Valuing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Our Computing Community
Timothy Pinkston, USC
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There is a movement occurring broadly across many scientific and engineering fields, including widely within our computing community, toward making tangible progress through intentional actions and interventions for advancing and valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is also a parallel movement toward dismantling structural and/or systemic factors—especially but not limited to racial and gender biases—that may be standing in the way of making much needed progress in advancing and valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion fully. Similar to those in other technical fields, we as a computing community are faced with the persistent key question: What more can and should be done?
At this year’s virtually co-located HPCA’21, PPoPP’21, CGO’21 and CC’21 conferences, a joint session panel on “Valuing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Our Computing Community” is occurring March 3rd during which the above and other intriguing questions related to this very important topic will be discussed. I am honored to be the organizer and moderator of this panel which is comprised of a stellar set of world-renowned computing researchers: Bill Dally, NVIDIA Chief Scientist and former Stanford Professor; Kim Hazelwood, West Coast Head of Engineering at Facebook AI Research, and CRA Board Member; John L. Hennessey, Stanford Professor and former President, current Chairman of Alphabet, and 2017 Turing Awardee; Natalie Enright Jerger, U. of Toronto Professor, and ACM’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion Co-Chair; Margaret Martonosi, Princeton Professor and NSF Assistant Director of CISE; and David Patterson, U.C. Berkeley Professor, Google Distinguished Engineer, and 2017 Turing Awardee. To enable broad access to the larger computing community, this panel session is free to the public by registering here. All who read this article are invited and encouraged to attend this freely accessible panel discussion.
This is only the second main program session in these conferences’ history that focuses on a topic related to diversity and broadening participation in computing generally, with the first occurring at the 2018 joint HPCA/PPoPP/CGO lunch session panel on “Women in Academia and Industry.” While this may be the only other time that a main program session has been devoted to a diversity-related topic at any of the major computer architecture conferences—including ISCA, MICRO, and ASPLOS—and possibly one of only a few times at any of the other major conferences in the computing field more broadly, we hope this will not be the last time. Momentum has been building toward this moment over recent years and especially over the past few months, on many fronts. Several notable developments, of countless many, that have brought us to this point are chronicled and highlighted below. But first, it’s useful to review what is commonly understood by the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion, within the context of this article.
Meaning of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are referred to, or defined by, various highly revered professional societies and organizations in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) in affirmative statements many have made recently, including the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE), ACM, IEEE, and IEEE Computer Society. Essentially, diversity characterizes the demographic composition that comprises an entity or organization, oftentimes with the aspiration for its composition to be consistent with the broader local, national, or global population it strives to represent and/or serve. Inclusion characterizes the involvement and contributions of all persons within the entity or organization, oftentimes with the goal of all its members sharing equally in participating in, and influencing, the entity or organization, i.e., not only being “seen” but also “heard”. Equity characterizes the treatment of persons by entities or organizations, oftentimes with the objective of applying needed interventions to promote fairness and achieve parity. Though it may often be the case, equity is not always achieved by applying all interventions equally all the time. In fact, equity might best come by discerningly applying specific interventions only to some, but not all, persons at given times in order to address past and existing disparities or inequities appropriately. A current illustrative example is prioritization of COVID-19 vaccinations where intervention is made to administer vaccines only to the most vulnerable populations first, not to all populations equally. Another illustrative example is disaster relief interventions in which relief is given only to disaster-stricken areas, not everywhere; those who have been afflicted by disasters that occurred and who have suffered tremendous losses not of their own doing are the ones in most need of relief and provided the appropriate intervention, not those who have not. With this basic understanding of these terms, below I chronicle non-exhaustively some recent DEI developments to provide useful background on where we’ve come.
Recent DEI Developments across STEM Fields
Declared “the Year of Action in Diversity” by the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), 2014-2015 marked a recent period during which many significant DEI efforts were being mobilized. One major initiative soon thereafter by the ASEE was its Engineering Diversity Pledge, signed in 2016 by over 175 Engineering Deans from the U.S. (and now Canada) and nearly 250 since. Understanding the imperative for ”the engineering community to attract and engage people from all segments of our society” and “the importance of actively embracing diversity and inclusiveness in all our endeavors” and “diversity and inclusiveness are essential for the development of creative solutions to the world’s challenges and to enrich life,” the Deans pledged to “commit through specific action to provide increased opportunity to pursue meaningful engineering careers to women and other underrepresented demographic groups” and to “provide educational experiences that are inclusive and prevent marginalization of any groups of people because of visible or invisible differences.” They pledged to develop and implement plans for increasing diversity of students and faculty from racial/ethnic and gender demographic populations underrepresented in engineering at their institutions. Special sessions and workshops at ASEE annual conferences since then, such as “The Changing Face of Engineering: The African-American Experience,” explore possible interventions and best practices for improving DEI in engineering fields.
Also in response to tragic events that occurred last year, many in STEM fields who are from racial/ethnic populations have mobilized various efforts to combat racism and bias, and to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. In a recent letter published in AAAS Science last September entitled “Systemic Racism in Higher Education,” signed by over 10,000 Black, Indigenous and other Persons of Color (collectively BIPOC) in STEM fields along with likeminded allies, the authors urge the Academy and other communities at large to combat systemic racism in STEM and catalyze transformational change by engaging non-BIPOC—persons from majority populations who may be most empowered to make crucial change as change agents—to join and champion the cause. In a different effort, BIPOC researchers along with allies urge funding agencies, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), to combat systemic issues of racism and bias in the funding of projects. They document racial funding disparities and recommend possible courses of action to mitigate such disparities and inequities in an article entitled “Fund Black Scientists,” published recently in Cell. Notably, the private sector, including for-profit industry and non-profit entities, is also called upon to act. In yet another effort, hundreds of Black researchers who self-organized into Black in Engineering soon after the tragic events that occurred last year (several of whom are listed among Black in STEM in Academia) put forward a set of actionable recommendations to engineering academics entitled “On Becoming an Anti-Racist University.” These efforts are only a few of the numerous actions taken by engaged entities and alliances in STEM fields in recent years and months.
Recent DEI Developments in Computing Fields
In computing, many significant DEI efforts have been mobilized within our community in recent years. The Computing Research Association’s Committee on Widening Participation in Computing Research (CRA-WP), with its Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC) alliances (including AccessComputing, iAAMCS, CAHSI, and several others) many of which are NSF funded, has for several years sponsored myriad programs—including research experiences for undergraduates and career mentoring workshops—for increasing participation and success of women, persons with disabilities, and persons from racial/ethnic populations underrepresented in computing. Other organized coalitions, such as the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology (CMD-IT), have likewise hosted programs—including student development and academic career mentoring workshops—and sponsored conferences (e.g., ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing) that promote and advance DEI in computing. These are only a few of many such efforts and opportunities that would benefit from broader engagement by many more members from our community, to help make a major difference.
More recently, also in response to the tragic events occurring last year, there has been a surge in efforts by persons from vulnerable and marginalized racial/ethnic populations to mobilize the broader computing community to take significant and purposeful action towards promoting anti-racism and anti-bias practices that combat systemic and structural inequalities commonly experienced by these populations. An open letter and call to action to the computing community that has subsequently been signed by nearly 200 Black scientists, engineers and computing experts as well as nearly 450 allies thus far, and a separate Heartfelt Concern Call to Action letter sent to the ACM on June 8, 2020, provide recommendations of specific actions that individuals, organizations, and communities can take to build stronger, more creative, and more inclusive communities for achieving systemic fairness in computing. In a timely response, the ACM moved purposefully to create a standing Committee on Systemic Change “to re-examine whether there are systemic issues within the organization [ACM] that perpetuate exclusionary practices that disadvantage members of the computing community.” This is exemplary of how an entity or organization can translate its public statements into public action, as called for in the June 8th and open letters. The IEEE Computer Society likewise has a path forward for translating public statements on valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion specifically for its technical committees and conferences into public action as well.
Focus of the DEI Panel
The abovementioned efforts and other well-intentioned actions not chronicled here notwithstanding, we as a community remain far from achieving the aspirations, goals and objectives toward representation, participation, and parity for all demographic populations in computing to which we strive. Sobering demographic statistics given in a recent CRA Taulbee Survey (for the U.S. and Canada) and other similar reports that quantitatively show diversity data along various dimensions make it evidently clear that many more gains are needed. This brings us back to the persistent key question: What more can and should be done? This is one pertinent question we will tackle in the upcoming March 3rd panel. Other questions to be tackled are the following: Apart from academia, what role can and should the computing industry and corporate world play in making real differences? For example, might a similar effort like the ASEE Engineering Diversity Pledge be initiated by industry leaders to complement efforts in academia? What additional proactive efforts might our professional societies, technical committees (TCs), special interest groups (SIGs), and other organizations initiate and lead to meet our aspirational goals? What actionable steps might every member of our computing community take individually to contribute to this worthy cause, within their own spheres of influence? What are the major hurdles standing in the way of progress?
With the above background, finally I wish to provide some useful context regarding the March 3rd panel and its make-up. As described above, there has been, and continues to be, a tremendous amount of effort and contributions made by numerous persons from racial/ethnic populations currently underrepresented in STEM and computing fields to expand the valuing of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our computing community and in other STEM fields. And there have also been tremendous efforts and contributions made by many women on this as well, focusing particularly on gender DEI in our computing community, as highlighted above. While certainly it would be appropriate for the upcoming panel to include the perspectives of more persons from racial/ethnic populations underrepresented in computing, I believe (as put forward in the aforementioned Scienceletter which I signed, along with over 10,000 others) that much more attention and contributions to this important issue are needed from members within our community who are not from racial/ethnic populations currently underrepresented in the field. That is, what’s sorely needed are more advocates, allies, and champions—in fact, all members of our computing community—to engage and to be active participants in making long and much needed movement toward advancing systemic change in expanding and valuing DEI in our computing fields. In this regard, the strategy taken in organizing the March 3rd publicly-accessible open panel is to engage panelists who are not from racial/ethnic populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. This way the community can hear directly from renowned persons of majority populations (and including women) who advocate for and understand well the critical importance of valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion of underrepresented and oftentimes underserved and/or marginalized populations (including women). This approach notwithstanding, the panel includes a diversity of perspectives along intentional dimensions, with four men and three women, one African American (Black), one non-U.S. (international), and highly esteemed researchers in academia, industry, government, and various combinations thereof. I believe all who attend this panel will in some way be enlightened and, hopefully, be stirred toward engaging and taking tangible actions that will yield significant and sustainable outcomes for the benefit of us all.
A Personal Viewpoint
I close with the following. In a recent People of the ACM article in which I was the featured guest, I was asked about my candid thoughts on the importance of broadening participation in computing of persons from diverse demographic populations, particularly in light of the tragic events this past year that led to the ACM’s Diversity and Inclusion Council statement of solidarity on behalf of the ACM (and in my research area of Computer Architecture, the joint statement by ACM SIGARCH, ACM SIGMICRO, IEEE TCCA, and IEEE TCuArch). In response, I acknowledged that we all have become aware of various unsettling and quite disturbing events in our society—both recently and historically—that are affronts and attacks on the ideals and truths we all value and hold dear or aspire to, but that we still live in exciting times to make significant and lasting impact for the betterment of our society. To rise to the occasion, however, I noted that it is only through the inclusion and embracing of widely diverse ideas and perspectives—including and especially from persons of all gender, racial, ethnic, religious, physical ability, and identity demographic populations—that our discovery of the most creative, innovative, and comprehensive solutions to critical global challenges facing society will best be achieved, for the benefit of all humanity. I concluded my brief comments by saying the following: “If we are to have any hope of truly designing and developing smart cities, sustainable infrastructures, intelligent environments, effective cyber-physical systems, broad-reaching Internet of Things, or any other new or emerging revolutionary technology or advancement, we must embrace, engage, and train a truly diverse computing and engineering workforce composed of persons from all demographic populations.” Does this sentiment ring true to you and others in our technical community? Might it compel us all toward further action? I remain hopeful and optimistic.
If not now, when? If not by us individually and collectively, then by whom?
This very moment in time is an important opportunity; an opportunity we mustn’t allow to pass us by as a computing community without taking intentional action in making long and much needed movement toward advancing systemic change by greater valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our field. This is a Call to Action—our Call to Action—to hear and heed, not only for those among us who are the more vulnerable and marginalized populations but, indeed, for all in our computing community—especially those in the majority—as we all, collectively, are the gatekeepers and changemakers to join and help lead this movement. We all will benefit from the gains made as turning the tide to lift one boat raises all boats. With our individual and collective efforts, we can and shall succeed in tangibly moving the needle and making measurable progress through intentional and appropriate interventions. These interventions will bring about continual, significant, and sustained change for enabling persons from all demographic populations in our expanding and diverse society to share equally in opportunities and access, thus enabling gainful strides in further valuing diversity, equity and inclusion within our computing community.
Timothy M. Pinkston is a Professor and George Pfleger Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Vice Dean for Faculty Affairs, in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. He is an AAAS Fellow, ACM Fellow, and IEEE Fellow. He serves as a member of the CRA Board and also serves as Co-Chair of SIGARCH/SIGMICRO CARES.