Coding for equity

Computer sciences and Spanish double-major Katie Zutter is working to make the tech industry more inclusive.

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Sitting down with Katie Zutter the day a Google engineer was fired for writing that women are biologically less fit to work in tech — the latest flare-up involving issues of gender bias in the industry — could have been awkward. 

But the controversy didn’t throw the senior majoring in computer sciences and Spanish. To the contrary, inequities in tech only fuel her to push for change.

Zutter came to UW-Madison knowing she’d major in Spanish. On a whim, she enrolled in an Intro to Java course her second semester — and was surprised by how much she enjoyed the subject. 

“I thought, this is like learning another language,” she says. “And I liked the logic of it.”

Pursuing majors in both Spanish and computer sciences — plus a certificate in digital studies — has made for some jarring juxtapositions, Zutter admits at the Union South, during a brief pause before her final year as an undergraduate starts up. 

“I’ve had Spanish classes where it’s all women,” says the student who grew up on the west side of Madison. “And I’ve had huge computer science lectures where I look around and see three other girls. But it hasn’t been anything that’s held me back.”

Rather, Zutter is working to help solve issues of gender bias and inequity. 

She’s served as a facilitator for Girls Who Code since her friend, Kate Zellmer, started a chapter on campus last fall, teaching roughly a dozen local middle school girls each week the basics of coding. 

The national nonprofit has found that interest in computer science plummets when girls reach the ages of 13 to 17. Zutter can only imagine what it would have been like to familiarize herself with coding — and the career possibilities it affords — early on. 

“This would have been so amazing to me,” she says. “I didn’t have any exposure until my freshman year.”

I’ve had Spanish classes where it’s all women, and I’ve had huge computer science lectures where I look around and see three other girls. But it hasn’t been anything that’s held me back.

Zutter worked with Girls Who Code until she left to study abroad in Madrid last spring. But she will happily return to teaching this fall. 

She’s also eager to be one of 12 undergrads and six graduate students from the computer sciences department going to the Grace Hopper Celebration, an annual conference that draws 15,000 female technologists from more than 80 countries.

“It’s the world’s biggest gathering of women in technology,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to talking to women who work all across the tech field.”

Zutter is keeping an open mind about her future, and where her training in both computer science and Spanish could fit. Last year, she received the Thomas W. Parker Scholarship, an award given to juniors and seniors in the humanities and social sciences. In her application essay for the scholarship, she reflected on the potential of her majors.

“Diversity in CS benefits everyone,” she wrote. “People with different backgrounds and experiences bring fresh perspectives to the table in terms of problem-solving and innovation. I believe that being a woman and having the ability to speak Spanish will make me a great candidate to provide outreach to underrepresented groups and help computer science to be more inclusive.”

The Department’s Approach

To address issues of gender disparity within computer science, the UW-Madison Department of Computer Sciences has joined forces with National Center for Women in Technology to create and begin implementing a strategic plan to recruit and retain more undergraduate women in computer science, led by Prof. Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau and Prof. Michael Swift. Read more here.