Crossroads The ACM Magazine for Students

Sign In

Association for Computing Machinery

Magazine: Letter from the editors
Enriching your network via diversity

Enriching your network via diversity

By ,

Full text also available in the ACM Digital Library as PDF | HTML | Digital Edition

Tags: Computer science education, Document types, Information science education, Social and professional topics

back to top 

Welcome to the first 2014 issue of XRDS! We have an exciting year ahead of us, including the current issue on cyber-physical systems, an upcoming issue on the many facets of diversity in computing, and subsequent issues dedicated to language and health care through the lens of computing. Given the superb overview of cyber-physical systems in this issue's INIT column, I'd like to dedicate this space to some thoughts about diversity, in particular gender equality or the lack thereof.

Gender imbalance in computing shapes the social landscape in which we all work and pursue research. For example, at XRDS, female graduate students currently make up only about one quarter of the editorial team. That's actually more balanced than the 1:4 women to men ratio among U.S. undergraduate computer science majors.1 In my graduate class at Stanford, the ratio is around 1:8. These numbers in 2014 are puzzling at best; I tend to think that, borrowing the words of President Obama, they are an embarrassment.2

There are two fundamental questions at the root of any discussion on gender equality. First, what are the obstacles that drive women away from a career in computer science, in particular as a researcher? This is hard to answer since it seems to be a tangle of many different issues, starting with the different ways in which gender is addressed in childhood, implicit biases female students face in school and college,3 social- and self-expectations during child bearing years, etc.

Second, what are helpful measures to take in order to overcome these obstacles? This is also far from obvious. At Stanford for example, there are numerous resources for female CS and engineering students: a very active Women in CS society, a weekly seminar on stories of successful women engineers, a Women in Science mentoring program, female leadership workshops, frequent and widely-advertised lectures on topics such as bias, scholarships targeted at women sponsored by leading tech companies... the list goes on. I am reminded of John Wanamaker's famous saying: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." While I don't think any of these efforts are wasted, I'm also not sure whether we're on the right track to equal opportunities for men and women in the foreseeable future.

back to top  A Microcosm

I recently read a news article that described a situation that seems to isolate the gender gap in a clean, almost laboratory setting. The article, published by Amos Harel in a leading Israeli newspaper,4 describes how the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is in need of cyber security specialists. The IDF invests resources in recruiting and training future cyber security specialists among promising high school students. Harel described how, with increasing demand for specialists and not enough trainees, the IDF is expanding its cyber security program beyond the top high schools in big cities, to rural areas.

Gender imbalance in computing shapes the social landscape in which we all work and pursue research.

Here is the surprising detail: Only 10 percent of trainees are women. It is apparently easier to expand to rural areas (diversity-enhancing in itself), than to recruit female students from top schools in big cities where the programs are already set up.

What makes this so puzzling is it's a relatively simple microcosm, one in which I wouldn't think such a gender gap would exist. Potential trainees are only in high school—free of issues like putting marriage and children before career. Military service is mandatory and women especially may find themselves assigned to mundane positions, yet female students do not jump at this opportunity to serve in a professional capacity, which involves high social contribution as well as personal development. Moreover, the IDF has a clear interest in recruiting more women for this role, yet somehow female students resist its (possibly misguided) efforts, while at the same time similar IDF training programs that are not perceived as tech-centered do attract roughly an equal number of young men and women. Here, again, both the obstacles and the solutions are unclear. The IDF's response quoted in the article is they think the issue is "cultural."

back to top  The Friend Factor

Today more than ever, our culture seems to revolve around social and professional networks. Who are your connections? What are they into? This certainly influences us in high school, and moreover, throughout our lives and careers. Your connections regularly participate in hackathons? You're likely to occasionally find yourself programming away into the night. You're connected to people who went to grad school and later found faculty positions? It may well be easier for you to pursue a similar path.

Based on these observations, while it's theoretically possible female high school students are genuinely not that interested in cyber security, I believe it's more a matter of trend. An interesting piece of data in this context is circa 1990, the ratio of bachelor's degrees in computing awarded to women versus men was roughly 1:2—much more balanced than today, despite the fact that CS has fundamentally remained the same discipline.5

Let's fast forward to post-graduate years. What is the impact of gender imbalance on professional networking among grad students, young practitioners, and beyond? Indeed, female researchers and practitioners can (and often do) have a professional network of strong connections, who happen to be mostly male. Twenty-five years after "When Harry Met Sally," there's no doubt a man and a woman can be not only friends but also connections. However, like social networks, professional networks are far from being gender-blind. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes about how we tend to prefer to work with people who are like us.6 In my personal life, I turn to my friends for advice, information, and support. Would I have more strong bonds in my professional life if there were more women in my field?

back to top  An Open Discussion

In this letter I've expressed some of my concerns regarding the lack of gender diversity in my field. An open discussion is one essential step in the right direction, and this up to our community—students and beyond. Our upcoming issue on diversity will aim to present a rich array of perspectives to help fuel this discussion.

Finally, it is not all in the numbers. Despite their small numbers, women have been reaching inspiring achievements (check out, for example, the Turing Award recipients in 2006, 2008 and 2012). Women and men researchers alike benefit from having diversified networks; something to consider the next time you sit in class with 20 men and one or two women—you may want to send these women a LinkedIn request.

back to top  XRDS in 2014

I'd like to welcome Sean Follmer aboard as new co-EiC of XRDS. Sean is a Ph.D. student in the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, working in the field of Human Computer Interaction. His research looks at how we can apply shape-changing and deformable interfaces to address the lack of physical affordances in today's interactive products. He's a wonderful addition to our strong team, and I look forward to working with him!

In other news, XRDS departments are undergoing some changes: You may have noticed Careers and Milestones are now regular columns, and by popular demand we have extended Profile to two pages. We're also planning to add a couple more departments in the upcoming months—some ideas that came up in our brainstorm session are "gadgets," "life as new professor," "hacking" (only legal stuff...), "best student work," and "mobile apps." Like any of these? We're seeking new editors to develop and lead these departments. Write to us at [email protected].

—Inbal Talgam-Cohen

back to top  Footnotes

1. See, e.g., Catherine Rampell, I am Woman, Watch me Hack. The New York Times, Oct. 22 2013.

2. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama said "[T]oday, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment."

3. See for example the Heidi-Howard study described by Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In (Knopf, 2013).

4. Amos Harel. How the Israeli Army is Raising the Next Generation of Cyber Geeks. Haaretz Newspaper, Nov. 14 2013.

5. Rampell, ibid. For an ongoing project aimed at changing the trend see Larisa Eidelman et al., Mind the (Gender) Gap: Can a two-hour visit to a hi-tech company change perceptions about computer science? ACM Inroads 2, 3 (2011).

6. Sandberg, ibid., p. 153.

back to top 

Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1528-4972/14/03

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2014 ACM, Inc.