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Women in Computing

There is good news and bad news (Feb 26)
The Good News: Computer Engineer Barbie won (overwhelmingly) the vote for Barbie's next job. On one hand this may seem trivial -- but, we do have a problem here.

The Bad News: 7% of the Computer Society membership has indicated their gender as female. My alma mater, Stanford, has women as just over 10% of their computer science facilty; and about 14% of their current students.

So, why do we care? - There are joyful battles to be fought over whether women are different from men, or perhaps more correctly, in what ways and why.  What is clear is women have a significantly different experience than men (for some sanity check on this, check out the IEEE WIE Magazine where women share their stories ... it puts meat on the bones of this concept.) I'm not advocating sympathy here -- I'm talking ignorace vs innovation; and wasted grey cells.
When you increase the diversity/perspective in the dialog, you increase the innovation and range of creative thought. Failure to develop your network of informal collaborators to include diversity reflects ignorance of many key things. First is the catalysts for innovation, and second is the role these connections play in your long term career growth. If we don't have women in the pipe-line going into computing programs, or coming into our companies, or into our chapters and sections where we can develop these informal networks ... then we are denied access to a key perspective.

Wasted gray cells is the flip side of the coin. Some number of women are not finding their way to the "Joy of Computing". Mind you, it is not joy for all persons, so we know there is a subset already involved. But I refuse to accept that this subset is as gender selective as the numbers imply. Of course if the perception of young persons is based on something other than joy -- images of Halo3, or too much Dilbert-- then some kids will get turned off.

Engineers and Technologists solve problems for humanity. The software, applications, and even computers and devices applied to medical research, DNA analysis, logistics reponses for disaster relief, personalization of education to reach every child, even delighting audiences with animation or special effects via online channels or digital theaters are all delivered by computing professionals. Those neat devices that let you keep track of your friends and engage in social interaction (probably in many situations where you shouldn't) come from the same wizards.  Did I mention that the real wizards are not at Hogworts they are in engineering, computer science and information technology programs .. and a few others as well. A doctor can save hundreds of lives, and thousands from pain. The inventors of portable dialasys machines, NMR's, field 'tricorder' diagnostic systems, etc. save thousands of lives and aliviate the pain for millions.  You get the picture.

So why do I care -- because the quality of life for my future depends on engaging the full spectrum of human experience in the "joy of computing" -- and the future for my grand children as well. -- So you say, doesn't this same argument apply to other axies of diversity -- economic, linquistic, cultural, racial, national, ... absolutely.

Can Barbie help us? Yes ... if she catches the interest if a young girls, who see that being a computer wizard is "OK" or "Cool" ... then we win.  Do we need a lot more paths to reach young persons?  Yes, Barbie can't do this all by herself.

If you have some suggstions, then reply.  And watch for local opportunities.  Some like robotics competitions, science fairs, and such which may already be in your neighborhood. Check out "National Lab Day" , and see if there is a place where you can help support teachers to help students find the joy in technology.


I want to thank folks for commenting and 'ranking' this blog entry.  I will return to this topic in the future, and have enjoyed some direct interaction with respondants as well. ... But there are a few other topics to get 'on the table' before continuing this one in the Blog (Mar. 21)

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I also consider this to be a significant issue for us. My sister has been working on this issue for the better part of a decade and has created a number of creative and effective programs to improve this at the University where she is on the faculty. Her name is Dr. Carol Schubert Gattis and she's now the Associate Dean of the Honors Program at the University of Arkansas. She began this work while she was the Director of Engineering Recruitment, Retention, Honors, International Programs and Diversity (reporting to the Dean of Engineering) and I believe that she has written about what she has done in refereed journals. Carol is a Ph.D. EE, BTW, and can be found at http://honorscollege.uark.edu/index.php/facstaff. I am sure that she would be interested in hearing from you.

Best regards,

Posted on 3/2/10 2:49 PM.
My name is June Rosemarie Massoud and I am a female computer engineer and member of IEEE for 27 years. I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, where my family has lived for 3 generations. I am also a former Section Chair, of the Montreal Section of IEEE, as well as former Vice-Chair, Secretary and Treasurer.
I am also a former Chair of the Earth Observations Portals Committee of ISWG, under the Global Earth Observations System of Systems Project of the IEEE.
The first thing I need to mention is the problem I find that exists between merging the concepts of cultural diversity with women's issues. Unfortunately, I totally disagree with this. These are two very separate issues, for a Canadian-born female IEEE engineer like me. I do not identify with any diversity issues as they pertain to minority cultures, etc. I identify solely with my Canadian identity. So it's hard for women like me to merge in with the diversity, minority crowd, because I refuse to be swallowed into third world cultures I don't believe in, and whose values I don't believe in. I wonder then, if the Computer Society has only 7% women, what percentage of those women were born and educated in Western countries, throughout their lives? Is it 1% or 2% of the entire membership? So you see, we have a major problem here. There are literally no computer scientists or computer engineer females who exist from Western countries. Throughout my career, I faced the greatest degree of discrimination from men in my field who came from third world countries, where women are not allowed studying to become engineers or computer scientists. How these guys were even allowed to have access to me as my professors or bosses at work, is mind-boggling. They were extremely vicious and underhanded, most often in a highly manipulative and subtle way, employing techniques of psychological warfare hatred against women, as they do to their own women in their own countries. Everybody in IEEE needs to wake up and realize that it's pure hell for North-American women who want to become engineers or computer scientists, if we don't have the money to go to MIT or Stanford, and get taught by Western professors, even though we're brilliant at school (I graduated my high school Summa Cum Laude with a 90% overall average, science stream). Finally, we end up relegated to derelicts in third world-controlled universities in North America, who illegally grade our papers with lower marks.
There's so much to discuss on this subject. For further comments, please contact me at: junermassoud@hotmail.com or jrmass@sympatico.ca
Posted on 3/3/10 11:02 PM in reply to Karl Schubert.
I'll reply as one of the 7% IEEE-CS who are women. The problem is real, but not uniformly distributed. Some computing organizations are very friendly to all people, and some are quite exclusionary. Where I work there are many women in computing, doing well. Other places and groups are overtly hostile to women.

You don't believe it? Not too long ago at a cross-organizational discussion of system design and implementation, at which I was the only computing woman, I was pulled aside by a member of the other organization and asked why I did not wear heels. I was informed very clearly that women were expected "to dress appropriately" for the meetings, which included high heels. I was dressed professionally, as were the men who were present. Oddly, none of them wore high heels, either! This kind of treatment is less common than in the past, but still happens.

So, if you want to help change the world, be alert to what your colleagues are saying and doing -- and speak up if they wolf-whistle in an otherwise professional meeting, make comments about women's hair, clothes, perfume, etc. Personal remarks are not part of engineering work. An easy criterion is whether they would say or do something like that to a respected male developer or engineer.

Posted on 3/9/10 10:45 PM.
It's very good to fight against artificial barriers. It's good to encourage and support girls to give computer science or software engineering a try. It's bad to push anyone into these fields unless they really want to be there. It's very bad to have a pre-conceived notion that something is wrong with the Universe unless the percentage of workers of a specific kind in every field or occupation matches their percentage in the general population. I'll worry about a "shortage" of women in computer science just as soon as someone starts worrying about a "shortage" of men in nursing.

Posted on 3/9/10 10:49 PM.
My name is Donna (Reed) Benevides and I'm a 55-year-old female college student majoring in IT. I was fortunate to recently become a student member of this esteemed organization.

I writing to address an issue raised by June Rosemarie Massoud, because I am attending University of Massachusetts Lowell (it's all I can afford) and have direct experience with what she mentions regarding third world professors and their treatment of female students. If I ask a question, for example, one professor (who is from India) won't answer me. He tells me to "read the materials" even though I've already read them, which is why I was asking in the first place! If a male asks him a question, even if it's a stupid question that proves he didn't read the materials, the professor answers him in great detail and with much patience. I've stopped asking questions altogether because it gives the professor a license to abuse and humiliate me.

I'm a very good student. Graduated with high honors when I earned my Associates degree and, despite some of these professors, have managed to maintain a high cumulative GPA, but it's been a nightmare at times.

The malicious treatment of women while they are students must make quite a few of them change their majors.
Posted on 3/10/10 12:06 AM.
Diversity is today's trick to 'be right' in the employment arena. Why? Because people from outside the US are out there willing to work 24 hours, travel all over the place and generally see their significant other once a week. Their survival depends upon their job and they network. This will take its toll on them.

My work ethic is strong and I do work very hard in the technical arena as well. This isn't just engineering. It's any profession. If a woman takes a maternity leave, her career can suffer. Engineering is probably one of the easiest careers. Math teachers are in demand. Computer Science courses are available online now.

So, where is the issue? Is it how the American culture perceives a woman's role both at home and work? Is it how girls are considered 'nerds' if they choose math or engineering (a stigma there)? Is it the glass ceiling or lack of promotion in the field?

I am married to an engineer I met in college. During some classes, we would take the exact same problem and approach it in opposite directions, but we would both have the correct answer. It may be a difference in perception within individuals in the profession. If somebody else used his technique, in his eyes, it may seem more 'right' to him.

Barbie...hmmm. Never played with her at all. She just wasn't very realistic in many ways. We need a better cultural icon.
Posted on 3/10/10 12:22 AM in reply to Mark Wallace.
Eliminating artificial barriers to a person who desires to pursue a particular career is highly admirable. Setting specific targets based on gender and other artificial qualifications is not. If you want to pose some unsupported theory about the gender-specific contribution that a female brain is able to make, then you must also be prepared for the possibility that there will be some gender-specific limitations. As our understanding of neuroscience is quite incomplete, individual vary greatly within their respective genders, and the fields of computing and engineering continue to evolve at a rapid pace, I believe it best to allow a person to prove their own individual ability without any prior assumptions.
Posted on 3/10/10 12:19 AM.
Actually, girls voted overwhelmingly for "news anchor"; it was the professional women in computer science who campaigned for and got the additional career of "computer engineer" for Barbie. I feel that Barbie is not the role model we want for computer careers - she is all about the accessories. As the Mattel web site says "this digital diva engineers the perfect geek-chic look, with hot pink accessories and sleek gadgets to match". It is a challenge to keep girls interested in math, science, and technology. They certainly start out interested. I have been a software developer for over 25 years and none of my 3 daughters have shown the slightest interest in programming. It doesn't help that it is not taught in their school at all.
Posted on 3/10/10 12:25 AM.
There are limitations within any gender. Personally, I am the only one who pursued math in my family. Both of my sisters hated math with a passion. However, one excels in music and plays professionally in a major orchestra. The other sister excels in art and has obtained a Masters' in Education as well as several certifications related to photography and web design.
Posted on 3/10/10 12:57 AM in reply to Marty Brandon.
On lack of promotions for women in Engineering. I worked at a company for 5 years. While there I never got a promotion or raise from the base title of Engineer despite training, managing, and basically running a group by myself of Senior Engineers. No other female Engineers at my company got a raise in that same 5 years, despite being 30% of the work population. All the men who had been at the company for the same number of years as me (or less) with less work experience were all raised to Senior Engineer.

I was told that I could never be promoted because I was Disabled (according to my managers because my Disability prevented me from Driving to customer sites, even though other Senior Engineers and Engineers in my department didn't travel to customer sites).

In undergraduate college, I was told repeatedly that I didn't have the right "mindset" to be an Engineer.

In graduate college, I ran into one professor that purposely graded women down and treated them poorly in class. Thankfully, it was only one out of all the professors I have had. I did run into students who wouldn't partner on projects or study (in public places like a library) with me because I was a woman.

I didn't play with Barbie as a child, too boring. That said, I am happy to see Computer Engineers getting some recognition. Hopefully with each Barbie there is an explanation of what a Computer Engineer is.

I find that the lack of knowledge of what an Engineer is or does is the main barrier to young women entering Engineering as their profession. A frightening number of young women haven't heard the term Engineer prior to college. I learned about Engineers by accident in the 11th grade.

When I go to career fairs that Society of Women Engineers participate in locally, one of the things I spend a lot of time on is explaining what Engineers are, what they do, and what they create. I then show them how they can plan out the rest of their schooling so that they can become Engineers too.

The key to more participation is demystifying the profession. Use shows like the Mythbusters in your examples.
Posted on 3/10/10 3:31 AM.
My name is Barbara Porter, i'm a CTO for a mid-sized company with an MBA and a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science, and yes, I go by the name Barbie among my friends (not professionally though!). My path to technology was spurred on by two things.

Firstly I had the support of my parents who never treated me as a girl - they raised me to be whatever I wanted to be. I got my first computer (an Atari 800) at around age 9, and was one of the lucky people to have the first IBM PC (I even had an AMBER monitor - woo hoo!).

Secondly was my parents' divorce, and my mother's subsequent struggle to make ends meet. I realized that computers were powerful, and starting to infiltrate our lives, and while my first love has and will always be mathematics, I decided that computer science was similar enough, and would give me a much greater ability to stand on my own two feet as a woman some day. I don't have anything against men, but I knew that I never wanted to have to stay with a man for financial reasons only. I wanted to pay my own way, and support my future children too, if it ever came down to it (which sadly it has - but thankfully I am able to). I still feel young boys are raised with the mentality of supporting a family some day, but young girls aren't raised with this mentality nearly as much.

Now - what can we do about it? I personally volunteer for a few organizations that encourage our youth to consider careers in technology. While it's important to encourage all children to consider these careers, I feel it's extra important for me as a woman to show girls that women are making this choice, it's not just for the boys.

I personally am thrilled to hear about Computer Engineer Barbie, and not just because we share the name. She will go a long way further than I ever could individually to show young girls that there are other career options they should consider!
Posted on 3/10/10 11:52 AM.
I have read all the posts here. I agree with most of what has been said. I agree with the lady who said she doesn't want a man to support her financially. I'd say most girls who are engineers and computer scientists feel the same way. They want to make a financial contribution to their spouse and work too and support the family unit. Thanks to Rita who pointed out exactly what I was referring to about the third world men. They need to be thrown out. Maybe if they let their own wives have jobs, they'd learn a thing or two. My hunch is, they don't let their wives work because they're worried their wives will run off with other men in the workforce. So they keep them submissive and obedient. Maybe they don't belong in North America in the first place. That way, they won't be allowed to discriminate against NA women if they're not here. It's fallacious to assume that we need these guys to do our engineering work here, totally fallacious.
Posted on 4/27/10 1:39 PM in reply to Barbara Porter.
I have more to say. For those of us women who are north american and non-Islamic, we don't want to be held to Islamic engineering and computer science standards in our north american universities. These practices have been going on for a long time. It turns out, that a bachelor's degree in computer engineering at Concordia University, the university I attended, was more like a PhD program, according to the Canadian professors I spoke to at other universities in Montreal. They told me our program in the bachelor's degree of computer engineering was much too difficult for our level. So why wasn't I awarded a PhD then? This type of corruption is still festering today. Worse, is that these Islamic professors or teachers are now in the school systms teaching young girls and weeding them out, very early on, making sure the girls never pass their courses in grade school and high school and community colleges. So now I've told you the secrets of what's going on, tell the US and Canadian governments to install an education 'police' to throw these guys out, and by the way, their third world women friends who help them.
Posted on 4/27/10 2:11 PM in reply to June Massoud.
In Quebec where I live, the only way to have any support is to associate with the French establishment who believe in equal rights for men and women. There are some politicians who are women and who are trying to make sure we don't get swallowed here by third world culttures. They are fighting for women's rights in French Quebec.
Posted on 4/27/10 2:17 PM in reply to June Massoud.

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