Finding a Community in University with Katharine King

When Katharine King and her team arrived at Polytechnique Montreal for the Computer Science Games (CS Games) this year, they were surprised to find out that they were the most gender-diverse team there.

More than 23 teams from all over the country participate annually in the CS Games – a collegiate competition with logic puzzles, difficult algorithms, intense video game competitions, social activities, and other programming. Each team is made of seven to ten highly skilled computer science students.

Katharine was a part of the University of Manitoba’s team where six of the 10 members were women. Most teams at the competition had one or two women participating, if any.

“It was really cool to send a team with more than half women in it,” Katharine says.

On the last day of the competition, King struck up a conversation with a female Computer Science student from Montreal. They started talking about how they felt as female students in a program that’s predominately male.

“It’s amazing that halfway across Canada, this woman felt the same way that I do,” Katharine says.

They talked about how they felt like they couldn’t make mistakes or ask questions that made it seem like they didn’t know what they were talking about. As one of the handful female students in classes of more than a hundred students, they felt like they were representing all women in computer science.

“You just feel like you don’t want to mess up because people are judging you,” she says.

To celebrate the future of women in tech, they thought it would be a good idea to get a picture of all the female competitors. The photographer asked them to round up all the women in the room and they went up to every table to ask them to join them in the photograph.

“It was definitely the highlight of the trip for me,” King says. “All these women who’re so intelligent, hardworking, and going to help change the tech industry.”

A desire to build skills and a community for women in computer science is what led Katharine and her peer, Julia Stoyko to start University of Manitoba Women in Computer Science (U of M WICS).

WICS started as a study group and a way to address the isolation that Katharine and many women studying computer science felt. It was an opportunity to connect with other female students, have someone to sit with next to class, ask questions and help each other with assignments. Once a few women joined in, they started meeting once a week.

After the first year, they decided to register as an official U of M student group. They applied for funding and tried to increase membership. They especially tried to get more first and second year students involved because that is when most students dropped out.

One of their first initiatives was going to elementary and junior high schools for outreach and to provide mentorship opportunities to younger students. They created a logo and website for WICS. Eventually, they started reaching out to women working in technology to learn from their experiences. They’ve hosted mentor mingles at Lively, Priceline, Ubisoft and Bold Commerce, amongst others. These events give students, community members, faculty and industry professionals an opportunity to come together and learn from one another.

Katharine says that the goal of these initiatives is to get more women in tech by getting them interested when they’re young. They try to reach elementary school students because that is when girls’ interests start differing from boys. That age is when it’s important to break away from stereotypes and encourage girls to be more hands on and build stuff, and to be more interested in technology and games.

With high school students, they try to show them the diverse and well-paid career options available in the industry. She says that most people wrongly assume that you have to be really smart to be in computer science.

“It’s like any other job,” she says. “You just have to like it and be interested.”

King says the goal is to create an industry where they don’t need a student group like this anymore. They hope to create a community where not just women – but people of all genders and races feel under-represented and that they deserve to be there.