Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

First Person: Margo Seltzer on Women in CS

July 5th, 2012 / in CS education, pipeline / by Erwin Gianchandani

Harvard computer scientist and CCC Council member Margo Seltzer was interviewed last week about her thoughts on women in computer science:

Txchnologist: Although women make up nearly half of the workforce in the U.S., the Department of Commerce reports that only one out of four employed computer scientists is female. Does this fit with what you see?


Margo Seltzer, Harvard University and CCC [image courtesy Harvard].Margo Seltzer: It’s stunning. The numbers are bad, and they’re not particularly getting better globally. The only place that I’ve encountered worse numbers is actually finance and entrepreneurism. Those are the only events that I’ve ever gone to where I’ve felt that I was even more outnumbered.


Txch: What do you think accounts for the disparity? [more following the link]


MS: I think the biggest factor is that as a society we’ve done a really, really bad job of marketing what it means to be in software. If you ask somebody, “What does a computer programmer look like?” I think almost everyone in the world will give you the same description — it’s a nerdy guy with no social skills and all he ever wants to do is program. The reality of the situation is very different. But the image that we’ve constructed societally is really pretty dreadful.


You get articles about the problem and articles that discuss it, but you actually don’t get anyone portraying a different image very often. For a long time we’ve joked about the fact that we need an L.A. Law-type show for computer programmers, where you have young, good looking, really fun, intelligent people who happen to be software engineers.


If you look globally, there are countries where that isn’t the image, and in fact, their numbers are dramatically better. I was recently speaking with some of our Oracle engineers from China and they pretty much have a fifty-fifty split of men and women. And they think it’s sort of odd that we don’t.



Txch: Does it behoove companies to narrow the gender gap?


MS: In the same way that we would not tolerate an environment that was blatantly racist. That would not be tolerated in any company in America. And yet we have these pockets in cultures of companies that really are very hostile towards women. People don’t seem to find that nearly as offensive.



Txch: Why is it important to close the gender gap?


MS: When I go out, whether it’s to hire graduate students or programmers, I want to make sure that I’m looking at a broad-enough pool that I really have exceptional candidates. If half the potential candidates aren’t even applying, then we’re clearly missing out on some talent. I think that’s the bigger problem.


I think that its probably true in some areas that women bring a different perspective to things. But I don’t think it’s just women; it’s diversity. Heterogeneous groups are shown to produce better results. They bring a range of opinions and ideas and you tend to end up with better solutions overall.


Txch: You’re seeing the next generation of elite computer programmers before they enter the field at Harvard. Have you witnessed more women enrolling?


MS: The ways we use computers has changed over the past several decades. There are aspects of computation that are becoming more attractive to women. Social networking is an area where middle-school girls are just a whole lot more interested in social networking than middle-school boys. There is this social aspect that is drawing women in more. The data says that robotics actually draws women in a lot more. I’m optimistic that we’re moving towards a world where the work is inherently more attractive…

The entire interview — available here — makes for a great read.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a wonderful story about a University of Washington undergraduate, Melissa Winstanley — a longtime Seattle resident, accomplished musician, and computer scientist who spent her senior year developing mobile tools for public health.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

First Person: Margo Seltzer on Women in CS
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