WiCS (Women in Computer Science), IITM is a budding organisation whose primary objective it is to build a strong community among women in IIT Madras. The organization includes both students and faculty who have been working in the foreground of technological innovation. WiCS works to encourage its members to have strong and interesting discussions on the innovations in Computer Science, workshops to train people with the most current technological know-how and bring more enthusiastic women to pursue Computer Science by exemplifying the roles that women have been playing in this field.
WiCS was established by Pranali Yawalkar and Aditi Raghunathan, IIT Madras’ very own alumni, who were both recipients of Google’s Anita Borg scholarship. The scholarship funds and some additional funds from Google have been used to fund this organisation. T5E Correspondent Shubhangi caught up with the current heads of WiCS, Jahnvi, a fourth year undergraduate and Sowmya, a PhD student, both in the Computer Science Department to find out more about their roles and activities.
Tell us about yourselves. What motivated you to head the WiCS group?
I am an avid tech enthusiast with an interest in women’s participation in all spheres of life. I had earlier given a talk at Google Developers’ Group, Chennai under the banner of Women Tech Makers in March 2016. I have also been nominated by Orange Flower Awards, Women’s Web – 2017 for one of my blogposts.
I strongly believe women are under-represented in tech. The skewed ratio in IIT itself speaks volumes about the miles to go for tech to be more inviting. Also, in India, the participation of women in tech is actually quite high in the initial phase of the career but it tapers down drastically in the mid-career stages. This is a statistic I recall from the ACM-Women event I attended at IIT Madras in 2013 (admittedly an old reference!). Then, there is the issue that solutions that aim to address this gap often end up alienating women further rather than empowering them. For example, the Google Code Jam for Women has often been criticised of being an insult to women underlining that women cannot compete in a level playing field. Personally, I disagree with that statement, however, I am aware that the acceptability of such ideas is often fraught with complications. When Pranali and Aditi, the winners of the prestigious Google Anita Borg scholarship, held interviews for heading WiCS after their time, armed with this background, I applied with my vision. I had a few ideas like regular meetings, competitions, outings and so on. With ideas derived from WiCS groups abroad and the issues pertinent on the home front, I submitted my application. I was jointly selected with Gayathri Meka, a Dual Degree student from Computer Science department. After her, I had noticed Jahnvi Patel’s enthusiasm in the meetings and requested her to be a co-head.
I joined last year as the WiCS head and it has been a fun year planning events and meeting all the new members. Apart from WiCS, I am involved with several other communities like Women TechMakers and Systers. I am really excited to connect with other WiCS organizations across the world at the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women, Houston this year!
I joined WiCS as an enthusiastic freshie and I found this concept of having a common space for women to share their experiences quite novel. I didn’t quite understand the objectives of the group back then, but I found the sessions engaging and took it up as an opportunity to have informal conversations with department seniors. But over the period of time, I have learnt the value of having a community such as this in our institute. Be it providing internship advice to highlighting opportunities in Computer Science, or having a late night chit chat about research work, this group has it all. Gayathri and Sowmya were amazing as heads and we were actively involved in activities then like developing wearable safety devices, etc. Sowmya and I started brainstorming about the changes required in the club and events for the upcoming year, and eventually I decided to join in as the head.
Tell us about some of the initiatives that you guys have taken. What is the impact that you have created/hope to create through these initiatives.
We held a Ruby on Rails workshop by Swaathi Kakarla, CTO of Skcript, a Chennai-based startup. She is a dynamic tech-enthusiast with a broad knowledge of the tech-field and a passionate coder. What we hoped to achieve is to expose everyone to women leadership as we believe more role models will lead to more participation.
We have organized internship discussion sessions where we focus on opportunities available specifically to women. For the freshies, we try to focus on mentorship programmes available and in general, encourage them sufficiently to take up coding.
We held two hackathons and awarded prizes to the winners. We hope to infuse interest and spark discussions through these ideas. We also had many meetings where people could voice out what they would like to have. Every batch has had some unique ideas. Once again, the aim was to foster a space where everyone felt welcome to discuss tech and challenges faced.
Why do you guys think that it is important for women to feature more largely in the tech scene? How do you think women can improve the tech world?
We believe that women are facing obstacles in STEM careers even in this day and age. There have been huge strides in the empowerment but still we do have a lot of ground to cover. Why they should feature more is a simple matter of representation. Representation is extremely important in any field. To give an example, the first airbags killed a woman because they had not been tested for an average woman’s weight. Though a gory example, we just wanted to highlight that women are an integral half of the human story and their voices need to be heard. A woman’s perspective to a problem may often be an orthogonally curious yet efficient direction. We do not believe there is a firm distinction between thinking styles but we do believe there are differences, some subtle and some fundamental that add more flavour to the problem-solving process. It is in the interest of furthering the boundaries of tech that there is a clarion call for more female participation as it is together, with both schools of thought, that we can advance mankind by leaps and bounds.
‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg is often cited as the Holy Grail of female participation in tech and quite rightly so – it explores the family-life balance conundrums, the mechanism of mentoring, developing assertiveness and the titular call for women to lean in together and support each other. We believe we are leaning in through this initiative.
Describe the organizational structure of WiCS. What role are the WiCS members expected to play?
We regularly have meetings in the Girls’ hostels – Tunga and Sabarmati – bouncing off ideas and creating a space for discussions. The role of the members is simply to participate in a relaxed fashion. Some of the ideas we got from members include mentoring school students and conducting application development sessions within institute. WiCS, rather than being a formal community, is more of an ideas space and we shape our groups’ objectives depending on what the members want continuously. So, if you feel like having an informal chit chat about anything related, any ideas, feel free to ping any of us!