At the 10th Heidelberg Laureate Forum, we spoke with panelist Dr. Margo Seltzer about women in computer science in the past decade. Today, Professor Seltzer, who is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Computer Systems and the Cheriton Family Chair in Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, discusses how to raise those numbers. This article is a continuation of our interview with Dr. Seltzer. The first half of this interview can be viewed here.
QUESTION: “What can young researchers do to address the gender disparity in CS?”
ANSWER: “The most important message goes to both senior and junior researchers alike. This has been my mantra for the last decade: it is not the job of the underrepresented to solve underrepresentation. It is the job of the majority to make their field open, welcoming and enticing. The first problem we create is we put all of the underrepresented people on the diversity committee. That is not going to fix the problem. The problem needs to be fixed by the majority, who are comfortable in their fields. That is the single most important thing.
The second most important thing, and this applies independently of your gender, is to speak up. When you are the person who is being made to feel bad, or are suffering from a microaggression, it is harder, but if you really want to be an ally, you have to be the person who stands up. I recently wrote to one of my friends from graduate school who had an incredible moment of courage and physically stood up in a meeting and called out his advisor for doing the standard practice of – a woman says something, the advisor says it’s a bad idea or ignores it, a guy says that same thing 5 minutes later, and suddenly it is a great idea. This young man stood up and explained what just transpired, and the advisor was totally oblivious that it had happened. More people need to feel that it is okay to stand up when they see unfair practices.
The other side, which is perhaps even more important, is if anyone comes to you, whether you are male or female, and says you did something to make them feel bad or unwanted, the first thing you need to do is listen. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t intend it. It’s the same thing if you step on someone’s foot; I’m guessing you didn’t mean to. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apologize. In the same way, if I say something to you that offends you, I need to listen and hear you tell me what I did, I need to acknowledge what I did to you, I need to say I’m sorry, and then I need to figure out how not to do that again.
I think we don’t teach people that it takes a great act of bravery for someone to approach you and tell you that they were offended by one of your actions, and it also takes a great deal of trust. When someone tells you that you have offended them, they believe that you want to do better. And it is your responsibility to live up to that belief. Those are the kinds of conversations that we never have as a community. It has to be okay to speak up, and people have to learn not to internalize that as a personal attack. You are not a terrible person because you are biased, you are biased because you are human. Failing to appreciate that you have biases to understand what they are, and to actively mitigate them, that’s what makes you a terrible person.
Q: That’s what I think is the biggest problem with cancel culture is when someone says you have done something offensive, the standard instinct is to go on the defensive, deny, deny, deny, and protect yourself. Because you instantly think that your career is over. When really, this person just wants you to treat them better.
A: “Exactly. And I do think there are people who really just want to cancel others, and I’m not one of these people who wants to cancel dissenting voices, I think we need to challenge them. Do you believe that? Are you basing this thought on data or anecdotes? And even if it is based on data, are you really sure you are taking into account all of the factors? If women aren’t taking jobs at company Y, is it really because they aren’t interested in company Y, or maybe there is something about company Y that made them uncomfortable.
Those are really different scenarios. But I think we tend to attribute disinterest when people are being turned off actively. I’ve seen no evidence that there’s really any fundamental difference in interest. I have a lot of students of both genders who are simply taking computer science because they know that is where the jobs are. That’s a gender neutral thing. And I haven’t seen any indication that there is any difference in ability. Quite the contrary, the women who persist seem to be stronger because they’ve had to put up with all of the messaging that they don’t belong. But when we support and encourage them, they come to grad school and excel. So it would be great to see more of that.”
Q: “It almost seems like computer science is the new law school, because in the 80s when you weren’t wildly passionate about something, but you needed a career, you often would go to law school. So, do you think that is a problem? That there are people who are entering the field of computer science because it is the new hot market but they aren’t really passionate?”
A: “So there are people who have careers and people who have jobs, and it has to be okay to have a job. If you really hate it though, I think you are doing a disservice to yourself to study it. I think there’s a lot of parental pressure, particularly because the job opportunities are so great. I think for a lot of children and young adults, it is really hard to stand up and say this is not for me. I had one student, many years ago, who explained that they really wanted to major in visual and environmental studies, but their parent wanted them to study computer science. And I said we have a much bigger problem to discuss than what courses you want to take. I believe they went on and studied what they wanted to study, but it was very hard.
On the other hand, there is more to the field than just coding. I worry a little bit about the mental model, that being a computer scientist means I’m sitting in my cubicle writing code everyday. In the best places, a lot of the work is really collaborative, there is a lot of creativity; writing code is going to be fundamentally changing dramatically. I have a son with an undergraduate degree in CS and he has ChatGPT open all the time because there’s a bunch of boiler plate code that you write over and over, and why ever do that again. I have not adopted ChatGPT as my coding companion, but I can imagine a future where it is my constant companion. One of my former students who is a writer now describes ChatGPT as a mediocre research assistant. You can’t just take the work and adopt it, but it is a good first try.”
My colleagues at the CCC join me in congratulating Prof. Seltzer on the 2023-2024 ACM Athena Award! We encourage you to check out this short video from the ACM, announcing Dr. Seltzer as the honoree and we look forward to her Athena lecture.