IST programs and opportunities lead to increased female enrollment

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While nationwide statistics show that women are underrepresented in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology has recognized significant growth in its female population in the last five years — exceeding the college’s co-ed rate.  

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic and Statistics Administration’s Women in STEM 2017 Update, women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce but hold only 24 percent of the nation’s STEM jobs. Meanwhile, the College of IST has seen an 84 percent increase in enrolled undergraduate female students since fall 2013 while overall enrollment in the college has grown by 65 percent.       

The growth can be credited, in part, to a number of opportunities in the college aimed at building community, providing leadership opportunities, and helping female students advance their careers in a predominantly male field. From student organizations and new scholarships to attendance at national conferences for women in technology, IST is investing in programs that will close the gender gap in STEM careers.

“I believe now is a wonderful time [for women] to be in STEM because of the administrative support we are receiving combined with the networks we are able to form,” said Isabella Webster, a junior majoring in security and risk analysis. “Support groups are a major key to success and now, more than ever, women are joining together in IST and technology to form said groups. I am proud to be a woman in IST today and eagerly encourage others to look into the field.”

Women in Tech dinner welcomes female students, celebrates gender diversity

According to IST’s director of undergraduate recruiting, Angela Miller, the effort to shape the future for women in technology begins long before a student is enrolled in the college.

“We need to create an environment that is welcoming to women so they are excited to join IST,” Miller said. “It is so important for young women to see faculty, staff and students who are not only actively engaged within the college, but also work to create a network of support for incoming students.”

That concept was demonstrated at the college’s recent Women in Technology dinner, an event that connects newly admitted female students with current female IST students, staff and faculty.

“As a result, we hope that these prospective students see the strong community and unique opportunities available to IST students, and ultimately choose Penn State over other options,” noted Miller.

The second annual Women in Technology dinner, held March 23 at the Nittany Lion Inn, saw twice the number of attendees over the previous year’s event. IST alumnae Jennifer and Kelly Lee, class of 2015, along with their mother Nancy Lee, class of 1985, spoke to the crowd about their experiences as women in technological careers. Ralph Lauren Corporation Chief Information Officer Janet Sherlock, class of 1986, served as the keynote speaker.

“It does get intimidating in class as a woman,” Kelly Lee said to the young women in attendance. “But don’t be the note taker. Be assertive. If you want to be the project manager, do it. IST has endless resources to put you in the best possible position when you leave.”

“Every company needs the most talented individual, whether you’re a man or a woman,” added Sherlock. “You’re considering a great field at a great time.”

“It does get intimidating in class as a woman. But don’t be the note taker. Be assertive. If you want to be the project manager, do it. IST has endless resources to put you in the best possible position when you leave.”

—Kelly Lee, 2015 IST alumna

Lean In Panel connects women in IST with industry leaders

Once female students are enrolled in the college, they find numerous opportunities to network with and find community among other women in technology through various student groups.

One such organization is Women in Information Sciences and Technology (WIST), which held its annual Lean In panel on March 19 at the Nittany Lion Inn. The event, based on the national “Lean In” movement from best-selling author and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg to empower women to lean into their ambitions, featured a panel comprised of:

  • Katie Bevington, class of 2016, Technology Leadership Program, Vanguard
  • Mary Jo Ingalls, class of 1994, IT supervisor, Erie Insurance Group
  • Peggy Johnson, dean, Penn State Schreyer Honors College
  • Skylar Slotter, class of 2016, cyber advisory associate, KPMG
  • Lynette (Kvasny) Yarger, associate professor, Penn State College of IST

“The panelists were both exceptional and inspirational,” said Webster. “I find events such as these to be absolutely critical to my success as a woman in STEM because they offer me guidance, support and encouragement as I navigate my academic path.”

“It is so empowering to be able to see people change their initial opinions about women in technology through the work that we do, and every time an initial prejudice is changed or proven wrong I believe the culture shifts a little bit more,” added Megan Tucker, a 2018 IST graduate and outgoing president of WIST.

The college hosts several other clubs that aim to connect and build community for women in technology, including Women International Racial Ethnic Diversity Intercultural Network (WIRED IN) and Girls Who Code.

Rita Griffith, assistant director of professional development in the College of IST and adviser for WIST, stressed the importance of female students joining forces in the various organizations offered through the college.

“It is so important when there are a limited number of women in the field to get to know other women who can identify with your experience,” she said. “Corporate America is beginning to experience how much can be gained by hiring and promoting diversity within their organizations. Women in STEM is becoming a very mainstream conversation rather than an exception.”

Students attend national gatherings of women in tech

Opportunities for Penn State’s women in technology extend far beyond campus. The College of IST annually provides for a group of female students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference each fall, and this spring, IST students attended two separate conferences aimed at increasing the success of women in computing fields.

Stephanie Winkler and Wenhui Zhang, both doctoral students in the college, attended the Women in Cybersecurity Conference, held March 23-24 in Chicago. The conference creates a community of engagement, encouragement, and support for women in cybersecurity — an industry in which women hold just 11% of global jobs.

Zhang, who conducts research in Cybersecurity Lab, gained connections from her experience at the conference.

“It was a good networking event and a good break from daily research,” she said.

Winkler was also part of another group of female IST students to attend a separate conference this semester. She, along with Tiffany Knearem, Ning Ma, Agnese Chiatti and Nasim Motalebi, were participants in the Computing Research Association - Women (CRA-W) Grad Cohort Workshop in San Francisco on April 13-14. The goal of this annual workshop is to increase the ranks of senior women in computing-related studies and research by building and mentoring nationwide communities of women through their graduate studies.

Chiatti cited the workshop's resources and tips as significantly useful, and she was especially inspired by the accomplished successful women who served as keynote speakers and shared their experiences graciously and with a humble attitude.

"I believe it is a fantastic time to be a woman in computing, as institutions and companies are trying to enforce diversity polices more and more," she said. "Initiatives like CRA-W are important to feel less isolated and to realize the extent to which women are engaged in the field and the amount of opportunities that are now available to us."

“There is more awareness around diversifying the technology field as well as more opportunities to make an impact,” added Knearem. “There are so many problems that can be tackled through technology, so I am happy that programs like CRA-W exist to help women find their voice and make a difference.”

Building confidence in the classroom and beyond

While women in technology are celebrated through many organizations and events in IST, they are also empowered inside the classroom and through connections they make as students in the college.

Aubrey McElrath, a sophomore studying cybersecurity analytics and operations, said that there is a notable difference in the number of males in her classes compared to women, but that the gender gap has made a remarkable impression on her.

“I’ve gained a lot of confidence in myself and in my ability to lead a team,” she said. “The College of IST very much emphasizes teamwork in the classroom. In these projects, I have assumed a lot of leadership positions, and it has helped me to really hit my academic stride.”

Ritika Bafna, a junior majoring in security and risk analysis, has been similarly empowered by the emphasis on leadership for female technologists.

“With the increase of female graduates and women attaining leadership positions, they have made great differences and are inspiring other women by spreading the message that they can be in their positions someday,” she said.

“Women have been in technology since the time we tried to reach the moon,” she added. “They just now have started to receive recognition for it.”

Alison Murphy, assistant teaching professor of IST, who also graduated from the college in 2004, has seen a shift in the demand for strong female candidates in the industry. Her experiences as a student, faculty member and professional in a corporate IT office have given her a unique perspective on the changing landscape for women in technology.

“I have worked in the IT field for almost 15 years, and I’ve learned that being a woman in IT can have its challenges,” she said. “But one thing that is clear is that the IT field needs strong, smart, hardworking women to lead projects, departments and companies.”

Last Updated May 15, 2018