The Role of Mentoring for Successful Careers in Computer Science for Women and Underrepresented Communities

Bhavani Thuraisingham
Published 06/24/2022
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This article is based on a keynote address I gave virtually at the IEEE Computer Society’s International Conference on Data Engineering (ICDE) in May 2022. It first discusses the challenges faced by women and those from the under-represented communities in computer science careers and the benefits of a career in computing. Next, it describes the importance of mentoring for career success that includes a discussion of some personal experiences, and provides advice to mentors and mentees. Finally, it provides some directions.


The representation of women and those from the underrepresented communities has increased in Computer Science (CS) over the past decade. However, in many disciplines of computing, such as data science and cyber security, it is vastly underrepresented. Fewer women have been elected to IEEE Fellows than men, when it should be around 50%. In addition, fewer women are in positions of power in academic institutions (e.g., Engineering Deans) and in the C-Suite in corporations and corporate boards. This is partly due to the fact that the number of women at say first-level management is far fewer than men. Then you have to rise up the ladder from that pool, so women are already at a disadvantage. One solution to this problem is to engage women at a much earlier age, perhaps even in elementary school, and focus on CS. We urgently need mentors to support and promote girls and women. For example, senior researchers and practitioners have to support women in getting promotions and awards such as IEEE and ACM Fellows and various technical recognition awards. We need to explain the benefits of having a career in computing early.

This article will discuss the benefits of having a career in computing for a woman and the challenges involved in developing a successful career. One such challenge I will focus on is the lack of mentorship for women. We are living in a complex world that is rapidly evolving due to technology. While there are numerous career opportunities in areas like data science and cyber security, the competition is also extremely intense around the globe. It is almost impossible for a person to succeed in their career without the advice and mentorship of senior managers, researchers, developers, and technologists. I will discuss the importance of mentoring, especially for women, and give examples of my personal experiences on how lack of mentoring was initially tough on my career and how I chose mentors who have then supported me and helped me to thrive in my career. I will also give some advice to both mentors and mentees. Finally, I will provide some directions on how we could proceed to empower and motivate women in computing.

While my main focus in this article is on women, many of the points I have raised apply to those from underrepresented communities. This article is a version of the keynote presentation I gave virtually during the plenary session at the IEEE International Conference on Data Engineering (ICDE) in May 2022. It is commendable that IEEE Computer Society’s premier ICDE Conference gave me a prominent platform to discuss such an important topic that concerns everyone in computing.



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Status of Women in Computer Science

Even though there has been much emphasis over the past decade to increase the representation of women in computing and some progress has been made, the status of women in Computer Science is disappointing for many of us. Here are some quotes from recent articles.

The question is, why are the numbers of women in computing so dismal? I believe it starts at the very beginning as a little girl and continues throughout a woman’s life. In many families, male children are given preference and their education is given the highest priority. If the female children do well, then it’s a bonus. I find that in many cultures (including western cultures) women are not encouraged to excel in STEM and there is a lot of peer pressure for teen-aged girls to dress up and look good mainly for the boys. Marriage is still considered a high priority for a woman. When I was in high school and college, education and other accomplishments (e.g., playing a musical instrument) were considered to be important for a woman to get an eligible husband. This mentality is still common in many cultures, perhaps influenced by 18th century England and novels like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Women are already behind when they start their careers, and the gap between men and women often widens in the workplace. More importantly, women do not have enough role models and especially mentors who can guide them throughout their careers. In the meantime, a woman’s job continues to be the caregiver of the children, spouse, aging parents, and even grandchildren.

But all is not lost; the future could not be brighter for women in computing. The human understanding and empathy women have gained over the centuries through caregiving and the compassionate nature of most women together with the increasingly strong support we have been receiving over the past decade is putting us in a strong position to thrive in our careers. Women are not only achieving the highest levels of education in computing, but they are also excelling in research and thriving in their careers. Furthermore, the number of female CEOs, Executives, Presidents, Provosts, and Deans is increasing. For example, at the University of Texas at Dallas, we had our first female Provost in 2017 and since then we have had the first three female Deans, including the Dean of Engineering. There are numerous programs from K-12 and beyond and organizations such as Girls Who Code,, Women in Cyber Security, and Women in Data Science are motivating and encouraging women. Women now have more role models and numerous opportunities open to them. However, women are still vastly underrepresented in computing. The percentage of female faculty in many CS departments is around 20% when it should be around 50%. This is partly because the pool of female PhD in CS is still small compared to men. There is also a lack of information about the benefits of pursuing a career in computing for a woman. So, the question is, why a career in computer science for a woman? I will attempt to answer this question in the next section.


Why a Career in Computer Science for a Woman?

Back in 2017, I gave a keynote address at Cyber-W (Women in Cyber Security Research) Workshop at an ACM Cyber Security Conference. At that address, I mentioned ten reasons why a woman should pursue a career in cyber security. Since then, I have adapted the ten reasons as appropriate for different fields in computing. I provide the key points of the 10 reasons below.

  • Given the opportunity, women can excel in any computing field, including cyber security and data science. Computer science is a very exciting field with so many innovations and developments happening so rapidly, and it is important for women to take advantage of these opportunities.
  • Computing can be integrated with many areas including the arts, humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, psychology, engineering, business, medicine, and law. Women have excelled in various application areas, especially in social sciences and therefore they can integrate computing into their specific application areas.
  • There are many options in computing, from research and academia to product development to start-ups with substantial funding.
  • Millennial women and beyond have the flexibility and freedom to choose careers and have female role models and mentors in the field that we baby boomers never had.
  • In many research areas in computing, you can work from home most days (as all you need is a laptop and an internet connection), making it ideal especially for women to have a family and career (although the recent pandemic has shown us that many careers can flourish from home due to advances in computing; but this is changing post-pandemic).
  • Many computing jobs cannot be overtaken by robots; there will always be a demand for computing professionals.
  • Computing systems are everywhere from North to South and East to West. These systems can be attacked by hackers. You can make the world a better and safer place, specializing in areas like cyber security.
  • “Data Science/AI for Good” is gaining momentum globally. It is now possible to address issues like “Violence against Women and Children” and “Climate Change” through Data Science/AI technologies.
  • Computer science is a highly paid field with numerous job opportunities. Why not Women take advantage of these benefits?
  • Women can be financially independent with a career in Computing. Financial independence means self-respect, less stress, confidence, and having more choices. I strongly believe that financial independence is a must for everyone, especially for a woman.


The Importance of Mentoring


Why do Women and Underrepresented Communities Struggle in their Careers?

Now that I have discussed the challenges faced by women in computing and the benefits of computing as a career, I would like to address the question of why women and underrepresented communities often struggle in their careers. Since women make up around 50% of the population, is it sufficient to just increase the number of women in computing to say 50%? While it is necessary for around 50% of the computing professionals to be female, it is not sufficient. It is important that we have female leaders in computing. This means we must have around 50% of the department heads, deans, provosts, chancellors, directors, vice presidents, and presidents of both academia, industry, and government to be female. It is crucial that we have many women in positions of power so that they can increase the number of women at every level in computing. So, why are there so few women in computing at senior levels? For example, only 32% of presidents of universities are women; but to my knowledge, there are less than a handful of university presidents who are computer scientists in the USA (e.g., Prof Maria Klawe at Harvey Mudd College and Prof. Martha Pollock at Cornell) and a few female computer scientists who are engineering deans (which is even more disappointing especially when CS is part of an engineering college/school and is the largest department in the college). Why is this case? One main reason I believe is the lack of mentorship due to the fact that not many computer scientists are in positions of power. Mentorship has been one of the effective tools for promotion and tenure, and often women and those from the underrepresented communities are left out.

The question is, why is mentoring important in one’s career? We are living in a complex world that is rapidly evolving due to technology. The WWW and Social Media have eliminated boundaries and social norms. With COVID-19, the work environment has drastically changed. While there are numerous career opportunities in CS the competition is also extremely intense around the globe. I believe it is almost impossible for a person to succeed in their career without the advice and mentorship of senior managers, researchers, developers, and technologists. Almost every person I have known who has succeeded has had a mentor (in many cases, mentors) who have guided and supported them during the early stages of their career. Therefore, every career professional must have a mentor regardless of gender, race/ethnicity and age.

So the main question is why do women (and those from the underrepresented communities) struggle in their careers? I believe that the lack of a mentor is perhaps the most important reason that women and those from the underrepresented communities have not done as well in their careers; another could be biased, often subconscious. As I mentioned earlier, lack of opportunities start at an early age; boys are given preferences over girls in almost every culture, and as time progresses girls are left behind in schools, colleges and in the workforce. So the women mainly work to supplement their husbands’ incomes. Those from the underrepresented communities also have a tremendous disadvantage as often their parents are not as educated as those from well-represented communities and so children of these communities don’t have a head start. If the women and those from the underrepresented communities are fortunate enough to get an education and a good job, there are very few from these communities who are in higher positions and so the junior researchers, developers and technologists are often ignored and left to fend for themselves. They see their colleagues from well-represented groups thrive possibly due to the extensive mentoring they receive and get frustrated and that gets them into a vicious cycle.

So, what should be done to handle this problem? The first step is to realize that there is a problem; people, especially those from communities that make up the majority of their regions, often do not realize or ignore that there is a problem. Affirmative Action programs have been around for a long time, and they have helped; but these programs do not attempt to support the genuine growth of women and underrepresented groups and have been frowned upon. Disparaging statements like “she is in that position because she is a woman” are often made. Thanks to the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, people are getting more educated about the problem. As a result, there is more awareness about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). It is not about giving a job to a person because she is a woman; it’s about building a fair and inclusive work environment where everyone can thrive.

I hope that these are not just words and that all of us can work together to handle the challenges that women and underrepresented communities are faced with today. We must not only focus on the advancement of women which is a must, we must also include every underrepresented community including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ+. People with disability, and the elderly. We have to go beyond our own gender, race/ethnicity, and identity, and help everyone to succeed.


My Personal Story

I cannot emphasize enough the role of mentoring to advance one’s career, and I write from one of my personal experiences in the mid-1990s. First, I would like to give a little background about myself as to how I got here to give you a better perspective. I am of (minority) Tamil origin from Sri-Lanka, the youngest of four sisters, and completed my undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Physics from the University of Ceylon (Sri-Lanka used to be known as Ceylon) in 1975 at the age of 20. By the time I was in high school, Tamils had to score higher marks than those from the Sinhalese ethnic group to get into colleges, so it was not easy for us. Just after I finished my final exams, my maternal uncle arranged my marriage to my husband, as my father had passed away four years earlier. My husband was finishing his PhD at the University of Cambridge, England. Soon after we got married we moved to Bristol, England as my husband got a position at the University of Bristol and I started my graduate work. Then in 1980 soon after I finished my PhD we moved to the United States for better opportunities and my husband had a research position at the Petroleum Recovery Research Center in Socorro, New Mexico. I was offered a tenure track assistant professor in CS at the New Mexico Institute of Technology (New Mexico Tech) but I turned it down as my son was a baby. So, I took a visiting faculty position at New Mexico Tech and the following year we moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota as my husband got a position at 3M. I continued with a visiting faculty position at the University of Minnesota for the next two years. By then I was getting interested in software development and joined Control Data Corporation in 1983 (the 3rd largest computer company at that time after IBM and DEC) and worked as a Senior Developer on CDCNET, one of the early network systems for over two years. I also got a position at the University of Minnesota as an adjunct CS professor and a graduate faculty member. However, while I liked development, I wanted to get back into research. I had a lucky break in Fall 1985. I became a US Citizen, Honeywell won a contract from the US Air Force to develop one of the first two high assurance database systems, and Honeywell interviewed and hired me. All three events had to happen for me to get back into research. Since then, I have had a nearly 37-year career conducting research in cyber security and data science (it used to be computer security and data management) at Honeywell (in Minneapolis, MN), MITRE (in Bedford, MA), NSF(in the Washington DC area) and the University of Texas at Dallas.

However, until around the mid-1990s, I did not have a mentor at work. I focused on technical work, including taking on roles as a project leader and team member. I did not consider leadership or management positions at that time, and all was well. I was thriving in my research. Then, in the mid-1990s, there was a highly visible position opening up at work, and I was interested in it (Head of Data Management Research (today, it would be Data Science). I felt I had all the credentials, but hardly anyone thought of me as a contender. Perhaps, due to subconscious bias. Fortunately, one of my colleagues (a woman) who had worked with me, and was only a few years older than me, recognized my talent and my capability and recommended me for the position. There was one other person who was competing for the position, and I was told by my supporter that those close to my competitor were undermining me. She heard comments like “Bhavani is a loner,” “Bhavani is not a team player,” “Bhavani is not that great technically,” even though my research published in top-tier venues was far better than many others, and I was the technical lead for multiple research teams. My manager, who wanted me to get the position, was concerned about these comments. While he defended me, my supporter mentioned that I needed to provide more evidence of my excellence in research. Without her advice, I would never have known that a problem existed.

That’s when I acted. I contacted my external mentor, the late Prof. CV Ramamoorthy (aka Prof. Ram) at UC Berkeley, and we strategized for hours one evening. I then requested my sponsors, who were very high up in the US Government, to write letters of support for me; I also asked someone higher up in the organization to support me, which he did. Within a week, my manager (who really wanted to help me) got numerous letters from very important people; not just how great I was in my research and development efforts, what an asset I was to them, and what a team player I was. One of the letters also mentioned that I was a mentor to some of the junior researchers in his agency who were beginning their careers. My manager, who later became my mentor, was pleased, and he made a strong case, and I got the position.

Since then, I have had a very rewarding career. I got nominated for awards (e.g., IEEE CS Technical Achievement Award, IEEE Fellow, etc.), which I received, and that propelled me to career success. Today I have a very strong support system with great, mostly female colleagues, and I am now a Fellow of ACM, IEEE, AAAS, NAI, and have received multiple prestigious IEEE and ACM technical and leadership awards. I was also named one of the 500 most influential people in DFW (close to 7.6M people) by the D CEO 500, a part of the D Magazine (a prominent magazine for the DFW business Community) in 2021 and 2022.

I was very fortunate because my supporter happened to be working with me and was sufficiently senior to interact with the higher-ups in the administration, and so was privy to the discussions that took place. But we cannot depend on luck. Therefore, we have to be proactive and make an effort to get a mentor from day one, regardless of whether we are in high school, college, or in the workforce. We must talk to senior people, not one but many, to see who would be willing to be our mentors and whether we have a good rapport with them. Ever since my experience, I have had a mentor even to this day; but I have also been a mentor to many people as I understand how they feel. I always motivate and encourage them. While there is a tendency for me to mentor women, I have also been a mentor to men of all backgrounds. I have worked hard to recruit (often through my colleagues) to get PhD students who are women and from underrepresented communities. Out of the 22 PhD students, I would have graduated by Summer 2022, over 50% are women, and a few from the African American, Hispanic American, and the LGBTQ+ communities. I benefit a great deal from mentoring and learning from the mentees. I have also tried my best over the years to combine marriage and motherhood with my career, and now I am trying to find a balance between my career and grandmotherhood. It is challenging, and I now believe that one (man or woman) cannot have it all, and it is a tradeoff depending on the needs of the family and career.


Advice to Mentors and Mentees

Here is my advice to mentors. First and foremost, junior faculty and researchers are coming to you because you are successful in what you are doing. Likely, you are in this position because there is at least one person who has helped you in your education and career, so never forget that. When a junior faculty needs mentorship, please be there for them. If it is hard for you (e.g., due to, say time commitment), please try and connect them to others. Mentorship can be very rewarding and uplifting. Once you start mentoring, it can bring great joy seeing your mentees thrive; it’s almost like being a parent. Together you can work with the mentee on the research areas they can work on; you have more experience, and so you can give advice on challenging problems; who to talk to, and if they have potential in management, then encourage them to become a department head. We need more department heads from the female and underrepresented communities to have more deans and subsequently more provosts and presidents. For example, we need a large pool of female department heads so that the likelihood of selecting a female dean is higher. Also, the mentees who are likely younger may have breakthrough research ideas, and you can work together with them.

Here is my advice to mentees. Please be patient and do everything you can to find mentors you can work with; your advisor could also be your mentor. But, your mentor is not your psychologist; it is a working arrangement where you both benefit. Plan on what you will be discussing with your mentor; focus on education and career advancement; not complain about colleagues. Once you develop a rapport with your mentor, it is the most rewarding relationship. If there is a new position you want to be considered, then discuss it with your mentor whether it is the right position for you and how you might go about getting the position. If the mentor is not encouraging, you need to ask why, and I hope the mentor will have valid reasons. Setting up a time every few weeks to meet with the mentor is good. Also, once you have gotten all that you can from your mentor, and you are successful, never forget your mentor. That is, never forget how you got to where you are. This does not mean you have to do whatever your mentor wants, but you have to show respect.

Mentoring is a critical tool for promoting DEI, and every organization must have policies for DEI. However, we cannot arbitrarily bring people with diverse backgrounds without the necessary skills for the job. Good mentoring will enable a person to understand the culture of the organization and what it takes to succeed and then pursue a plan of action such as taking courses, working on degrees, and taking on more challenging projects; this will, in turn, enable the person to compete at the highest level for the job. The organization must ensure that every individual is given access to the mentoring support (and any other support needed) regardless of the person’s background (e.g., gender, race, age) to succeed and be considered for awards and promotions. In summary, mentoring is essential to support DEI, and an organization must ensure that every individual gets strong mentoring support for career advancement. We need domain-specific mentors and not generalists (e.g., Psychologists). This is because only those working in your field really understand what you need to do to advance in your education/career. For example, in CS, the top-tier conferences are highly regarded, even more than the top-tier journals. This is something that those in other fields find hard to understand. Therefore, a senior computer scientist will be in a much better position to advise their mentees where to publish research results.


Summary and Directions

Bhavani ThuraisinghamThis article has disused the dismal representation of women in computing and the benefits of having a career in CS. It has also discussed the critical role of mentoring for career success and the need for women and those from the underrepresented communities to be in positions of power to mentor and motivate the younger generation to pursue successful careers in computing. I have also discussed one of my experiences with the challenges I had earlier on in my career due to the lack of mentorship, and how I thrived after I found an excellent mentor. I also stressed the importance of having a high-paying career, especially for a woman.

Women and those from the underrepresented communities must not only find mentors, but also have a strong support system. They should join say the women’s groups in organizations such as IEEE and ACM as well as other professional groups including Women in Cyber Security (WiCyS), Stanford Women in Data Science (WiDS) as well as attend events such as Grace Hopper Celebrations. It is important to network, make connections and continue to support each other. These relationships that you build early on in your career can be lifelong and benefit everyone involved.