Women in CS: Alumna Cathryn Posey talks tech

Eleanor Matson, Staff Reporter

Alumna Cathryn Posey ‘05 returned to campus this past week to give the Andjelkovic Lecture on her journey working in the technological industry as a black woman. During her talk, she focused on her thoughts about current inclusion and diversity efforts within the tech industry as well as her journey here at Whitman. Posey concluded her talk encouraging students to have the audacity to chase their dreams.

The Andjelkovic Lecture is part of a series of lectures put together each year by the Student Engagement Center (SEC) where Whitman alumni share their career path after Whitman to inspire current students from all different disciplines.

Assistant Director of Career Development Gayle Townsend said the decision to ask Posey to come back to campus to give this lecture was based on her impressive career within the tech industry.

“She is just a mover and shaker in the technological field and tech with women. We just thought she would be a great person to bring back to campus,” Townsend said.

According to junior Devon Yee, Posey’s talk accomplished the goal of Andjelkovic Lecture.

“I found her to be really inspiring, especially since I’ve been trying to find ways to connect social justice and mathematics…and it was just really wonderful to hear her talk and see the ways she was able to make an impact,” Yee said.

Posey is currently an employee of the United States Digital Service, an organization started by the White House to provide the best possible technology within the government. However, she stressed that she came back to campus to share her personal experience working the tech industry, not as a representative of the government.

A large part of her journey has been to address the issues of diversity within the computing world. Posey is the founder of a movement called Tech by Superwomen that seeks to build a sense of community amongst the women who work in the tech industry.

“Tech by superwomen was really started because I was living in Alaska and often was the only person who did what I did… and it was very isolating, but I found that on social media I was able to connect with people who were kind of in the same space I was. I wanted to bring them together and celebrate and elevate women in tech and bring them together for conversations and mentorship,” Posey said.

Another platform that aims at building a community amongst minorities within the computing industry is the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. The Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing is an annual conference for undergraduate and graduate students. This year’s conference happened two weeks ago and a few Whitman students attended including Yee.

“[The conference] is kind of what it sounds like,” Yee said. “A celebration of diversity in computing. It’s this interesting [place] where people from diverse backgrounds are being encouraged to get plugged into academia or into a career.”

Senior Annabella Sherman, another attendee, discussed the Taipa Conference’s focus on current issues within the computer science field.

“You can see the community that is interested in [computer science] and the diversity that sometimes you don’t notice within [the community],” Sherman said. “You may think of it as just coding, but there are so many issues that come about with that I heard a lot of women at the conference who work in tech talk about sexism in the workplace or blatant discrimination against them.”

Another issue both Sherman and Associate Professor of Computer Science Janet Davis talked about is the tendency for women and minority students to take intro level computer science courses later in their college career, making it harder to major in it.

Currently, there is no computer science major at Whitman, yet the professors who work in computer science are planning to propose one to the faculty sometime this winter. Davis and other professors are thinking about the problems of diversity as they continue planning out the future major, as she believes diversity is important in computer science.

“One pattern I observed at Grinnell that some of my colleagues at other liberal arts colleges have [also] reported, is that women and minorities… tend to discover an interest later and sometimes too late to take many computer science courses,” Davis said. “One thing we are working on is mak[ing] sure it is possible to start computer science in your sophomore year and finish a major.”

In the meantime, as Posey points out you do not have to have a computer science degree to build yourself a career in it.

“I had a career path that I hope encourages students. I didn’t go to grad school, I built a career and I wanted students to know that even with a liberal arts degree, in fact I would say because I have a liberal arts degree, it gave me the critical thinking, and creative thinking I needed to build a movement in social entrepreneurship and to build a career. And to see that there is a real value in what you learn as it applies to the outside world,” Posey said.