Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Women in Computer Science

Visiting Google this past weekend for the Anita Borg Scholarship Retreat I had the chance to meet some great women in my field, as well as learning about some hard truths about being a woman in CS. There was some great discussion on academia vs. industry, that luckily was not overly pro-industry as might be expected.

One problem we see with academia is the path to tenure. As many people know, the path to tenure is arduous and coincides with the child bearing years. This problem of course affects women in all academic fields, not just CS. To succeed in her career, a women tends to need to make more sacrifices than their male counterparts. For instance, having a child is a very touchy subject. Deciding to have a family should be a personal decision, but many women feel that they cannot have a child and stay on top of their profession. As was stated recently in my department, there is no good time to have a child. Our culture expects our women to do the majority of child raising, but yet we do not construct our workplaces to make that possible. Something needs to give for the next generation of working mothers to be able to be successful.

One thing that needs to change is the path to tenure. Although it is extremely hard on women that choose to have a child (or children), it is also extremely hard on the men whose families have made the same decision. Many men seem to have stay-at-home wives to help them out though, but of course the women do not usually have that luxury. Should we sacrifice our careers for our families, or vice versa? Should both men and women have to sacrifice the younger years of their lives to ensure they have a job for the latter years (i.e. spend all their time working towards tenure)? If we truly value life as we claim to, the answer should be "no." Why get a PhD if you will still not have time for your family in the end?

Another problem that affects women disproportionally to men is the question of responsibilities at work. Apparently women tend to be put on more committees in academia (in CS) because the committees need a certain number of women faculty, and the percentage of women faculty tends to be low. However, the time spent on these committees is not considered a valuable use of your time, and does not affect your path towards tenure except for adding on the amount of time per day you need to be on campus and doing work. Also, women are more likely to be given the larger classes to teach. These two facts combine to cause women to be more likely to burn out in academia than their male counterparts. At least in Computer Science where the number of women is low.

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