Fostering a great academic environment for women

By Anne Condon

Anne Condon as the 2010 Computing Research Association A. Nico Habermann Award winner

Anne Condon, 2010 A. Nico Habermann Award winner

I’m a Professor and Head of the Computer Science Department at the University of British Columbia (UBC). I love my work in this intellectually vibrant environment. I know that I have the respect and support of my colleagues, even when I make mistakes.  At UBC, I really feel like I can be my best.

It’s important to me that our students also feel supported as they navigate our programs and reach for their goals.  I particularly want to make sure that our program is welcoming to women, because I believe that a diverse student population will enhance creative thinking and problem solving, and signals that we have a healthy environment for everyone.  The percentage of women in our undergraduate programs, at 22%, is double the North American average at PhD-granting institutions. That’s great, but maybe it can be still higher!

Our success in recruiting and retaining women is the result of many synergistic programs and support structures that benefit all of our students, as well as some targeted at women.  Some of these had started before I came to UBC. For example, a former head of our department, Maria Klawe, initiated a second degree program that makes it possible for students with degrees in unrelated disciplines to transition to CS. The participation of women in this program has been significantly higher, typically over 40%, than in our program as a whole.

When I joined the department in 1999, one of the first things I did was to invite the women graduate students to dinner at my home. Some students, including women, were at first uncomfortable with women-only events.  Unbeknownst to me, news of the event had generated heated debate on a departmental news list. Because I was new and had put some women in an awkward position, I felt terrible! At times like this, I drew on the support of my colleagues at the Anita Borg Institute and on the Computing Research Association’s Committee on Women, whose programs had already convinced me that supporting a womens’ community is important. Over time, as the value of a social and mentoring network for women became clear, support and momentum for such events grew.

A different challenge was to develop sustainable practices that keep the department’s attention on recruitment and e success of women students.  In 2000, I founded our “Focus on Women in CS” committee.  The group takes leadership in organizing events that have particular interest for women, and reviews departmental practices and policies to ensure that there are no inadvertent biases, e.g. in graduate student recruiting. The committee also arranges to send students to the Grace Hopper conference every year.  We started GirlSmarts, a popular computer day camp for grade 6 girls that continues to this day.  A staff member on the committee created and oversees a very successful student mentorship program that brings students and alumni together and has particularly high participation by our women students.  I have enjoyed being a mentor in this program for many years.

Many of our women graduate students enthusiastically volunteered their time for the committee and it was gratifying to me to see how the students availed of this new network.  However, as the committee’s work grew, new concerns arose: some women were devoting so much time to outreach activities that it could negatively impact their progress in their research and studies. To address this, we found ways to get departmental funding to pay some project leaders, thereby reducing time they spent as teaching assistants during busy project periods, and we found ways to manage volunteer hours.

For me personally, being at an institution that goes the extra mile to support our students is very rewarding. I have been inspired by the enthusiasm and dedication of many people who participate and lead the programs. Through our women graduates, we are increasing the impact of women on technology: our women graduates have gone on to leading positions in industry, academic and in health and other government agencies. I encourage you to take small steps to reach out and connect with women in your department or organization and then to build on your successes.  Hopefully, like me, you will make wonderful friends and you will find satisfaction in your personal growth and in making a difference.


UBC’s Focus on Women in CS Committee:

UBC’ GirlSmarts Program for Grade 6 Girls:

UBC’s BCS Second Degree Program:

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