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PL Perspectives

Perspectives on computing and technology from and for those with an interest in programming languages.

Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) plays an increasing role in our future and that of our planet. There is huge demand for our graduates. Here at Chalmers, we have attractive global employers right on our doorstep. Volvo Cars, for instance, has a long and successful history of working with diversity and inclusion, both on the factory floor and in top management. Yet, the company still struggles to find female talent (anywhere) in technically advanced fields, and we at Chalmers are not managing to feed the pipeline. A recent report from the Swedish Information Technology (IT) and Telecom Industries highlights the IT Competence Shortage (of 70,000 people by 2024) and its threat to Sweden’s future in this age of digitalisation. Several of the proposed measures involve getting more girls into tech and taking steps to retain them. The message from the European Union is much the same. We need to educate more people, and particularly women, in computer science and engineering. And this is a global problem. A few years ago, I discovered that we had 7% women in the first year of our degree course in computer science and engineering. Having been brought up in a family of engineers, and with the idea that becoming an engineer is a great choice, both for oneself and for the world, this broke my heart. And my heart sinks, not for my own sake, but for all the lost opportunities, when I see that I am the only woman on the list of 30 PhD examiners at our department. 

In my journey to being a researcher, I started out as a masters student in the Programming Research Group at Oxford. I stayed on to do a doctorate and even (briefly) as the first female member of faculty in computing science. I look with nostalgia at this 40-year-old photo of me as a fresh-faced masters student among all the men, with Professor Tony Hoare presiding. But the trouble is that I still see pictures like this, again and again. I am also in the photo at the top of this post, which is of IFIP Working Group 2.8 on Functional Programming, in 2017. We need change.

Nearly everywhere, computer science remains largely a white, male, middle-class discipline. We seem unable to educate, attract and retain anywhere near enough female computer scientists, despite the pull from the companies that employ our graduates, and the fascinating theoretical and practical problems we face. I have documented my route to becoming a gender equality practitioner in a talk at Code Mesh (an alternative developer conference), croaky voice and all. That talk contains pointers to further reading.

At Chalmers, we are now beginning the fourth year of Genie, our Gender Initiative for Excellence. We work with all 13 departments at Chalmers, and it has been a shock to discover how different from each other the departments are, in their culture, how they are run, the real power structures, level of awareness of causes and effects of poor gender balance, and much else. This means that much of the work on improving gender balance needs to be done at the department level, or even in divisions or research groups.

This is the first of two blog posts that derive from one I wrote for ACM-W Europe. I have already revised and simplified my advice somewhat! I now have three pieces of advice instead of five. Two are pretty standard and will appear in this first blog post. The third, perhaps more unusual, will come later in part 2.

1. Raise Awareness (with the help of experts, both theoreticians and practitioners)

Even though I have spent most of my career as the only female full professor in my department, I was until fairly recently shockingly unaware of the effects of societal norms and unconscious bias. Confusingly, one can simultaneously be privileged (as a full professor with good access to research funding) and subject to what I call anti-mentoring, and thus part of the problem as a victim. Anti-mentoring is a term that I have simply made up to describe my own experience and that of others whom I have spoken to in academia. For me, anti-mentoring happens when I get treated in ways that make clear that what I am doing is somehow not seen or appreciated. So I am hoping for support or a deep discussion in which I am listened to, and instead, I feel dismissed and demoralised. I hope to be lifted and encouraged, but instead, I feel put down. Despite my privileged position and seniority, this still happens to me much more often than is comfortable. But I suspect that young women in academia, and others who don’t fit into the norm, are the most usual victims. The resulting exclusion can be both soul destroying and a career stopper! And, alarmingly, the perpetrators may be unaware of what is going on. Indeed, having observed some cases at a variety of departments, I am beginning to wonder if exclusion of women from the in-group happens more often than not! Note, though, that part of the job of department heads and other academic managers is to ensure that all academic staff get a fair chance to develop as researchers and teachers.

My best advice for educating yourself and your students and colleagues is to start with the film Picture a Scientist, now available on Netflix. It is powerful and moving, building on the stories of victims, yet firmly based on love and respect for science.  

At Chalmers, Genie aims to raise awareness with a steady stream of events, panels and seminars, for example, the seminar by Frank Dobbin (Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard) on “Do Faculty Diversity Programs Work? Evidence from 600 Universities over 20 Years”. We have deliberately formed an International Advisory Board that covers the range from theoretical to practical.  For example, one member, Prof. Liisa Husu, a top researcher on gender equality in academia, has helped us to prepare a page of recommended reading on and around the topic as well as educating us and our faculty about previous efforts in gender equality in higher education. Another member, Prof. Paul Walton, a Chemist from York University who has a long history of working successfully with gender equality in academia, provides much needed mentoring to the Genie team, as well as advising heads of department. Our Advisory Board was formed partly through personal contacts, but also making use of contacts gained by attending the European Conference on Gender Equality in Academia.

Raising awareness must include making visible both the numbers and the reality of how it is to be in the minority group. Please see my earlier post for ACM-W Europe for some data for my own department and for CSE disciplines in Europe and the US; the numbers are alarming. We need to take action now.

Concrete actions: Watch Picture a Scientist or a Paul Walton video with colleagues. Ask your Head of Department about gender equality at your department and what is being done. Offer to help!

2. Create, support, and value a community that works for change

I have discovered that it is very hard to work with gender equality in academia. I was aware, at the start of the Genie Initiative, that we are trying to change positions that have been entrenched for a very long time, reflecting societal norms and the fact that the winners in the system are sitting pretty and perhaps do not want to cede power and privilege.  In recent years, I have felt a growing awareness of the flaws in our systems for evaluating people and research, too, with a seemingly inexorable move towards bean counting that fails to capture real quality. Still, many of my colleagues have a strong belief in a well working academic meritocracy, and thus feel entitled to their high status.

But on top of these expected problems, I have seen fragmentation even among those who agree that we need change. My own logical, action oriented, somewhat experimental approach to trying to improve gender equality provokes a reaction that I experience as mind-boggling disdain among some social scientists, even though there is actually no conscious ill will. And, in the other direction, I have grave difficulty understanding or learning from approaches that are purely observational, and that reaction is most likely interpreted with similar horror. There are many yawning culture gaps that we must bridge if we are to make real progress. We need to find the people who can enable the necessary communication. And some of those people are not even academics! This all feels familiar from the tensions that we sometimes see inside computer science, or even in programming languages research, between theoreticians and practitioners, or simply between cliques. To make progress on gender equality, we  need to find ways for people from many different cultures to collaborate, respecting differences, and agreeing on some reasonable goals. So, for instance, my own long experience of being one of very few women in my department or field must be respected as worthwhile knowledge, to be added to the academic knowledge of gender studies experts, and to the practical knowledge of heads of department or other leaders who have successfully fostered change. The question is how to make efficient use of many different perspectives and types of knowledge, while avoiding what in Sweden we call revirtänkande, that is narrow, territorial thinking. Central to success will be a willingness among academic managers to share information with and accept help from a broader group of people, including external consultants, local, informal leaders and new, young recruits. Greater transparency and a willingness to be influenced by people outside the in-group will be essential in our scrutiny of all processes that affect recruitment, retention, promotion, well-being and productivity. I will elaborate on this in part 2.

Partly for the above reasons, working for change is exhausting, and quite likely to lead to burnout or departure. Those on the front line may feel alone or overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of the problem, the slow progress, and the difficulty of combining this work with everything else that our jobs demand of us. We must look out for each other and think about how to provide support. And we must work towards a situation in which this work becomes highly valued, also in decisions about status and salary. I recently got a pay rise that was asserted to be reasonably high, but this was based on recent success in obtaining research grants. Nobody, during salary setting, has yet checked on my performance in work with gender equality, by talking to the head of Genie, for instance, despite my suggestions to different managers over the years. Unless we begin to really value work on gender equality, only the crazy few (mostly women) will join in, and we will be lost. And we must remember that women are already over-burdened because of well intentioned policies about gender balanced programme and PhD thesis committees. All faculty should be expected to contribute to work with gender equality, and be rewarded for doing so. That is not the case today, and the previous step of raising awareness needs to push us in that direction. We all need to own the problem! Doing nothing is no longer acceptable.

Concrete actions: Join the FB group for Gender Equality in Academia. Check up on the mentoring provided to young academics, and particularly those who are not in the in-group, at your department. Offer your services! Scrutinise your academic promotion procedures. Are they transparent? Perhaps be inspired by work at UCL?

I would assert that the above two steps (raising awareness and community building) are necessary for progress in gender equality in academia. But, unfortunately, I don’t believe them to be sufficient, especially in computer science and engineering. In my second post, I will add my third suggested step, and explain why I think it is needed.

Feel free to email me [] if you have questions, suggestions or experiences to relate.

Bio: Mary Sheeran is a functional programmer and full professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Chalmers. She is vice-director of Genie, Chalmers’ Gender Initiative for Excellence.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the SIGPLAN blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGPLAN or its parent organization, ACM.