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?
I knew it would happen. As I blogged previously, SQLPASS is hosting a 24 Hours of PASS event in March and is using this event to honour Women in IT (WIT) by having 24 sessions given solely by female data professionals.
Having worked on WIT committees, programs and events for more than two decades (I was a national spokesperson for WIT here in Canada for two years), I knew that someone (and there will be more) would eventually anonymously complain that this one event should not be run with only female speakers. Trolls must post anonymously because they don’t want to contribute to the discussion; they just want to make a good thing look bad. This is my letter to Anonymous (an infrastructure DBA).
Hi Anonymous –
You forgot to mention the creepier one that most anonymous trolls give:
"What about the lack of overweight, old, ugly, grumpy white guys in the Supermodel profession?"
It’s a classic. It is the most common response I get in letters to the editor, live events and articles from anonymous posters. If you are going to go for it, please go all the way.
This witty questions does not contribute to the discussion of diversity in any profession because it makes a huge leap of logic: that there is some physical trait in females that should keep them out of the IT profession. That is flat out wrong.
By the way, there are people who are concerned about the lack of diversity in the nursing profession. I support all kinds of programs that want to address real issues of diversity in all professions.
The reason society should be concerned about diversity isn’t about making the numbers somehow magically match demographics of the full population, it is that we should investigate the reasons why certain professions aren’t diverse as the full populations and make corrective action to ensure that silly obstacles aren’t there. The most successful WIT programs focus on ensuring that young women understand the opportunities available to them and remove roadblocks they might have to considering a career in IT.
Much research has shown that young women don’t consider IT (and other STEM) careers because they:
- Don’t even know what the career is about and therefore think it is all about grumpy evil-doing nerds working alone in a dark basement drinking Jolt Cola and typing all day. Think of the Wayne Knight character in Jurassic Park.
- Hear from grumpy people that women aren’t smart enough to work in IT.
- Don’t realize soon enough that they should have taken more math and science during their schooling and therefore can’t get in to certain programs of study, even though they have the aptitude to work in IT
- Think that Computer Science programs are the only career path into IT
- Read computer science program “marketing” materials, which most programs fail miserably at creating, and think “wow, what a boring technical wasteland”.
- Think that IT is only about programming…alone, in a dark basement, typing all day. GOTO point 1.
But let’s focus on one of the main reasons (I presume) why SQLPASS wants to hold an event featuring WIT. The reasons that most women give for not submitting abstracts for speaking:
- Much more often than men, they don’t think that they are enough of an expert to give a presentation.
- Much more often than men, they think there are so many "celebrities" in the field that the shouldn’t even bother submitting.
- Much more likely than men they are more likely to feel that they are an "imposter" in the field and therefore shouldn’t even try to speak at an event.
- They have so many more outside-of-work responsibilities that traveling a ways to speak and attend a conference is a significant roadblock to participating.
- More often than men, they believe that they should be specifically invited to speak rather than just nominate themselves.
- They are more likely to worry about the catch-22 of doing anything new: you shouldn’t do it until you have more experience doing it.
- They think that no one will attend a session they give because they haven’t written a book (see point 4), they don’t travel the world giving presentations, or that someone else has already given a presentation on that topic.
I talk to many women who have wonderful thoughts, observations, scripts, data models, ideas, opinions, and other knowledge to share but won’t even consider submitting an abstract. Most of the time they give one or all of the reasons above. Please ensure that you understand all those “more often” words in the above list.
The idea of featuring only females during 24 Hours of PASS isn’t going to solve all these problems, but it can go a long way to getting more women to present because it takes away some of the obstacles that many female IT professionals give as reasons to not even try. With more women presenting at this one event, we will most likely have more women presenting at other events during the year. You may not want that, but I want that if the reason women aren’t submitting is because they’ve never been encouraged enough to submit an abstract or to gain speaking experience.
Should SQLPASS bend to address those issues? I think they should not have to do so, but often all it takes is a slight change in how women are recruited to make a real difference. Personally, I’d like to figuratively whack all these women on the side of the head like Cher did on Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck: “Snap out of it”. Sometimes, though, helping people realize their potential is one of the most wonderful thing we can do for them.
Yes, I realize for the one event, some presenters will be excluded. For this one event. I would love to have a professional, insightful conversation about whether or not the one shift in a variable is acceptable, desirable, laughable, or even hurtful. But we can’t have those conversations when one posts anonymously in short bursts of accusations. It really doesn’t help the conversation at all.
I’d love to hear opinions on this, but in a way that advances the conversation.
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