Despite underrepresentation of women in academic arenas like STEM and business fields, as well as in recreational spaces such as fitness centers, many women-led CIOs at the University have risen to the challenge and continue to create spaces that offer support and empowerment to female students. As the spring semester begins, CIOs like Girls Who Code, Society of Women Engineers, Smart Woman Securities and Changing Health, Attitudes and Actions To Recreate Girls are open to new women and non-binary and gender nonconforming peers who are looking for a community of supportive people with shared passions.
Entering into a male-dominated field as a woman can be intimidating and even off-putting, especially because of underlying possibilities to feel undervalued as a team member. With the intention of opposing this discriminatory dynamic, which is particularly dominant in STEM, Mara Hart, third-year College student and president of Girls Who Code, founded the organization to give people a community of support and solidarity.
“The main mission of Girls Who Code at the core of everything we do is to create a more gender-inclusive tech field,” Hart said. “Whether that involves having more women, having more nonbinary people ... anything to build up that empowerment.”
At the University, female students make up 55 percent of the general student body, but only 32 percent of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Feeling intimidated by this disproportionate ratio, Rebecca Della Croce, fourth-year Engineering student and president of Society of Women Engineers — an organization focused on empowering girls pursuing careers in engineering and technology — joined the CIO her first year. Rising to her position of leadership within the organization, she has since continued to help her fellow female engineers to feel represented and appreciated.
“When I got to U.Va. I felt how big of a deal it was to be a woman in engineering in some regards,” Della Croce said. “Not only was it weird to not see a lot of other women in the room, but sometimes my male peers really wouldn't take what I was saying seriously. I really wanted to find that community of other women in engineering, and I loved seeing how the women in SWE empowered each other.”
Hart shared similar experiences of being blatantly disregarded and disrespected by her male colleagues in her computer science education internship. She has turned to the Girls Who Code community as a support system to learn from and grow with as she continues to face such challenges in the male-dominated field of computer science.
“Regularly my boss would disregard what I had to say, including picking up his phone while I was talking during meetings then putting it down as soon as I stopped talking [and] making provocative comments toward me when I was talking about education and trying to discuss professional matters,” Hart said. “Aside from that, I have come back and learned that there may be a lack of representation, but there are people to reach out to.”
The competitive nature of the University’s STEM programs presents a challenge for women to overcome the existing gender barriers in many professional fields. However, this obstacle for women pursuing professional careers is not exclusive to STEM fields, as it exists in the business sectors as well. Claire Duffy, third-year McIntire student and chief executive officer of Smart Woman Securities, was initially intimidated by the competitive applications required to join most investment clubs, so she decided to get involved in SWS because it was an open space for women to learn about investment with less pressure and more support.
“SWS really prides itself on our focus on education,” Duffy said. “I know in general at U.Va. a lot of clubs have really competitive application processes … [but] women are so underrepresented in finance, we want to give any girl who is interested in learning about finance and investing the opportunity.”
SWS executes this mission of supporting all women interested in commerce by holding open seminars to educate students rather than expecting prior knowledge and experience. They also emphasize networking with women currently in finance to provide insight and expertise about navigating a career in the male-dominated finance industry.
“Alongside education, we are very focused on mentorship and building connections between women currently in finance, especially those who have graduated from U.Va. and are alumnae of SWS,” Duffy said. “This semester in particular, we are putting a large focus on corporate events, so partnering with companies to come speak to our members and give them the opportunity to hear from women in finance. We want to be that lead into breaking more women into the industry.”
Girls Who Code takes a similar approach by offering open instruction on the foundations of coding. They also bring these educational pursuits to the greater community in order to empower girls from a young age.
“We want to make sure we are partnering with other members of our community, whether that is us teaching girl scouts or having Capital One come teach us,” Hart said. “Over winter break, the curriculum co-directors [and I] held a six-week coding workshop so that local girl scouts in middle school could earn all of their coding badges. We are all about integrating ourselves into the community and working to give back as much as possible.”
Beyond academic and professional empowerment, woman-led CIOs at the University have dedicated their efforts to fostering personal growth by emphasizing physical and mental wellbeing. Cassie Korcel, third-year College student and president of CHAARG, has worked to establish a strong community of women’s empowerment through physical health and group fitness.
“Our mission is to show our members that fitness can and should be fun,” Korcel said. “We strive to remind our members to always be the best version of themselves and to take charge of their mental, physical and emotional health. We are encouraging people to make that change and live a healthy lifestyle.”
Going to the gym — and especially entering the weight room — as a woman can be a very intimidating experience that can turn women away from working out. CHAARG strives to reduce that pressure by creating a community of supportive women with a shared passion for fitness.
“Maybe it is unintentional that women feel pressured and even sometimes unwelcome in the space at the gym, but a lot of women do, so we can't discount that,” Korcel said. “Personally, even going to the gym sometimes can feel scary, you don't know what to do and you are unsure of where to go, but the beauty of CHAARG is being able to go with friends who make you feel comfortable to enter the space and to try new things.”
The University’s woman-led CIOs have created welcoming communities that are working hard to combat the gendered stigmas and barriers that women face in academics, the workplace and in their personal lives. The leaders of these organizations are setting great examples as women who are taking control of the space and opening the doors to empower other passionate women.
“If you are in a situation and there is not a chair for you at the table, pull up your own chair,” Della Croce said. “Show up anywhere you want to be and make a place for yourself. It is OK for you to show up somewhere that you feel unwelcome because you can change that experience for the women who come after you.”
This article previously misnamed Smart Woman Securities as Smart "Women" Securities in referring to the organization. The article has been updated with the correct title for the organization.