For more than a decade I’ve worked on teams that accredit college and university programs in computer science, information systems, and technology. For the most part the criteria we use for computer science programs has been traditional: algorithms, programming, math, software engineering, components and architectures, models of computation, analysis of algorithms, fundamentals of program specification and verification, computational complexity, automata, etc. There are requirements for humanities and other subjects, but it is rare to see programs remain unaccredited if they were missing them. A sample set of criteria can be found on the CIPS website.
One of the things that annoyed me during computer science accreditation visits were the all too common references to women not being able to succeed in CS programs. When I’d ask why, I was usually given one of these types of answers:
- Women are incapable of thinking of complex topics
- Women just don’t want to learn computer science
- Women don’t want to study in programs where they are outnumbered
- We’d have to dumb down the programs too much (see point 1).
It took all my might to simply record their responses and not fight it out. I figured their answers might be a reflection of their program administration and management than of the women they are running out of their programs. For instance, a computer science program chair told me directly that if he had to dumb down his program enough to get women to stay, "no one would be able to log in". Tell me what sort of rewarding student experiences the females in his classes have on a daily basis?
Applied vs. Research Programs in Computing
One of the issues computer science programs have is managing the fact that they often exist as a research program but many students are more interested in studying computing at an applied level. In other professions, applied means just that – learning to apply sciences in a practical, real world environment. Other professions produce professionals just that way: lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers. For the most part, they study in applied programs. But in the research world, applied is the equivalent of dumbed down. So many computer science programs are designed to produce researchers even though the vast majority of students are there not to become researchers, but practitioners. And yet most women are drawn to professions where they can see a direct link to studying and working on projects that will change the world.
I was thinking about this while speaking on the #SQLSat157 San Diego WIT panel this past weekend. When I got home, I found this great interview with Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College: Q&A What Women Want in the Communications of the ACM. One of the questions was exactly what I experienced when choosing a program of study all those years ago:
You’ve talked before about the importance of teaching practical applications from the start, rather than waiting until students have mastered the building blocks.
We know from research that for women and minorities, the attraction of computer science is what you can do with it. It doesn’t mean they are not interested in complexity theory or other esoteric parts of the field, it just means that that tends to be the driving motivation. And in our experience, it’s not like women take one course or go to the Hopper conference and say, "I want to be a computer science major." It’s more like, you take one course or go to the Hopper conference, and you take the next course. And then you take the course after that, and by then you’ve taken three courses and you’re going, "Oh, I’m actually good at this, and it gets me summer jobs. Maybe I should be a CS major."
The curmudgeon computer science chair and his colleagues also had thoughts on programs that shifted their marketing and delivery, but not their content, to appeal more to women and minorities: it was cheating. As an IT professional, I say "Let’s cheat, then". Let’s ensure that computers science and other technology programs can step up their game to be more appealing. As a business person and someone who interviews candidates for jobs, I want to see people who understand theory AND application of it all. Cost, benefit , risk and all. Saving the world. Making a difference.
Information systems and technology programs are generally applied programs of study. However, we tend to see them as lesser siblings of computer science. Maybe we shouldn’t, especially as employers for organizations that don’t directly hire researchers.
Do we need theoretical, research-only computer science programs? ABSOLUTELY! But we also need IT professionals who can fit solutions into a corporate environment. One that can’t just think in terms of theory. And I want a more diverse, educated workforce available to hire from. Not just for the numbers, but because we get better solutions. But in order to get this, our programs of study need to step up.
I was interviewed by Shannon Kempe of Dataversity.net about my career and my experiences being a woman in technology. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the diversity issues in technology and all STEM sectors. Unlike some, I don’t think we need to see the diversity of the general population reflected in the technology world, but it does bother me that we see so many classes of people underrepresented. I tend to focus on the gender classification, but that’s not the only group of people missing from our team.
I also talked about people who think that there is no issue, or that continuing to work to ensure that obstacles are removed is wasted effort — either because there is no problem or that working harder at your job is a better solution.
My interview is part of series about women in Data Management. Check out the interview and let me know what you think. Are we wasting our time working towards a more diverse IT workforce?
It’s International Women’s Day. Yes, we get one day a year to celebrate our ladyhood. Or something like that.
I used to snicker at meetings, classes and events focused on Women in Technology (WIT). The thought of sitting around in a room full of women complaining about how hard it is to work in a man’s world did not appeal to me. To think of rallying around a cause for pay equity drove me crazy because I had never met a woman who had ever asked for a raise. I still have met only 2 who have told me they have done this. I thought that WIT issues were only about man-hating and failing to ask for what we deserved. Then an amazing thing happened. I was asked to serve as a national spokesperson for the CIPS Women in Technology program. I really didn’t want to do it, but agreed because I wanted to help.
Why was it amazing? Because I found out that most WIT initiatives aren’t about male-bashing and waiting for someone to make our lives better. One specific cause that made me "get it" was the fact that girls who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) don’t pursue studies in these areas because we, society, are constantly throwing obstacles in front of them. That got me going. I had experienced the same things:
- A high school guidance counsellor who told me that I did not want to pursue a career in a man’s field. That I would be lonely amongst all those guys and never feel at home. Wow. Was she wrong.
- A series of really terrible math teachers. And by terrible, I mean a couple who were very vocal about a female’s inability to succeed at math…high school math. Teachers who were also coaches who really didn’t want girls in their classes.
- Family members who didn’t really want me to study science. My grandmother told me it would be better to marry an engineer than to be one. So I did both.
- Messages from all around me that pretty was better than smart. That pink is the only colour for girls. That boys do fun things and girls take care of them.
So in my time as WIT spokesperson, I was able to see that we have a huge problem in society that the majority of the population is being discouraged from studying STEM and pursuing STEM-related careers. Sure, no one should be forced into these careers, but it makes me mad to see smart, highly-capable girls being steered away from professionally and financially rewarding jobs.
Recently the Girl Scout Research Institute released a report, Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. In the executive summary, they outline their findings:
These findings, we believe, will lead to more comprehensive solutions to the underrepresentation of women in the STEM
workforce. We found that:
- Seventy-four percent of high school girls across the country are interested in the fields and subjects of STEM.
- Girls are interested in the process of learning, asking questions, and problem solving.
- Girls want to help people and make a difference in the world.
- Girls who are interested in STEM are high achievers who have supportive adult networks and are exposed to STEM fields.
- Girls who are interested in STEM fields are actually interested in many subjects and career opportunities—STEM is just one area of interest among many.
- Perceived gender barriers are still high for girls and may help explain why STEM fields aren’t their top career choices.
- African American and Hispanic girls have high interest in STEM, high confidence, and a strong work ethic, but have fewer supports, less exposure, and lower academic achievement than Caucasian girls.
This research can help to change the discussion on girls and STEM by offering a much needed
strength-based perspective focusing on what contexts are most supportive for girls. We hope
this research helps to take the conversation to the next level by focusing on how to use girls’
interests to cultivate career plans for them in STEM fields.
So girls do have an interest in the subject, they do want to work in these fields, but something stops them. That’s what I talk about on WIT panels. The number one question I get from people opposed to WIT programs is "why should we force girls into something they aren’t interested in" The answer: we shouldn’t. But research like the GSRI report shows that many girls who say they aren’t interested don’t have a clear image of what our careers are like. Others have an interest, but don’t believe they can or don’t believe they should. This is a huge problem for the IT industry and for the economy. More than half of our workforce is female, but things are getting in the way of them preparing for, entering and staying in the IT field. I want to motivate those of us in the IT profession to actively do something to remove these obstacles, one misconception at a time.
You Can Help
You have the power to do that. Talk to the young women in your family. Tell them how great it is that you still have a job and your company is still trying to fill open positions. Tell them about work you do that is making a difference in other people’s lives. Talk to their parents about how important it is that they ensure their girls have a great math teacher or tutor. Ask your local user group, DAMA Chapter or SQLSaturday why they didn’t have a WIT panel. Volunteer to be on a WIT panel — yes, even you men. If your local user group doesn’t allow men on the WIT panels or events, ask them why they think this is only a female issue. Start people talking about why they think WIT is an issue or not. Then share the facts with them. Volunteer to speak at your schools. Take a girl to a museum. Let your daughter shop in the "boys" toy aisle, too. Speak out when someone says that giving girls career options is forcing them to be less female. Talk to people about this post. Leave a comment. Share it. Get people thinking about the WIT issue as a problem for all of us.
You can make a difference. One person at a time. Do it.
Information Management Magazine published a list of 17 females on Twitter to follow, drawn primarily from the data and information sector…and I’m one of them. A great group to be part of. Note that 3 of us are part of the DAMA International Board.
Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. I first saw Sheryl talk on a Women in IT (WIT) panel that happened during the recent Facebook Townhall. Steve Jones (blog | Twitter) sent me this link as he knows I have a passion for WIT topics and discussions. I found myself nodding with agreement to what Ms. Sandberg addresses in this 15 minute video. In one of the points, she shares stories of women who don’t "sit at the table". I noticed behaviour throughout my career. You’ve all been to large meetings where there weren’t enough seats at the conference table, so some people have to sit along the wall or at the back of the room. In most cases, women will choose to sit away from the table in one of the "wallflower" seats. I’m not sure why this happens. I suspect it’s how we were raised to be nice, take the burnt cookie, choose the least comfortable chair, or otherwise put someone else’s needs ahead of our own. There’s nothing wrong with giving up your seat for someone who needs it more than you do, but we ladies need to stop deferring our power to others because we aren’t thinking like the men are.
I’ve heard that the most powerful seat in a room is one that faces the main entrance. I almost never see my female co-workers take that seat. Maybe they don’t know where the power seats are. Maybe they don’t care to play the game. Maybe they don’t feel they are worthy of it. I can assure you that there are people in the room playing that game and they are keeping score. It’s not just this one small behaviour, either. We females spend too much time as wallflowers in all kinds of situations: not submitting to speak at events and conferences, giving others credit for our own work, letting people in meetings shut down our comments. I’ve seen all of them.
In the Facebook Townhall, President Obama first spoke with Mark Zuckerberg, then after all that was done, a panel of women in tech discussed diversity and gender issues. What I found odd about this set up was that it almost sent the same message that Sheryl addresses in the above TED Talk: Sitting at the table. When I first read the agenda for the townhall, I was thrilled that the President of the United States was going to discuss a topic that was near and dear to my heart. Instead, the WIT panel was held as separate event on a different set. I was thrilled that such a high profile event covered the topic of gender issues in technology, though, and I look forward to future events where this issue can be addressed with the widest possible audiences.
Watch the video. In 15 minutes Sheryl gives 3 pieces of advice that can benefit you in your career. Keep asking yourself, "am I sitting at the table"?
I have mixed feelings about the whole Barbie phenomenon. I had a talking Barbie growing up and I loved her and her friend Stacey. But I don’t remember much about the way she dressed…perhaps because my Grandmother sewed much of the clothes I had for her. Maybe I was shielded from the party-girl outfits that were available.
I recently found this as an online game at Mattel.com:
This is to promote Mattel’s recent Computer Engineer Barbie product. What I find interesting is that they’ve focused on the data aspects of computing. Most likely this is done only for the alliteration, but I do like getting early to girls about the importance of data.
I’m hoping that my friend @datadeva sees this, too.
Love Your Data. Get your kids to love their data, too.
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