Although the tech industry struggles with diversity, a group of women now leads the Association for Computing Machinery.
“It’s very exciting,” said incoming President Vicki Hanson, distinguished professor of computing at Rochester Institute of Technology and professor and chair of Inclusive Technologies at the University of Dundee. “It’s a great opportunity to show young women coming along that there really are opportunities in computing for them”—all the way up to leadership positions, she said.
It’s a great opportunity to show young women coming along that there really are opportunities in computing for them.
The association’s new Executive Committee also includes Vice President Cherri Pancake, professor emeritus and Intel Faculty Fellow in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State University, and Secretary/Treasurer Elizabeth Churchill, director of User Experience at Google. Also, the larger ACM Council includes several women.
The tech industry’s lack of diversity has been widely reported, with data emerging from corporate giants like Google and Twitter as well as a focused study of the tech economy in Massachusetts. About 12 percent of ACM’s members are women.
But Hanson said it’s not that the association or tech companies are failing to attract women, it’s that “very few women go into computing in the first place.” Girls are dropping out of STEM and computing programs, often at the elementary and middle school levels, she said. To address that issue, ACM reaches K-12 schools through the Computer Science Teachers Association.
Part of the problem is misperceptions about the industry, Hanson said. A job in computing “is not just someone doing an algorithm in a corner by themselves.” She noted that she and the other officers work collaboratively in their jobs, and young women often seek those more collaborative work environments.
The association’s ACM-W Council works to engage women in all aspects of the computing field, including providing programs and services to members and raising awareness of opportunities available to women. The group also encourages women to participate in senior positions at ACM.
“The industry could use more diversity,” Hanson said. ACM is trying to improve both gender and ethnic diversity as well as geographic diversity. About half of the association’s members are outside of North America, and the organization has gained more traction in some areas of the world than others. Hanson said ACM leaders constantly keep in mind the fact that ACM is not just a North American organization.
Also, ACM has cultural differences to consider. For example, Hanson said she was invited to India by one of the association’s ACM-W India chapters, and the women there were interested in hearing about her career. Many of them were top students in masters programs but assumed they would stop working once they got married.
The three officers have had varied career paths: Hanson has made her mark with technology for people with disabilities, Pancake has focused on high-performance computing, and Churchill has worked on designing and developing connected devices and developer tools for device ecosystems.
The newly elected leaders have yet to meet. But Hanson said she is interested in outreach they might do together, such as videos that could be shown at schools that highlight their different career paths to illustrate that students have many options to make their way in the field.