According to the Women in Computer Science (WICS) Census of 287 students in the Computer and Information Science (CIS) department last year, 55 percent of females in the CIS major at Penn have been told that their gender "unfairly contributed to [their] acceptance to Penn Engineering." According to that same survey, 54 percent of all females "have been/felt judged or micro–aggressed for studying Computer Science based on [their] race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation," and 55 percent of females in CIS "feel intimidated studying Computer Science/Engineering."

While these statistics may seem disheartening, Rita Powell, Director of Diversity and Belonging for the CIS department, urges students to look at these numbers in context. She recalls that 15 years ago, in 2004,  only 18 percent of the CIS department consisted of women. Today, 33 percent of CIS majors are female, including the Digital Media Design (DMD) and Networked & Social Systems Engineering (NETS) programs.

A major with historically low inclusion rates across the country, Penn has steadily been working towards a more diverse student body for CIS. The rise in diversity in recent years has been a collective effort on the part of faculty, students, and staff. Powell has spearheaded many of these initiatives. She worked as the Manager of the CIS Department for 15 years, and for the past two years has been the Director for Diversity and Belonging. Throughout her time at Penn, the inclusion rates for women and minorities have spiked, climbing higher each year. But Powell notes that the "effort for women gathered a lot of momentum" in the early 2000's.

"When I studied in the MBA program at Temple, I was the only woman in my finance class. It made me extremely anxious. But I got through it, and went on to work at Atlantic Richfield," Powell says. "In the entire sales force, I was the only woman. And it happened at a time when Ronald Reagan had championed affirmative action in the workforce for women in the 70s and early 80s." 

But the massive gender gap that Powell faced as a woman in the business world didn't discourage her. 

"It made me want to do it more," she says, her voice ringing with tenacity. 

Powell began working as Manager of the CIS department at Penn in 2002 when she was also studying for a doctorate in education at Penn's Graduate School of Education. 

"A lot of those thoughts from my past came back to me," Powell recalls when she first entered the department, which she says had very little diversity at the time.

She decided to title her thesis, "Sundials in the Shade: a Study of Women’s Persistence in the First Year of an Undergraduate Computer Science Program in a Selective University." This was the turning point whereupon Powell became "totally passionate" about bringing minorities into computer science.    

Powell spoke to female CIS students during their midterm season, organizing study sessions for them. "We kind of stirred them up," Powell admits, because "a lot of the time, people don't realize that they can demand more, or expect more, until they hear it from someone else." 

Within two years of Powell's job, her female students formed the Women in Computer Science Club, a major victory for the department. Powell was overjoyed that her students were so self–motivated to congregate on their own. 

For her doctorate, Powell interviewed 15 female students in the fall semester of CIS 120, an introductory computer science course, in her "qualitative, ethnographic dissertation." According to Powell, "there weren't enough students to do statistics."

"And half of the students I interviewed," and Powell pauses for a moment, "dropped." Of the 15 female students in a class of 75, seven of them did not continue with the major. "Because of those results, I was really determined to try to make a difference for incoming women in the major. "  

"We have to acknowledge our implicit biases, and check them," she says, "Human beings are wired to not really like oddities; we're most comfortable around people like us." 

Powell's confidence in the strategy of her programming is founded upon her confidence in students. 

"It's all in the head," she explains. "People are uncomfortable, nervous, anxious—it's all part of stereotype threat that impedes people from doing well, because they're diverted in their focus from the academics." 

The stereotype threat refers to the fear that one will fall in line with others' expectations of oneself, or rather, the stereotypical expectation of oneself. 

"I experienced this myself, in that finance class: you're so anxious that you can't focus on the work. You focus on yourself. On the anxiety." 

She cites research done at UT Austin, which found that students who merged their social lives with academics performed better in school. Powell strongly recommends that STEM majors not isolate themselves from their peers in their classes.

Over the past two years, as the percentage of women in computer science has reached a third of students in the major, Powell has begun to focus on underrepresented minorities, predominantly black, Latinx, and low–income students. 

Powell is involved in outreach and the development of programs, including coding clubs in West Philadelphia schools. She is also a mentor for WICS Board, facilitates sending minority students to prestigious conferences, and helps organize the annual Diversity Summit to discuss inclusion in the computer science department. 

Powell says that she and her colleagues have a goal to make the CIS department the same proportion of women and minorities as the rest of the university. 

"We have a long way to go," Powell admits. "But we're getting there with women. It really makes you think, you know, that if we all work together, we can do it." 


A previous version of this article stated that "55 percent of females in the CIS major at Penn believed that their gender 'unfairly contributed to [their] acceptance to Penn Engineering.'" The correct statistic is that 55% of females in the CIS major at Penn have been told that their gender "unfairly contributed to [their] acceptance to Penn Engineering." 34th Street regrets the error. 


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