Computer science and business student Kallie Ziltz, ‘16, was once told she was “good at coding for a girl” by her male counterpart while at Lehigh.
In addition to facing gender-related stigmas, Ziltz said she was also significantly outnumbered by men in her computer science classes.
Looking for a way to navigate this gender imbalance — and its negative effects — she founded the Women in Computer Science club in 2014.
Ziltz said they met weekly at Sharon Kalafut’s house, professor and co-director of the Computer Science and Business program, to discuss their experiences as women in a predominantly male field.
“It was a sort of ‘we’re all in this together’ thing,” Ziltz said. “It wasn’t really much besides sitting at (Kalafut’s) house and having dinners, but it was really important to us.”
The original iteration of the club lost momentum a few years after its founding. However, the computer science department is growing, and so is the community of women within it.
According to Lehigh University data, in 2022, 156 students graduated with a degree in computer science, compared to 69 students in 2014. Women made up 22% of those degree recipients in 2022, compared to 20% in 2014.
With this growth has come the club’s revival.
Co-president Amanda Baran, ‘21, ‘25G, said in spring 2021, she and the other co-president, Olivia Grimes, ‘21, ‘25G, were approached by Arielle Carr, professor of computer science and engineering, with the idea to restart the club.
Baran said Carr expressed that she thought the club was an important community for the department to have, and the co-presidents responded to the proposal with excitement.
“We both experienced in undergrad that we had a small group of girls that we’d do all of our classes with, and we were just like a little team,” Grimes said. “I feel like a lot of people didn’t have that, so when we were tasked with revamping (Women in Computer Science), we knew how valuable it could be to have a team of women.”
When the club first began, Ziltz said it had 12 members. Now, there are more than 130 women in the club.
Ziltz, now an assistant teaching professor in the computer science department, still attends meetings as a faculty co-advisor.
Ziltz said the club has evolved since she first founded it, transitioning from solely being a space to share grievances to now creating and compiling resources, supporting each other and meeting with students.
She credits the revived club’s success and larger membership to its new planning and executive board structure.
Sticking to its roots, social events coordinator Allison Goldstein, ‘25, said the club hosts hour-long meetings every Monday, where girls are able to talk to one another and bond over experiences.
“You just go around and talk about your day, talk about (computer science), professors, things that aren’t going well — that type of stuff,” Goldstein said. “You do your high, low and goal of the week, which is a nice way to meet and get to know people.”
Although the club has garnered a sizable representation of women in the computer science field, the number of men in computer science still outnumbers women on Lehigh’s campus.
According to Lehigh census data, as of fall 2022, there are 62 undergraduate women and 189 men with a primary major in computer science. There are also 70 undergraduate women and 187 men pursuing an integrated degree in computer science and business.
“It’s really nice to have that support system just to know you’re not alone in this,” Goldstein said. “It’s like a sisterhood.”
Grimes said one issue that arises for many women in computer science is imposter syndrome.
Goldstein said computer science can be a work-heavy major, and she’s witnessed many women feel discouraged by the difficulty of computer science courses at Lehigh. She said building up women’s confidence and showing them that they belong in the field has helped many members stick with the major even after setbacks.
“Once we sat down for maybe 20 minutes and talked through it, they totally got it,” Goldstein said. “They were just nervous.”
In addition to meetings, the club offers professional events throughout the semester and study sessions around exam periods.
Goldstein said the club has also incorporated team-bonding social events, including trips to Color Me Mine and mentorship “byte buddy” programs, which pair upperclassmen with lowerclassmen.
“A lot of times women are introduced to computer science later, so having different workshops that introduce you to different tools that other people might already be familiar with helps to break down that barrier and makes you more comfortable in the field,” Baran said.
The club is currently planning their largest event yet: a two-day hackathon that will be held with various other clubs on campus in April.
Goldstein said the club is not just a valuable academic tool, but a social outlet for women to make positive connections.
“I wanted a community and (Women in Computer Science) gave me that,” Goldstein said. “It’s really nice to see that clubs can be communities and allow these strong women to come together and support each other academically and socially.”
Baran said it’s guaranteed that, while pursuing computer science, you are going to fail at some point, and that’s okay and shouldn’t hold you back.
She encourages those who may be struggling with computer science or are just looking to make a friend in the field to join their community.
“You’re gonna hit bugs or have a really bad grade occasionally,” Baran said. “Don’t let the fear of failing prevent you from trying something that you might love.”