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An Advocate for Diversity in Computer Science

From UVa. Engineer
November 20, 2007

By Linda Kobert

Despite the current reality, the field of computer science has not always been populated primarily by men. “In the very beginning, it was a woman-dominated field,” explains Owen R. Cheatham Professor of Computer Science Mary Lou Soffa. “In the early 1960s, the majority of the programmers were women.”

Prior to the prominence of the machine we all know as the computer, it was mostly women who did the work of calculating and recording logs in the business world. These technicians were known, in fact, as “computers.” When the electronic version of the computer came along, these women logically moved into programming. According to Soffa, once the value of such a role became apparent, men started entering the field, which they now dominate.

Female computer scientists such as Soffa, however, want the pendulum to swing back to center. Much more than a matter of fairness, they would like to see a significant increase in the number of women entering, working in and earning higher degrees in the field.

“We are still not able to fill all the jobs for really skilled computer scientists,” Soffa asserts. “If this trend continues and women and minorities do not participate in the field, then the United States has a good chance of losing its edge in computing.”

Professor Mary Lou Soffa
Professor Mary Lou Soffa
Soffa, who serves as chair of U.Va.’s Computer Science Department, is determined to reverse current trends and has demonstrated significant success, especially in her own research group. While the national average for women earning doctoral degrees in computer science has been 15–18 percent in recent years, in 30 years of teaching, Soffa has graduated 23 doctoral candidates and 56 master’s degree students, more than half of whom have been women. Eight of these former students are now serving as role models themselves as tenured or tenure-track faculty members at universities across the country.

As a member of the Computing Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W), Soffa also works to institute mentoring programs on a national level. For example, she is co-founder of the CRA-W’s Grad Cohort Program, which is trying to swell the ranks of senior women in computing by creating a community of colleagues who can support each other as they progress in the field. The program’s annual workshop brings computer science graduate students together with a wide range of professional role models who share their strategies, provide personal insights and support students’ success in completing doctoral programs. Enrollment has increased dramatically over the past three years for the two-day workshops, which now include more than 200 participants.

Industry giants like Microsoft and Google help support this program, which continues even after the workshops conclude. The program facilitates mentoring relationships between students and computing professionals and creates peer networks that can serve as a valuable source of support during difficult times in a student’s graduate career.

The National Science Foundation sponsors a second CRA-W program co-founded by Soffa known as the Cohort of Associate Professors Project (CAPP). This project focuses on supporting female computer science and engineering faculty from colleges and universities across the country as they work to become full professors. As with the Grad Cohort Program, CAPP attempts to create a community that can sustain associate professors through mentoring involvement with distinguished professors, leadership training, professional development and ongoing peer relationships.

Soffa’s success in developing and funding these programs has not gone unrecognized. In 1999, the White House presented her with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, and last year the CRA awarded her the A. Nico Habermann Award. These awards recognize her exceptional efforts to enhance the participation of women and minorities in science and technology fields.

While the current underrepresentation of women in her field disturbs her, Soffa is hopeful. “It is a difficult problem because we don’t fully understand why women do not go into computer science,” she says. “For 20 years we’ve worked very hard nationally to try to increase the representation of women and minorities in computer science. I hope we will eventually be successful and no longer need specialty programs.”


Read more: www.cs.virginia.edu

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