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NCWIT 2014

June 4, 2014 Leave a comment
2014-06-03 19.21.42

My daughter constructed one of the “Sit With Me” red chairs that were distributed at the summit–a future computer scientist??

The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year at its annual summit. NCWIT’s goal is to increase women’s participation in computing and technology fields through high-visibility events and activities. This year’s event featured over 600 attendees from universities, colleges, companies of all sizes, government agencies, and other organizations. The NCWIT Summit balances headline events (keynotes, flashtalks, award announcements) with opportunities for focused groupwork. I had a major role with two groups, described in other posts: Pacesetters and the Academic Alliance. We also had a big role in the Sit With Me campaign to get people talking about diversity and inclusion.  I’ll describe the main conference events here.

For me, the most inspirational part of this event was the great collection of keynotes. As always, the organizers did a great job in identifying speakers.  While all the keynotes had value, these three (with links to the talks) are the ones that I found most relevant and interesting:

  • Michael Kimmel, a sociologist from Stony Brook best known to me for his book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, gave a keynote titled Mars and Venus and Planet Earth.  He highlighted ways in which men can become more engaged in gender equality, focusing on the many hurdles to doing so. Too often, men may acknowledge that it’s right and fair to encourage participation by women, but it’s compartmentalized into individual events rather than encouraging of more meaningful changes. Many men don’t acknowledge that differences exist and the benefits of privilege that are constantly present, making it hard to even begin to address issues. To reflect this point, he noted out that ties embody this lack of awareness and its danger: at one end it is a noose and the other points to the genitals.  This is just one of the many amusing analogies and anecdotes he used.
  • Maggie Neale from Stanford gave the opening keynote on influence and negotiation strategies.  She’s talked and written widely on this topic–at this meeting she focused on aspects that relate to issues of diversity.  One issue that she faced hit close to home: she recently faced an increase in her courseload as dictated by administrators who didn’t account for the breadth of value that she brought to the table.  That, and other increases in workload, has been seen at Virginia Tech and a great many other universities in this time of rising enrollment and declining funding, not only for teaching but also for many other professional resources.  She emphasized techniques for addressing these hurdles that I plan to employ in the near future. I agree with Maggie that our leaders generally have reasonable goals in mind when making decisions, but they often don’t fully consider their decisions’ consequences–particularly diversity-related consequences.
  • Chelsea Clinton provided the closing keynote, discussing how her primary interests in global healthcare need partnerships that engage women and technology.  Maybe the biggest cheer came when it was noted she was a newly minted Ph.D. (in international relations from Oxford), to be expected from an academic crowd!  She seemed very knowledgeable about important initiatives that engage women with technology, many of which partner with the Clinton Foundation in some way.  Her talk was good, but even better was the subsequent Q&A session with NCWIT’s Lucy Sanders in which she answered some tough questions–though she didn’t fall for Lucy’s attempt to acknowledge computer science as the most important 21st century skill!

(I’ll also note that Mark Guzdial has a similar list (along with his recap of the summit and his workshop)–I feel like I’m in good company!)

There were many awards that were highlighted at the summit.  The Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award (that I helped to select) went to Bob Beck, Marie desJardins, Silvia Figueira, and Alan Jamieson. This year was the first for the Harrold and Notkin Award for graduate mentoring, won by Nancy Amato. Perhaps most notable was the Pioneer Award this year, to Eleanor Kolchin from IBM and NYU, who worked on early plugboard computers starting in the 1940s.

Another focal point for the summit was a series of workshops to help address key issues regarding women in computing.  The workshops kicked off with a series of 5-minute flashtalks highlighting their respective topics–providing a really interesting view into new directions and concerns regarding women and IT. Alas, the workshops themselves were not as satisfying, perhaps because of the huge number of people in attendance at the workshops of interest to me (standing room only in many, which doesn’t really work well for a highly-interactive workshop format).  Not sure what can be done about that–NCWIT certainly wants more people engaged in these topics, so perhaps encouraging preregistration limits and/or considering different formats for idea exchange will be necessary at future summits.

One other mixed success event from my perspective: Aspirations Award winners were highlighted in several ways but were not as visible as they were at last year’s NCWIT. The Aspirations in Computing program highlights “high potential technically inclined young women”. Virginia Tech has identified and sponsored a half dozen awardees in recent years, with hopes to double that in the next year or so. I’d love to see more ways to highlight their accomplishments at future summits.

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The state of Virginia NCWIT representatives

And I’ve got to end with one other highlight: big thanks to Sharon Simmons, Department Head at James Madison University, for organizing a reception for NCWIT participants from the state of Virginia.  We had attendees at the reception from James Madison, George Mason, Norfolk State, Virginia State, the University of Virginia, Piedmont Virginia CC, NSF, CRA, and (of course) Virginia Tech.  We talked about coordinating some statewide recruiting and retention events, perhaps during computing week.

As always, NCWIT took part in a beautiful environment–Newport Beach, California–with over 600 attendees.  It will require careful thought to manage the continued growth in this event moving forward, but they have great leadership and solid partnership that suggests they will be up for the task.  Looking forward to next year’s NCWIT 2015 Summit in Hilton Head, SC!

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NCWIT 2014: Academic Alliance

June 4, 2014 3 comments

The National Center for Women and Information Technology had its annual meeting in May 2014, and a big part of that included meetings of the Academic Alliance members. The Academic Alliance seeks to “implement institutional change in higher education” through a collection of programs. I’ve been on the steering committee for the Academic Alliance for the last two years, and I’ve co-chaired the NCWIT Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award for the last two years as well. There’s some real enthusiasm in this growing group of people, and it’s always been energizing to connect with them.

Undergraduate research has been a passion of mine since my grad school days, and I started our VTURCS undergrad research program upon coming to Virginia Tech. So I suspect it’s no surprise that I find the Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award to be a great way to honor faculty members who make efforts to mentor undergrads in research. I was tagged to help lead the selection committee after winning the inaugural award in 2011, assisted over the years by Margaret Burnett, Morreale, and Maureen Doyle–with invaluable assistance by NCWIT’s Kim Kahaher. There are four categories for the nominees to account for the differing goals of Ph.D. and BS/MS schools, and of senior and junior faculty members. Over the course of a year, we solicited over 30 nominations, arranged at least 3 reviews for each nominee, looked at overall scores and adjusted scores (based on reviewer scoring), delved into the packets ourselves, and–the tough part–chose four winners from among the many great nominees. NCWIT has a great writeup about the four winners: Bob Beck, Marie desJardins, Silvia Figueira, and Alan Jamieson.

There were other important programs and award that were announced at the meeting, including the Pacesetters program (discussed in another blog post), the Sharing Practices Project (working on an interface to share and access early-stage ideas that relate to women in computing), the NCWIT Student Seed Fund, and the inaugural Harrold and Notkin Research and Graduate Mentoring Award (won by Nancy Amato).

Since the Academic Alliance is the biggest sub-group within NCWIT, we divided the core discussion section by type of school–Virginia Tech was part of the Ph.D. in CS/CE group, with other groups focusing on community colleges, 4-year colleges, etc. They also divided questions according to ways that NCWIT and the AA can help me (i.e., faculty and administrators), ways they can help students, and ways we in attendance can help NCWIT and the AA. I’ll link to the full report when it’s released, but to me a few things jumped out as unresolved problems that need to be addressed in moving forward:

  • Resource availability for members. It seemed like lots of concerns resolved around difficulties in finding and accessing information about promising ideas. There’s lots of “Best Practices” information that’s available, and the Sharing Practices Project mentioned previously seems like a step in the right direction. Kudos for the team that’s working on that, as they really want a good product before release. A highly usable interface (searchable in multiple ways) seems essential, as does a well-populated and well-maintained underlying database of ideas. Several of our steering committee meetings have focused on these issues, and I’m hopeful that this is moving in a good direction.
  • More promotion of the awards (and maybe more awards). There was a comment about a lack of transparency in the awards process, which surprised me–but maybe just because I’ve been on the “inside” for a while. I’ve found the process to be very rigorous, with lots of advertising of deadlines early and often, and lots of communication with nominees and reviewers. Deadlines and the timeline for decisions are made available on the award web site as soon as they are known. It’s encouraging that the Harrold and Notkin Award is following a similar process, and I hope that other award categories are identified and funded.
  • My biggest concern connects underrepresentation of women in CS with the current enrollment spike. A great many of the techniques mentioned encourage enrollment in CS, not only among women but also among all students. But with increases in enrollment, there are the dual challenges of not enough time for recruiting events and too many students to effectively teach and mentor. I feel very pinched for time and resources, and diversity issues seem to slide down my priority list.

I’m hopeful that NCWIT, and particularly the Academic Alliance, will seek to be at the forefront in addressing these issues. There’s a great bunch of people who are working hard on these problems, and I look forward to helping however possible in the future.

NCWIT 2014: Pacesetters

June 4, 2014 1 comment

Part of the mission of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) is to maintain a group of Pacesetters who seek to achieve quantified increases in women at their institutions through focused programs of recruitment, retention, and promotion.  Virginia Tech is taking part in their second Pacesetters cohort, and I’ve described our goals previously.  A few highlights from the most recent Pacesetters meeting at the NCWIT Summit in May:

  • We had a “get to know someone new” meeting where I got to chat with Lori Wilson from Intel about things we could do to help each other to achieve Pacesetters goals. Lori has an interesting story–she’s been at Intel since she was a teenager, having them pay for her education as she rises through the ranks. She currently focuses on recruiting and retaining women at Intel. We talked about ways to create a pipeline of students between VT and Intel through internships, researcher visits, sponsored scholarships and awards, and the like.
  • We took part in an activity to make technical job ads to attract a more diverse candidate pool. It seems that all too often job ads ask for skills and experiences that aren’t really required, which disproportionally repels women from from applying. A team of Pacesetters is putting together a packet of materials to help with this–hopefully the group’s participation in the activity will prove helpful in the team’s editing and refinement tasks.
  • We talked as a group about what it means to be a Pacesetter. The group has been dragging a bit in goal reporting, with about a third of the cohort failing to report results. Setting goals that can be measured provides opportunities for reflection, though of course it then takes time and resources to accomplish those goals (and goals can change as situations change, even in as short a time as the two year Pacesetters window). So much of Pacesetters–and of diversity activities more generally–requires dedicated leadership and commitment up the ladder of an organization.

Overall, while it’s great to connect with this enthusiastic group, it may be time for Virginia Tech to take a break from Pacesetters after this current round.  We’re experiencing huge growth in our student population and a rise in both our numbers and percentages of women in our department. Perhaps it’s time to maintain the programs we have that are successful (like the Aspirations Awards), put on a back burner the ones that aren’t suitable right now (our Designer Minors, which don’t fit with our over-enrolled classes), and opportunistically look for other ways to increase diversity. We’ve got one more Pacesetters meeting–I’m looking forward to seeing how our programs continue to have impact.