NACE Journal/Summer 2023
As career development professionals and recruiters who hire entry-level talent, we all agree that internships and other high-impact educational experiences position college students for success after graduation. In the career development office at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science (UVA Engineering), my team and I spend a lot of time working with students who are seeking internships. Our primary interactions involve helping students seek out internship experiences, write resumes and cover letters, and connect with internship opportunities locally, nationally, and internationally. We track student participation in internships through self-reported surveys, and we reach out to students every spring semester to identify those who have not yet secured internships to offer them personalized career advice.
I know that many career centers are engaging in the same types of activities that we are. And our efforts pay off; at UVA Engineering, for instance, almost all our students participate in an internship or undergraduate research experience by the time they graduate.
On the employer side, many organizations invest significant time and resources into hiring interns. They visit campus, attend career fairs, post internship opportunities, and schedule coffee chats with students. They market internship opportunities as a way for students to develop career-related skills, build their professional networks, and have a leg up on their full-time job search. Many students accept a return offer to work with an organization where they completed an internship, and so in that sense, internships also serve as an extended job interview, where students and employers alike can learn more about one another and determine if there is interest and fit for a longer-term employment relationship.
Yet with all these resources invested in internships on both the university and the employer side, how do we know that students are having meaningful experiences in their internships? We often take for granted that internships constitute meaningful professional experiences, but what do the students themselves have to say about their internship experiences? This question is particularly relevant for students from marginalized backgrounds, who may experience a sense of isolation in their academic programs, and who may be further marginalized in the workplace.
The Need for Further ResearchOur study was limited in that our sample population was small (n=13) and the participants all studied at the same prestigious institution. Furthermore, there was a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our sample, as participants identified as either white, Hispanic/Latina and white, or Asian or Pacific Islander. Future research should investigate the experiences of other marginalized populations, including Black women, Indigenous women, first-generation college student women, and students who are gender non-conforming.
In addition, exploring participation in computing internships by non-computing majors is another area ripe for future research. Professor Kate Smith and I are currently collaborating with researchers at UCLA on a quantitative study on this topic and plan to publish a paper on this soon.
Women in Computing
One such population is women in computer science (CS). In my position, I have witnessed the growth in enrollment in computer science majors over the past decade, and the huge explosion of career opportunities for students with computing skills. Computing jobs offer some of the highest starting salaries for students graduating from college; oftentimes, these starting salaries are in the six-figure range. The career pathways in computing are broad and include not just software development but also web design and development, user interface/user experience design, technology accessibility, data analysis, and product management, to name a few. Despite all these opportunities, however, women remain underrepresented in computer science majors and careers. The most recent estimate is that approximately 25% of the computer and information science workforce are women.1 In 2020, only 21% of bachelor’s degree earners in computer science were women.2
Due to their underrepresentation in the classroom and societal messaging around technology being a “masculine domain,” women in CS often feel isolated and marginalized, even as they pursue a field that they find interesting, challenging, and offering much room for career advancement.3 They report a sense of impostor syndrome, being relegated to notetaking tasks in group projects, not being listened to or taken as seriously as their male classmates, and having a need to “prove” themselves. Some women experience outright sexism and gendered microaggressions, although often the discrimination they face is much more subtle and covert.4
For women who persist through college computing programs and engage in computing internships, often the sense of isolation or marginalization heightens in the male-dominated workplace. It is reasonable to expect that if students have positive experiences through their internships, they will be more likely to continue with that company or the field in general; conversely, if students have a negative experience, they might decide to apply for full-time jobs elsewhere, if not leave the field altogether.
It was these realities that led me to wonder how women in computing experience and make sense of their internships, and how their internship experiences shape their future career plans. To explore the issue, I reached out to Katie Smith, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, who had written on the topic of women in engineering and their college-to-career transitions. She generously offered to collaborate with me on a study, which we launched in the spring of 2020.
After gaining institutional review board (IRB) approval, I interviewed 13 women who were graduating that spring from a computer science program at a large, public research institution on the East Coast. I asked about students’ decisions to major in CS, their experiences in their academic program and their internships, and their future career plans. I audio and/or video recorded all the interviews (some were in person and others were on Zoom, due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and had the audio recordings transcribed by a third-party transcription service. I offered participants the opportunity to read over the transcripts and edit or redact any statements, so they would have control over which data they shared. Professor Smith and I then analyzed the data for themes and published our findings in the Journal of Career Development.5
Happily, all our participants had mostly positive experiences with their internships. They found, for the most part, their intern organizations to be welcoming, supportive places and their internships served as helpful learning experiences. Several of the participants were planning to return to their internship site for their full-time job, and others, although accepting offers with different organizations, planned to stay in the field of computing. Instances of outright sexism were rare, and interns generally felt respected and supported through their internship.
Yet, despite the overall positive experiences, there were certain nuances the women navigated, due to their gender and, in some cases, other marginalized identities. The biggest example of this was the sense of being one of only a few women—and sometimes the only woman—on their team, an experience that was present daily for most of the women in the study. Being surrounded by men who were full-time employees, as well as other interns who were men, made the women keenly aware of their marginalized status and had implications for their internship experiences and their future career plans.
Our data gave insight into three processes women experienced throughout their internships in computing; we categorized these as 1) questioning technical competence, 2) navigating gendered microclimates, and 3) reflecting on careers in computer science, which are described below.
Questioning Technical Competence
Several of the women in our study questioned whether they were qualified for a technical internship, which led some to avoid even applying for internships in the first place. Having supportive friends and peers who provided positive encouragement often made the difference for these women in pursuing and obtaining an internship. One participant talked about her experience leading a computing-related student organization and noted that the experience of interacting with other students in the club and with employers through events like resume reviews built her confidence.
Almost all the women in our study experienced self-doubt and a sense of impostor syndrome prior to, and sometimes during, their internships. Interns very much felt the need to prove their competence. However, having the chance to participate in internships allowed these women to see that they were just as competent as their peers; furthermore, internship participation allowed women to further develop technical and other job-related skills, thus contributing to a cycle of confidence building.
Navigating Gendered Microclimates
One of the phenomena we set out to understand was how women experienced being a gender minority in the workplace and how gendered internship experiences led to women’s future career decisions.
We found that regardless of a company’s overall culture, it was the “microclimates” that women experienced daily that had the most impact on their decision to stay with that specific company or team, or to search elsewhere. Almost all our participants reported gendered interactions with other members of their team, or gendered team dynamics, and if these dynamics or interactions were sufficiently uncomfortable, it led women to think about finding a company where the gender demographics were more balanced. For example, a couple of participants talked about trying to get their voices heard; one even mentioned the sense of feeling physically small at her team’s regular stand-up meetings.
What made the microclimates supportive was having regular interactions with peers and supervisors who cared about the interns’ career development. A few interns talked about their company’s proactive efforts to facilitate connections throughout the organization, hosting networking lunches and connecting interns with senior women leaders in the field. Interns appreciated these efforts, which contributed to their sense of belonging. Supportive supervisors mattered, too. Having regular meetings with supervisors was not as important as knowing their supervisor cared about the interns’ career plans. Interns also appreciated regular feedback on their work, as that also helped build their confidence.
Reflecting on Careers in Computer Science
As our participants reflected on their internship experiences, they discussed how those experiences confirmed that computing was a field in which they wanted to continue. They shared how developing their skills and getting a sense for what computing work was like—outside the classroom—meaningfully impacted their career decisions.
While some participants had experiences that prompted them to look for a different company, or a different team within the same organization that was more gender balanced, all our participants were hopeful about their futures in the field. The women in our study also felt strongly about encouraging other women, with the aim of changing the future of the field to be more inclusive.
Implications for Employers and Career Development Professionals
Our study demonstrates how women’s experiences in computing internships shape their future career decisions. Our findings have implications for both career development professionals and employers who recruit entry-level talent.
First, this study showed how being a gender minority, in this case, a woman in a field dominated by men, can impact students on a subconscious level, leading to feelings of impostor syndrome and self-doubt. These feelings can prevent otherwise qualified students from applying for internships, so early intervention is key to encourage women to apply.
This study also illustrated that having gendered internship experiences, e.g., being one of only a few women on a team, or experiencing gendered dynamics in the recruitment process or in the workplace, can shape women’s views of the workplace and prompt them to look elsewhere for their next career move. If companies want to retain the women they recruit for internships, they need to understand the nuanced microclimates into which interns are placed and work to develop an inclusive culture throughout the organization. They need to ensure that interns are coupled with supervisors who are sensitive to the issues of underrepresented minorities and who can give regular, constructive feedback, as well as help interns grow in their careers.
Universities may have limited bandwidth to connect with every student about their internship experiences, but perhaps offering “listening sessions” with students to process their internship experiences can be helpful for university staff to understand how students are experiencing and making meaning of their internship experiences, while also supporting college students’ growth and development through internships.
Moving Forward With Positive Changes
Our study foregrounds the internship experiences of women in computing and documents how important positive encouragement, supportive microclimates, and extended networks of mentors and peers are to women’s continued engagement in the computing workforce. With this understanding, I hope that career development practitioners and employers will move forward with positive changes—or continue these best practices—in their efforts to encourage, support, and promote women in computing careers. Finally, I believe we can draw lessons from our study on how to support all students in having meaningful and impactful internship experiences, positioning them for their next steps after college graduation and beyond.
1 National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Survey of College Graduates. (2021). Employed scientists and engineers, by occupation, highest degree level, and sex: 2021. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf23315/data-tables.
2 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Degrees in computer and information sciences conferred by postsecondary institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: 1964-65 through 2019-20. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d21/tables/dt21_325.35.asp.
3 Main J. B., Schimpf C. (2017). The Underrepresentation of Women in Computing Fields: A Synthesis of Literature Using a Life Course Perspective. IEEE Transaction on Education, 60(4), 296–304. https://doi.org/10.1109/TE.2017.2704060.
4 Smith K. N., Gayles J. G. (2018). “Girl Power”: Gendered Academic and Workplace Experiences of College Women in Engineering. Social Sciences, 7(2), 11. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7010011.
5 Lapan, J. C., & Smith, K. N. (2023). “No Girls on the Software Team:” Internship Experiences of Women in Computer Science. Journal of Career Development, 50(1), 119–134. https://doi.org/10.1177/08948453211070842.