I never really missed having few female friends until four of us founded Carleton University’s Women in Science and Engineering, or CU-WISE. Then I suddenly realized what I was missing out on. Looking back to where we started just a few years ago, I am really struck by how much a few people with a lot of vision can accomplish.
I had recently organized a small Women in CS event within our School of Computer Science when I was approached by Barbara, Natalia, and Serena. They knew I had previously been the president of the undergraduate computer science society and figured I would probably have something to offer in terms of getting ourselves organized.
I immediately made a few suggestions that are still in place today: we started a Google Group to communicate amongst ourselves, we began capturing important information in a Google Docs folder, and we planned a coherent brand to identify ourselves with. I led the design of our new logo and developed our first promotional brochure. I emphasized the importance of an up-to-date website because it would be the first contact most potential members would have with our group, and we needed to make a good impression. We worked hard to determine what should be on that website and how it should look (you can check it out at http://www.carleton.ca/wise). All of these startup activities were very valuable to our long-term success, and I continue to suggest the same things to other new groups that ask for advice.
With the basics in place, we had a daunting hurdle to get over next: funding. I personally think that asking for money can be one of the most difficult things to do, which is probably why so many of us have a hard time negotiating our salaries! We managed to get a meeting with the current Dean of Science and together approached him with the attitude of dreaming big. We explained what we hoped CU-WISE would become and were surprised to be met with a healthy dose of support and enthusiasm. The Dean suggested we put together a strategic plan complete with a mission and vision and pledged some money to help us run events. Even better, when we asked about some funding to help us attend the next Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (where we hoped we’d learn all about running WISE-like groups), he pledged money for that, too! Not only that, but he told us to ask a few of his higher-ups for money by saying he backed the request. This success was our first lesson in what we like to call “ask, ask, and ask again” – the worst thing that can happen is you can hear someone say no!
Since that fateful meeting, we have had more funding than we know what to do with from both the Dean of Science and the Dean of Engineering. We have over 400 subscribers to our mailing list. We host several smaller speaker and social events during the school year and at least one major outreach or celebration event. We recently started a mentoring program and will soon expand it to include pre-university students. We have an amazing executive team and an extended network of what we call officers ready to help out. And, best of all, we constantly have women in science and engineering tell us how glad they are to have a group like CU-WISE.
So have the many hours we put into starting CU-WISE been worth it? I think I can speak for all of us when I respond with a resounding YES! Besides the amazing teamwork and leadership skills we have acquired along the way, there is nothing better than knowing you are making a difference. Plus, the bond we have with each other now is something I had been missing in my male-dominated circle of friends without even knowing it. Starting CU-WISE made me realize how important such a group is, despite being someone who didn’t think she needed it.
I leave you all with a call to action. If you don’t have a support group on your campus or at your place of work, or if your group never quite flourished, I want you to know that you can make it happen. With a bit of dedication and an ability to dream big, you will be amazed at what you can do. And you never know… perhaps you will be find yourself changed as much as you change the lives of others.