You can be a computer scientist and a feminist!

by Valerie Barr

Valerie Barr

Valerie Barr

I recognise that life has an inside as well as an outside and that events separated by years lie side by side imaginatively and emotionally. – Jeanette Winterson, in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

I went to college during the mid-late 1970s, smack in the middle of “second-wave feminism” in the U.S. It was the period during which an increasing number of schools started offering women’s studies courses, people began to talk about sexual harassment, and battered women’s shelters opened. On my campus we had seemingly endless discussions about patriarchy, lesbian separatism, and all facets of feminism. These conversations encouraged me to think about a number of important issues.

While my friends respected my political views, they thought there was something contradictory about my commitment to feminism and my interest in mathematics and computer science. I took solace in the comment of one of my professors, the big radical on campus, who said “Valerie, we need people who understand science and technology”. But, still, the fact that my friends didn’t share that view made things hard (although the few who took a CS course were happy to have me help them with their programming assignments).

After college I went to graduate school at New York University, and I met Anita Borg. Anita was pretty far along in her Ph.D. studies by that point. What was really important to me was that she was unabashedly feminist. Of course, using the term “unabashedly” describes Anita in many ways. What I appreciated about her in that moment of my life was that she clearly thought it was okay to be a computer scientist and a feminist. During the next few years we did lots of things together, including go to demonstrations now and then. Eventually I left graduate school (without my Ph.D.) and Anita finished her degree and left New York. We were in touch now and then, but this was an era before email was ubiquitous so keeping in touch over distance was a bit harder than it is today.

Fast forward about 10 years, I was teaching CS, was still deeply feminist, and had returned to graduate school (where I did eventually earn my Ph.D. in computer science). I heard that Anita had started something called Systers. So I joined Systers which was the perfect Anita project – a technology platform, with interesting technology issues, driven by the desire to help women in computing connect with each other. She followed that by creating the Grace Hopper Celebration – more connection for women in computing. And then started the Institute for Women and Technology.

The most important thread running through all of these activities was Anita’s belief that there was nothing wrong with women, there was something wrong with the larger system. By helping women in technology connect, by harnessing our strengths, we could help change that larger system. Anita also believed that everyone was an expert when it came to her or his own life, and that “regular” people could, if given the chance, articulate ways in which technology could make their lives better. Anita’s best example of this was the Virtual Development Centers in which undergraduates applied their technology expertise to solve problems identified by community members. The students, many of them women, used engineering and computer science to make real change in the lives of real people, empowering everyone involved.

What became of all of this in my life? The desire to be a feminist, a computer scientist, and to integrate the two has driven much of my thinking about and work in computer science over the last decade or so. I fundamentally believe that technology in general – and computing in particular – provides the means to solve many problems in the world and to make people’s lives better. But the necessary changes in people’s lives will be realized only if we significantly broaden who is engaged in computing. There are many wonderful efforts toward this end, and my route has been largely within academia.

Computing will have significant impact on our lives when it is combined with other disciplines to develop systemic solutions to complex world problems. Who will take on these challenges? There are leadership opportunities here! The visionary thinkers of tomorrow, the people who will be able to address these new problems, will be people who are not afraid to work at the intersection of computing with other fields. They will be driven by the “cool problems”, by the intellectual and technical challenges, and by the fact that they care, the understanding that it really matters whether or not solutions are found.

My own work for the last 10 years, rooted in my political beliefs and my decades in computing, has focused on curricular revision and proving that you can engage non-CS students by infusing computation into their courses and research activities. This develops future leaders who understand technology’s potential and have the skills to leverage technology to tackle large, interesting problems.

Today in my day job I am a CS faculty member and Director of Interdisciplinary Programs for my college. My volunteer work is with ACM-W and CSTA. Diversifying who is in computing goes hand in hand with diversifying what the problems are that we deem worthy of pursuit. Anita foresaw this when she hypothesized that some students would be excited about computing if they saw that it allowed them to help other people solve real problems in real lives. We must continue to go in this direction. We can use computing as a tool to help people from other fields implement algorithms that they’ve already come up with and implement solutions they’ve already developed. The real challenge and the real fun in the coming decades will be in the uncharted territory that lies between fields, addressing problems that will push both computer science and other disciplines. The thread I have followed has led me to the belief that it is in the uncharted territory of interdisciplinarity that we will excite and engage people who, until today, have stayed away from CS, but who will make the biggest difference tomorrow.

I can offer an example of how this all comes together.  I recently worked with a student who I met in the fall of her senior year of college.  A double major in math and French, she had taken Introduction to Environmental Science in her junior year.  The faculty member who taught that course suggested that she take intro CS with me (“taming big data” is the theme) and an upper level Plant Ecology course with him.  She became excited about the possibilities of using computing to do data analysis for ecology, and spent the rest of the academic year and summer working on a project in which she analyzed the extent of invasion of national parks by non-native plant species.  She is now going on to graduate school to study environmental informatics.  Of all the students with whom I have worked, I may be most proud of this student who for three years of college never imagined the path she is now on.  She is not now and will never be a computer scientist, but she will use computing to tackle big problems and potentially have an impact on large numbers of people. 

I encourage each of you to broaden your scope. Increase your overall impact. Integrate other interests with computing, look at how computing could benefit from diversity and how computing can strengthen and support other ideas. Show others how computing can be leveraged to tackle big problems with better results. And don’t be afraid to push computing beyond what it is today.

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