Exploring Equity and Inclusion in Technology: A Conversation with Dr. Norha Milena Villegas
IEEE Computer Society Team
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In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we had the privilege of conversing with Dr. Norha Milena Villegas, an esteemed figure in computing and IEEE. Dr. Villegas, renowned for her significant contributions to software engineering and her trailblazing role as the first female Senior Member of IEEE in Colombia, shares invaluable insights on the vital concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion in technology.
Delving into her own experiences and recommendations, Dr. Villegas provides perspectives that offer a guiding light for fostering an environment of inclusivity and understanding in the computing community. Let’s dive into her experiences and advice.
What is your definition and meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the context of computer science and engineering?
Assuring the same rights for all people in the field, regardless of any condition related to gender, sexual preferences, religion, race, ethnicity, or any socio-economic aspect, as well as assuring the correct incentives to promote the participation of minorities, assuring an equal treatment for everyone.
What barriers to inclusion have you experienced throughout your career?
Although this is nothing that has negatively impacted my career, I have experienced some uncomfortable moments due to unfortunate comments made by very few men. I remember two cases, both took place in social events, and one happened very recently; it happened last week.
The first anecdote occurred when I was a PhD student and I was attending a very famous seminar in Germany. We were having a social meeting in which professors and PhD students gathered to socialize and continue the discussion about research projects. I am from Cali, Colombia. Unfortunately, my home city is well known for drug cartels and a stereotype of women that is usually associated with these groups. There was a very famous professor who asked me: “How is that a woman, from Cali Colombia, is doing a PhD?” I felt very confused, I did not understand the question. I replied, “I don´t understand the question, I know many women from my city who successfully conduct PhD programs, why are you asking?” And he said, “Well, women from Cali are usually going around with drug dealers, as it is shown on tv shows…” I couldn´t believe that this prominent professor was that ignorant! I replied, telling him that he should use other sources of information for learning about cities and their cultures. My supervisor was next to me and did very well replying to the famous professor (my supervisor was most famous, by the way!)
The second case happened just two days ago, in my own country. I was at a social event closing an important conference. There was an international relations person from a famous European university… people were drinking at the event, and I was at the same table with this guy. The guy looked at me and told me (there were other men with us): “How is that we have a dean that, besides being smart, is very beautiful?” I’m currently the dean of an important faculty of engineering in Colombia. Perhaps the guy was trying to be nice, but I felt very uncomfortable. I felt like if being a Dean, beautiful and smart would be absolutely impossible. Another colleague on the table interrupted the guy and told him that his comment was highly inappropriate.
What are 1-2 ways the computing community can work together to prevent these experiences from occurring to future professionals?
Making these experiences visible, for example, a short video or image to share these experiences before starting every IEEE conference.
Developing educational material about DEI
A lack of understanding of others’ experiences may sometimes lead to unintended consequences. What recommendations can you make to the community to help them increase their understanding of your culture and/or background that would help individuals feel more welcomed?
Perhaps including in IEEE events activities devoted to the exchange of cultures, but it has to be intentionally designed.
Can you share an example from your education or career experiences where diverse voices had, or could have had, a significant impact on a project?
In my university in Colombia, there was a former rector who was always concerned about the socio-economic inclusion of youths from vulnerable families. He transformed the institution into a truly inclusive university with a strong scholarship program that allows thousands of talented children from low-income families to access the best quality of higher education in Colombia. The impact of Universidad Icesi was tremendously increased due to this decision.
Given the importance of computer science and engineering becoming a more diverse and inclusive community, we strive to hear the perspectives of persons from equity-seeking populations. What are 1- 2 ways such diverse perspectives and experiences can be solicited and heard without making the persons who share them feel tokenized or otherwise uncomfortable?
Capture them anonymously and project them on walls during IEEE events.
Having a section on the IEEE web page to share these experiences anonymously.
Learn More About Dr. Norha Milena Villegas
Software Engineer, Universidad Icesi, Colombia. Ph.D. in Computer Science, University of Victoria, Canada. Twenty years of professional experience. Internationally recognized researcher for her contributions to software engineering. Her work has received significant awards from academic institutions and organizations. First woman in Colombia to be a Senior Member of IEEE. For 9 years, Dr. Villegas was the Director of the Software Systems Engineering Program at Universidad Icesi, where she positioned it as one of the best in the country. Norha M. Villegas is currently the Dean of the School of Engineering, Design and Applied Sciences, Associate Professor of the Computing and Intelligent Systems department at Icesi, and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Computer Science, University of Victoria in Canada.