26 oktober 2015

Computer science needs more women

Computer science is still dominated by men. This must change. It’s time for a gender-neutral diverse field.

I always believed that I found my vocation by accident. My teachers’ advice for high school was: “She can do whatever she wishes to.” This sounds nice, but for a 13 year old teenager it means: “And now what?” I chose a business school because my closest friends did. After two years I chose to specialize in computer programming because neither languages nor commerce sounded that exciting. I liked it, so much that after graduation I continued in computer science at the University of Pisa. That year about 50% of the students were women. I did not notice, as it is kind of normal. After all, this approximately mirrors the world population.

About 30 years later I was asked to give a talk for the 30th anniversary of computer science in Amsterdam. The talk should have been on ‘something about women in computer science.’ Not my field of research, really - I work in software engineering! - but I gladly accepted: I was the only woman speaking, and I thought: maybe someone should speak up and make notice that computer science is a field dominated by men. I then realized that I did not find my vocation by accident: I found it because computer science was new, unexplored and therefore unbiased. I was free to chose anything I liked. Nobody at the time, in my environment, had a preconceived opinion. Computer science was an option like economics, law, arts and many others.

Anyway, the point is: we get used to a certain reality: for instance, a majority of women teachers in elementary schools or a majority of men in IT professions. This doesn’t mean that the best school teachers are women, or the best IT specialists are men. It only means that even the most talented people often do not pursue a career because they are unconsciously influenced by social biases.

We all know that diversity brings innovation. This is proven, documented in books, and honestly quite obvious: one person can think in one way; ten persons bring tens of ideas; ten different persons look at a problem from ten different perspectives and together think out-of-the-box and create innovation. This is true in any field. So, I don’t care when psychology or nursery schools are dominated by women. I do care when excellent students in computer science, and in particular women, choose careers beneath their possibilities and ambitions.

Especially now, when computer science means smart cities, sustainable energy, financial tech, digital health, equality, we need diversity to create solutions that work. We need more women to create technologies that support business alliances, software apps that inspire better lifestyles, sustainable services that make the cloud really greener, and diverse teams - that combine technical competences with collaboration, intuition and problem solving skills.

What next? While we - the VU, the Netherlands, society at large - try to improve, I leave you with a reflection point. If the Netherlands is one of the most promising EU countries in IT (fact), and if diversity brings innovation (fact), can you imagine what we could achieve if computer science was a gender-neutral diverse field?

Patricia Lago, professor software and services, VU


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