTIMIDATING GOING INTO COMPUTER SCIENCE?
Barb: Not really, because honestly Kim I didn’t know what I was getting into. Like you, I had a real interest in science and math when I was growing up but nobody around me, including my guidance counsellor in high school, had any idea what computers were like.
What did help is what you’re going through today with the co-op program. You’re getting a flavour of what computers are like in the real world. I got that also as a student by working in the UM administration department programming COBOL. That kept me grounded. When things were really difficult I knew at the end of it I’d get to do some really neat stuff.
Kim: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WOMEN LIKE ME IN COMPUTER SCIENCE?
Barb: If you keep yourself open to options and opportunities, there’s a wealth of things available for you to work on. Many of the jobs I’ve had didn’t exist when I was at university, and I bet that that’s going to be true for you. When I graduated things such as database administration was just started getting started. I spent the last 20 plus years doing work with quality management systems, improving processes, mostly in software organizations, and doing quality audits. It was great fun, but none of this stuff existed when I graduated and I certainly didn’t think I was going to get into it. Don’t be afraid of trying something new.
Barb: I’M DELIGHTED TO HEAR YOU’RE IN THE CO-OP PROGRAM, KIM. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, AND HAS ANYTHING YOU’VE DONE MADE YOU THINK ‘WOW IS THAT EVER NEAT’?
Kim: My co-op is with the government and I’ve been making e-forms by converting paper forms into an online version companies can use for applications and stuff like that.
When I was first going into this I was actually pretty terrified because it was something that was completely brand new to me. But looking back and seeing the projects I’ve been able to complete has been really exciting. I like being able to be challenged and solve problems and learn new things so it’s a lot of fun.
Barb: HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED ANY BARRIERS FROM BEING A WOMAN?
Kim: The university has been really good; I haven’t felt like there’s been any barriers here. Most of what I experienced happened before I decided to join computer science. There are stereotypes, like this sense that “girls don’t do this”. Or, even just not knowing enough about what computer science is because girls don’t usually play video games or things like that which might get them interested before university. You have a lot of guys going into their first year who’ve already started to learn about programming because they’ve been interested for years. It can feel intimidating.
Barb: HOW HAS RECEIVING THE SCHOLARSHIP HELPED YOU?
Kim: The support from that scholarship is huge for me. It’s a lot to get that amount and be able to afford almost a whole term of school. Eventually, that’ll go to help me launch my career from a lot higher of a standpoint. Donors should know that this is greatly appreciated by students, and it goes towards helping empower the future generation of workers that are going to be helping society.
The Ralph G. Stanton Scholarship is one of several scholarships created by donors to support women in Computer Science, including: the Dr. Anita K. Ross Bursary for Women in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science, and the Leslie J. Cornwall Scholarship for Computer Science.
To date, $77,720 has been raised for the Ralph G. Stanton Scholarship. An anonymous donor has pledged to match gifts up to $12,000 to help reach the $100,000 goal. For more information, or to donate, click here.