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iSGTW - Editorial, Women in Grid

Feature - Editorial: Women in grid computing

Engineer Mayling Wong examines an accelerator component at Fermilab. Image courtesy Fermilab Visual Media Services

Editor's note: In honor of International Women's Month, iSGTW looks at the role of women in computing, science and technology.

In a November 17, 2008 story in The New York Times, "What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?" Ellen Spertus, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells of her experience at computer camp, in which she discovered that there were six boys to every girl. (And later, she found that only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at M.I.T. were female.)

The article says: "She published a 124-page paper, 'Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?' that catalogued different cultural biases that discouraged girls and women from pursuing a career in the field," and notes that her paper was published in 1991.

Computer science has changed since that time.

Today, there are even fewer women entering the field.

This gender imbalance is something we've noticed ourselves, when attending any grid computing conference. (Only 20% of the EGEE workforce - Europe's largest grid computing project - is female, for example.) And it's not just confined to computing; according to a study of National Science Foundation statistics by Joan Burrelli, only 7.8% of America's doctorates in physics went to women last year. On a similar note, only one percent of American college graduates are women who have studied engineering, said an editorial in Progressive Engineer.

Many speculate why this is the case in the fields of science, engineering and technology, especially in comparison to the proportion of women in other fields, which have seen steady increases over the past 40 years. "In 1973, only 6 percent of the Ph.D. scientists employed full time in academia, business or elsewhere were women; by 2006 the number had risen to 27 percent," wrote Natalie Angier in the January 19, 2009 Science Tuesday section of the Times.

One view - perhaps most famously attributed to then-president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, in a 2006 address - is that the genetics and biology of gender determine the under-representation of women in science and technology.

Meanwhile, others point to social factors. The founders of the Smith College Picker Engineering Program in Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, note that American boys and girls show an equal interest and aptitude in science and technology up until adolescence. In a newly released GridBriefing, "Facing the skills shortage: attracting more women to ICT," former iSGTW editor Cristy Burne notes a similar phenomenon among European 15-year-olds: Both sexes are equally interested in science as a career, but this interest does not carry through as they age - the percentage of female graduates in science and technology drops to as low as 20% in The Netherlands. (The percentage varies markedly from country to country, with 44% of science and technology graduates in the former Soviet states being female.)

"Shadowing day" in the IT department of CERN, part of EGEE's Gender Action Plan. Increasingly, there are more such programs being developed; to help keep track of them all, Fermilab established its Women in Physics site as a clearinghouse of information. Image courtesy of EGEE

What is needed

There are many possible reasons. According to Women in ICT 2008, a short list includes: a lack of female role models or mentors, a continuing imbalance in pay, a limited presence of women in decision-making positions, a lack of infrastructure and support that allows mothers to return to work, and unequal family responsibilities (40% of women aged 25-54 are out of the workforce due to family responsibilities, compared with only 4% of men).

In the next few issues, iSGTW hopes to offer some light as to what may be happening, along with profiles of successful women in grid computing, and information on initiatives to counter the downward representation of women in the grid.

Progress will not happen overnight. As Judy Franz, Executive Officer of the American Physical Society, told iSGTW: "It will take a while for this effort to have its full effect - it's a bootstrap process (which used to work only for men), and these take multiple cycles to yield substantial change."

Getting more women into grid computing is more than a purely academic exercise: The European Union expects that the information and communication technologies, or ICT, field will be short by about 300,000 qualified staff by 2010, and more women must be drawn into the field to meet the needs of this growing industry. "It is unacceptable that Europe lacks qualified ICT staff. If this shortage of computer scientists and engineers is not addressed, it will eventually slow down European economic growth, and Europe runs the risks of falling behind," said Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media. "We need to overcome common stereotypes which describe ICT careers as boring and too technical for women."

And in the USA, in the face of what some have termed a coming "engineering shortage," industry has felt the need to encourage more women to get into science, engineering and technology. To cite just one example, industry gave Smith College a $73 million science and engineering center in order to ensure a supply of trained professionals for the future. Science and engineering are now the most popular majors on the campus, students told us.

If such outreach efforts succeed, women in science, engineering and technology - including computing and physics - could start to increase in number, make substantial scientific contributions, find their voices . . . and help enable the grid to grow.

-Dan Drollette, iSGTW

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