Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Carpool Musings on Women in Science and Engineering

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of studies published discussing why there are so few women in the science and technology fields. On a high note, one of these studies noticed that recently about the same number of women are graduating with science, technology, engineering, and math bachelor’s degrees as men. Unfortunately researchers found that a disproportionately large number of those women choose not to continue studying science, technology, engineering, and math in graduate school. Nearly every study mentioned in the news recently concludes that women are discouraged, either directly (by peers or, worse mentors straight up telling them to avoid the fields) or indirectly (for example, through a lack of female role models) from entering an engineering, mathematically-inclined, technical, or scientific field.

My wife and I have been debating the results and implications of these studies based on what we learn from radio news snippets while carpooling to work. So when Ada Lovelace Day came across my Twitter stream I asked my wife if she would like to write an article with me. I thought it might be interesting to hear two different perspectives (one from a man, the other from a woman) on how women in science, engineering, math, or technology have influenced our thinking in some way.

Interview with Marie


Marie chose to discuss Dr. Martha Case.

Who is Dr. Martha Case?

Marie: She is a professor at the College of William and Mary and was my undergraduate advisor while working toward my degree in Biology.

What about Dr. Case inspires you?

Marie: She was one of my few female professors in college. She is well respected in her field, by students, other professors, and researchers. She was also given leadership roles in the biology department. What I admired most about Dr. Case is that she was able to maintain her femininity while being a woman of strength and great knowledge. Her ability to share her knowledge and passion inspired me to become a teacher so I could inspire others to love plants too.

What can young girls learn from Dr. Case’s example?

Marie: You should find something you love, learn everything you can about it, and then get out there and tell others. If you’re passionate then people will listen.

Interview with Michael


Michael chose to discuss Mary Shaw.

Who is Mary Shaw?

Michael: This is tough. Mary Shaw is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She has written a ton of papers on software engineering covering everything from software engineering education and research to architecture and design and everything in between. While I was working toward my Masters in Software Engineering, I had the opportunity to take two discussion courses - one on great papers in software engineering and one on design. Mary was the moderator of these discussions. I also had an opportunity to write a paper with Mary that was published in IEEE.

What about Mary Shaw inspires you?

Michael: She is ridiculously smart and the fact that she has put out a lot of really good ideas and is extremely influential in the software engineering world. And she's able to articulate her ideas extremely well. Just being able to sit around and have these discussions with her and other PhD students was empowering. It has nothing to do with her as a woman and everything to do with her as a software engineer.

What can young girls learn from Mary Shaw’s example?

Michael: Carnegie Mellon isn’t run just by guys. And it doesn't matter what gender you are - people value the ideas.

Wrap-up


That was much tougher than either of us thought it would be and will probably only add fuel to our carpool discussions. Interestingly, we both chose a college professor with whom we directly interacted; people we personally know.

Normally I [Michael speaking] wouldn’t have thought this sort of a discussion would have been necessary. Generally speaking, tech blogs like this are preaching to the choir - most folks reading this either already think similarly as me or have a strong desire to learn the information I’m sharing. It would be rare for people who hate software engineering, for example, to read this blog. So, if I'm trying to change your mind about a controversial topic, blogging isn’t the most effective way to do this. Sadly, I’m not sure that everyone in the software industry thinks that gender equality is something that needs attention. It’s one of those slow-change ideas and I’m happy to see inroads like Ada Lovelace Day.