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Why Hollywood Needs an ‘L.A. Law’ Equivalent for High Tech Firms – An Interview with Dr. Margo Seltzer » CCC Blog


Heads-up, Hollywood writers: We need an “L.A. Law” series that injects some high glamor into high tech. Just as the 80s-era legal drama burnished the appeal of high-stakes litigation, a well-written tech series might draw young people, particularly women, into computer science, said Dr. Margo Seltzer, the Cheriton Family Chair in Computer Science at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and former CCC Council member.

“When you think of a computer scientist,” Professor Seltzer said in a 2012 interview with Txnologist, you think of a “nerdy guy with no social skills and all he ever wants to do is program.” She hasn’t seen a great deal of progress since.

Speaking two months ago at the 10th Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany, she said that as far as making computer science an attractive field of work for women, “I still think we do a terrible, terrible job.” That’s where an idea that came up years ago for a drama comes in. “Hollywood,” Prof. Seltzer challenged, “What we need from you is the ‘L.A. Law’ equivalent of a high tech firm. LA Law did a really good job of making the legal profession look fantastic, and quite honestly, there are a lot of similarities between law and computer science. I think it would do both the men and the women a service to project a different image of what it looks like to work in computer science.”

And she doesn’t mean “Silicon Valley,” HBO’s comedy that skewered the bro-mances and sketchy ethics of tech startups and behemoths. “Silicon Valley,” which ran for five years from 2014, “is exactly not what we want,” she said.

One TV portrayal she praises is Mayim Bialik’s neuroscientist on “The Big Bang Theory.” “I love Mayim Bialik but that’s not necessarily the image that every woman wants either.”

At Heidelberg, Dr. Seltzer was pleasantly surprised to hear of women’s progress in computer science. According to the CRA Taulbee survey, in 2022, female CS PhD recipients comprised 22.1% of awardees, a 4.9% increase from 2012’s 17.8%. Over the same period, female CS Master’s degree recipients rose by 3.7%, and Bachelor’s degree recipients by 9.4%.

“That’s fantastic!” she said. “I have a bit of a skewed perception because I teach Systems, and that is often the ‘bastion’ of male dominance…Somewhere between 25 and 30% of computer science bachelor candidates being women doesn’t shock me. It sounds like we are almost hitting the peak, which was around my graduation year from college, 1983, when we had about 35% women. We have never reached that height in the Undergraduate program since.” 

She has a few thoughts about why things have yet to climb back to that level. “The best theory that I heard, put forth by my wonderful colleague and mentor at Harvard, Harry Lewis, was that prior to then, there were no computers in the homes, and so they hadn’t been tagged as ‘boy toys’. But by the time computers got into homes they very quickly became ‘boy toys’. So the perception before women get to college is that CS is not for them.”

According to the Taulbee survey, women made up 24.3% of female faculty members at North American universities last year, compared with 19.5% in 2012. Prof. Seltzer pointed out the discrepancy between women and men in different jobs in academe.

The numbers of female employees in academe “are great at the assistant level, and then they dwindle. I was astonished when Barbara Liscov retired, she was at least 15 years senior to me, and the only other woman in Systems of my generation that I could think of is Liuba Shrira. And I found that terrifying”.

However, she sees data science as a fruitful entry point for those not necessarily captivated by computer science. “I think data science in general has done a better job of marketing themselves than we have, but I think that will help us,” she said. “…We’ve brought in a lot of people by calling it ‘data science’ instead of computer science.”

At the University of British Columbia, Prof. Seltzer’s efforts to encourage diversity in computing include teaching a second systems course. For that, she puts together an 8-person architects panel with a group of racially diverse participants, equally split between male and female professionals across academe and industry.

“A lot of the young women commented ‘It was really nice to see women on the panel, but especially older women, because I’ve always had the perception that I know I could get a job now, but what happens in 10 years or 20 years?’. So I had some of my contemporaries who were able to say ‘Yes, here we are! We exist!’.”

At the Heidelberg Laureate forum, Dr. Seltzer participated in a panel on “Generative AI: Promises and Perils.” The discussion, which included experts such as Sanjeev Arora (Princeton University), Sébastien Bubeck (Microsoft Research), Björn Ommer (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich), was moderated by Anil Anathaswamy (MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow) and can be seen here.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the second half of my interview with Dr. Seltzer when she shares tips for making computer science a more welcoming field for women.

Image Courtesy of Paul Joseph Photographs


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