After reading a post on my blog about the lack of gender diversity in science and technology, my nine-year-old son commented, “All women are capable of the unbelievable!” Recent gender diversity reports from Google, Facebook and Apple (to name a few) have spurred a number of positive efforts to bring more women into computer science, including the Supercomputing 2014 (SC14 WHPC) “Women in High Performance Computing” workshop, NVIDIA’s “Women who CUDA” campaign, and Google’s $50M “Women Who Code” program. The truth in the observation by a nine-year-old boy is undeniable, as female scientists and technologists do perform incredible and unbelievably influential work. Sadly, the truth about the lack of gender diversity is also undeniable and can be seen by simply looking around most scientific and technology organizations.
The causes behind the lack of gender diversity are many and generally subtle, as gender bias in hiring is illegal in the US. Most scientists and technologists work behind a veil of obscurity that is enforced and reinforced by specialization, the complexity of the work, and the slow pace of careful research and product development. The joke that scientists are “ummers” highlights this obscurity: “When the spouse of a scientist is asked what sort of work their partner does the spouse answers ‘Ummm … Errr …’ go ask them.”
Even so, recognition of colleagues and a new staff scientist at Los Alamos (namely Bette Korber, Alan Perelson and the recently appointed Dr. Allison Aiken) as “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds” demonstrates that it is possible for both genders to pierce that veil of obscurity even when they work in theoretical biology, bioinformatics and atmospheric science. (Alan Perelson is working to understand Hepatitis C to find a possible cure, Bette Korber is focused on HIV and the evolution of the virus, and Allison Aiken is focused on ambient aerosol measurements in the atmosphere). Similarly, Dr. Yasamin Mostofi, a female professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCSB was a recent 2012 Presidential Early Career Award recipient. She and her team have been busy building and testing robots that can see through solid walls using Wi-Fi signals.
Success of a few is, unfortunately, not the measure for the many as Presidential recognition and other high accolades are both rare in a career and limited to only a few. Publication is essentially the only path that scientists and technologists can follow to achieve recognition, funding and career advancement.
A recent statistical analysis of gender diversity by Emma Pierson, “In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last” determined that, on average, a female scientist is more likely to be first author (indicating the scientist who is primarily responsible for the paper), but is less likely to be last author (indicating the senior scientist who supervised the work). (Note the authors’ gender was inferred from their first names in the Pierson study.) Further, female scientists write far fewer papers and are especially unlikely to publish papers on their own. The good news is that women’s contributions in the literature have increased over the past 23 years, at least according to the statistics garnered from 938,301 scientific papers in the arXiv Web site where physicists, mathematicians and other scientists often post their papers. The end result is fewer publications by women scientists and a resulting social isolation in the network of scientists. Specifically, “even though women tend to work on papers with more authors, they have significantly fewer collaborators and are significantly less central to the overall community of people publishing scientific papers.”
Award winners and published female authors are clearly success stories, because these individuals have invested the time and energy to overcome obstacles and pursue careers in science and technology. But, what about the tens of millions of young females who have both the intelligence and ability to succeed but choose to avoid STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers? The severely biased percentages for tech positions reported by Google (17% women, 83% men), Apple (20% women, 80% men), Twitter (10% women, 90% men), Facebook (15% women, 85% men), Yahoo (15% women, 85% men), and others shows that even sought-after technology careers at leading companies are not attracting young women.
Michele Rossi — a doctoral student in sociology at UC Berkeley — studied white teenage girls in their last year of a well-funded U.S. high school. Her research identified a group that Rossi dubbed “getting-by girls.” During a recent presentation at the August 2014 meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco, Rossi noted, “These girls under-perform academically not because they lack ability, or self-esteem or good teachers.” As a group, “Getting-by girls are good kids who do not get into trouble. Their teachers, coaches, school administrators and school staff like them. Their friends’ parents like them.”
While the earlier “ummer” joke is funny, it is also painful because it highlights a form of societal isolation that can accompany careers in science and technology, which are not perceived as mainstream positions. It is not enough for an employer to offer employment at a prestigious firm along with a “family friendly” work environment. Right now, STEM careers have a messaging problem that includes isolation and working inside a competitive, male dominated “geeky” culture.
Recent television shows like Halt and Catch Fire that present a comedic view into the “geeky and moneyed world of computer programmers” are not helping. Yes, the computer industry is highly competitive andcut-throat, but so is global competition. Yes, many technical organizations have broken internal cultures. Yes, many management teams operate technology “sweat shops.” Yes, this list of negative attributes can be much longer.
Perception is key to addressing the concerns of young women (and men for that matter). Unfortunately, a good story does not follow the theme “… and they had a happy and productive life.” For this reason, pop culture does not tell the story that research and technology careers do provide reasonable work environments and are conducive to a lifestyle that includes family, friends and financial security. It is important that any job candidate, both male and female, think very carefully when considering a career path or possible employment at any organization.
Addressing perception issues certainly plays a central role in the SC14, NVIDIA and Google efforts to bring young women into technology careers. As Rossi said, “The getting-by girls’ emphasis on fun and cultivating social ties is appealing, as is their resistance to the cut-throat competitiveness and pursuit of self-interest they see among their ‘overachiever’ peers.”
Lorena Barba, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at George Washington University and NVIDIA CUDA Fellow, influenced NVIDIA to launch its campaign to showcase women in technology. She says, “Shining a bright spotlight on females who have fought the biases of our society to find a role as STEM professionals is one way to influence our perceptions. Cultural influences start by making known what individuals do that others follow. That’s the impact of having role models for young women and why we need to talk about the many contributions of women in technology. Ignoring them ignores the potential contributions of half of our society.”
Succinctly, Dr. Mostofi teaches her students, “As a scientist, you get to work on very exciting problems, which makes it a great job. But, as a society, we need to find better ways of communicating this more clearly to our young minds.”
Outreach to young adults coupled with examples by successful women who have pursued science and technology careers is essential. Otherwise, pop culture and the high-school “geek” culture will dominate the messaging and, ultimately, the decision-making process of many young women.
Rob Farber is an independent HPC expert to startups and Fortune 100 companies, as well as government and academic organizations. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.