Computing should attract women in droves, but it doesn't, and computer scientists Margaret Wright and Kathy McKeown find the trend troubling
Everybody has a theory, but no one knows the answer. It's mysterious and disturbing,’ says Margaret Wright. She's talking about the conspicuous shortage of women in computer science. Women account for only 15-20 percent of computer science majors in the United States, and the percentage has dropped over the last five years. As the new chair of the computer science department at New York University, Wright is troubled by the trend.
Kathleen McKeown, Wright's counterpart at Columbia University, agrees, and notes that the problem starts well before college. "I see it even when I look at computer classes in high schools: the number of girls is low," she says.
By avoiding computers, women may be missing out on the generous salaries and abundant career opportunities in information technology. Wright has heard a number of undergraduate women say, "I had no idea a Ph.D. in computer science could give me an enjoyable career." What's more, women may be missing the chance to configure emerging technologies in ways that reflect their priorities and needs.
Wright and McKeown are living proof that it need not be this way. Wright came to NYU in January after 13 years at Bell Laboratories where her work included optimization theory and applications and linear algebra. Before that, she was a researcher in the operations research department at Stanford University (California), from which she received her M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science and her B.S. in mathematics.
McKeown, now in her fifth and last year as department chair, has been at Columbia since 1982, after she earned her doctorate in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania. As an undergraduate, she majored in comparative literature at Brown University. She didn't "discover" computer science until her senior year, when she heard about combining computers and language. Natural language processing is now the focus of her research. "The two came together in ways I hadn't imagined before," she said.
What keeps women away
That women in computer science are still the exception rather than the rule is a fact Wright and McKeown have clearly thought through. Overt job discrimination is not the issue, they contend. "No one today would say that a person shouldn't get a job because she's a woman - it's much more subtle," says Wright. Part of the problem may be different communication styles. "The culture of computer science is that if you're smart, you're brash and you broadcast your results," she says. "If someone comes in who's low-key or self-effacing, the assumption is that that person isn't very smart."
The solution may lie in acknowledging certain gender differences. Many women find the male-dominated culture of computing at odds with their own career plans. The singular and obsessive interest in computing that is common among men is assumed to be the road to success. If the only option for being in computer science is abandoning a balanced life and other interests, many women will find the cost too great.
McKeown, mother of three teenagers, often fields questions from women students like "How do you structure your home and work life?" and "What effect does having a family have on getting tenure?" All students, not just women, "need to figure out their life decisions," McKeown adds.
Finding the ways in
"A critical part of attracting more girls and women to computer sciences is providing multiple ways to ‘be in’ computer science," write Margolis and Fisher. That means, for example, showing them how computing plays into many areas within and outside science.
Computer science is sometimes called an enabling discipline, in that it teaches skills that can be applied to many fields. As practitioners of an enabling science, then, computer scientists can move between the specific and the general, "and it can be a very exciting way of thinking," says Wright. "I tell these kids, ‘This is really fun. You'll have a great time doing this, and it will bring you power.' "
At Lucent, Wright worked with a group creating software for placing wireless stations within a building. The group included wireless engineers, a specialist in user interfaces, a computational geometry expert, and an electrical engineer. Wright was the expert in optimization, which in this case meant finding the least number of wireless stations while ensuring adequate coverage.
Even though everyone was working for the same company on the same project, Wright notes, "it took a long time for us to figure out what the other people were talking about. But it was unbelievably enjoyable to work on. The best collaborations are the ones that cross boundaries.” At NYU, Wright plans to encourage more cross-disciplinary work.
McKeown also finds interdisciplinary projects "much more interesting," She has instituted several such programs at Columbia. One combines people from computer science, medical informatics, anesthesiology, library science, and electrical engineering to create digital libraries that offer more efficient access to medical literature. Another group is working with the journalism school on automated summarization of news stories, while a third has art, archaeology, and computer science majors studying the use of robotics in archaeological digs.
In a similar way, Wright and McKeown find collaborations between academia and industry valuable. These run the gamut from informal consulting to summer internships for students to formal research projects. Wright hopes to create a corporate affiliates program like the one at Stanford and the one started at Columbia by McKeown four years ago. "It's a very good way to make industry aware of what departments have to offer," Wright notes.
Computing in the curriculum
Because of the increasing importance of computing in society, Wright feels that computer science should play a more central part on campus, and she is forming a group to look at NYU's graduate curriculum. "You ask, 'What should an educated person know in our society?,' and you get very different answers, depending on who you ask," she observes. A business executive concerned about network security, for example, should know something about information technology, rather than relying completely on the IT person or an outside software vendor.
Given the rapid changes in the field, imparting this knowledge to students is not easy. "One of the challenges for computer science departments is not to jump on trends," Wright cautions. "We're not training students so they can go get a job. We're teaching them the underlying principles so they can adapt what they know to new situations."
Both educators believe that undergraduates should know basic notions like the function of an algorithm. She uses the example of
adjusting a soccer league schedule to fit in a new team. Instead of shuffling bits of paper around on a calendar, she says, "If you have an algorithm - a set of rules - you would formalize the abstract requirements, figure out a way to manipulate the abstractions, and the algorithm would solve the problem."
Students aren't always happy about having to work through the basics, McKeown points out. "Sometimes students will say, 'Right now I need to know Programming Language X or System Y.' You have to tell them, ‘If you learn the principles of how databases operate, it'll be easy to move from one to another,’ " she says.
Task 1. Answer these questions about the text.
1. What opportunities do women miss avoiding computers?
2. How successful are the two women’s careers in computer science?
3. What is meant under ‘different communication styles’?
4. What prevents women from taking up computer science?
5. Why is computer science called ‘an enabling discipline’?
6. Why do both educators encourage interdisciplinary projects?
7. What should computer science students learn first in their opinion?
Task 2. Which of the following ideas do you agree or disagree. Explain your point of view. Start your explanation with one of the following expressions:
I (completely) agree / disagree that … because…
(Personally) I think / I believe that …
I’m not sure that…
In my opinion …
1. Women in computer science are still the exception rather than the rule.
2. The singular and obsessive interest in computing that is common among men is the road to success in this field.
3. Many women do not go into computing because for them it might mean abandoning a balanced life and other interests.
4. Computer science departments shouldn’t jump on trends; they should teach their students basic notions which they could adapt to new situations.
5. No one today say that a person shouldn’t get a job because she’s a woman- the sexism is much more subtle.
Task 3. Using the line references given, look back in the text and find words that have a similar meaning to:
1. big (lines 10 -15)
2. in disagreement with ( lines 45 - 50)
3. to work out (lines 50 - 55)
4. to range ( lines 90 -95)
5. seller (lines 105 - 110)
Task 4. Now look back in the text and find words that have an opposite meaning to:
6. decreased ( lines 5 - 10)
7. scarce (lines 10 - 15)
8. quiet (lines 40 - 45)
9. putting off ( lines 55 - 60)
10. to hide smth from smb.( lines 95 – 100)
Task 5. Make a list of words and word combinations referring to University study and / or computer science (no less than 10). Translate them and give your examples.
Ex. Major (v) – (Am. E.) - ñïåöèàëèçèðîâàòüñÿ :
She majored in comparative literature at Brown University.
Task 6. Translate the following three paragraphs (beginning 'Because of the increasing importance…' lines 98 - 119) into your own language.