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Comments by Peter Freeman for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

About the series

Good Morning. I had planned since joining NSF this past May to attend this year's Grace Murray Hopper Celebration - it would have been my third Hopper Conference in a row - and had made my reservations some months ago. Unfortunately, last minute responsibilities in Washington prevented me from being with you today. I am grateful to Caroline Wardle for delivering my remarks for me in my absence.

On behalf of the National Science Foundation and The Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate (CISE), I want to welcome you to what I believe has become one of the most important conferences in computing. The technical exchange that is taking place here is, of course, very important. Even more important is the demonstration to all in the field of just how many women are active in important leadership roles in our field. But most important, in my opinion, is the "networking" and exchange of career-related information that is taking place.

One of the myths that I believe most scientists and engineers labor under - especially those of you just starting out - is that all it takes to be effective and successful in the research and education enterprise is good technical work. As the more experienced of you know all too well, that is simply not the case - for men as well as for women.

Science is a social enterprise just as much as any other activity in which human beings engage. As such, it is essential to understand the social aspects of being a researcher and/or an educator. It is this kind of information that you can only learn from your peers and those who have already advanced in the field. The kind of critical information that you are getting here is something that all of us need, and I applaud the women leaders in our field who almost a decade ago provided the leadership to organize the Hopper Conference.

Let me briefly touch on two other important topics.

We always seek advice about the directions you think NSF should emphasize in science and education, about our existing programs and ones that don't exist, about how we manage our responsibilities, and, perhaps more important, advice about broad reaching issues related to our nation's human-infrastructure and its impact on our future. I encourage you to speak with any of the several NSF staff in attendance here, with Janie Irwin who is an outstanding chair of the CISE Advisory Committee, or with other members of the AC who are at Hopper. Or send me an email directly at pfreeman@nsf.gov.

In particular, we need your advice on how to dramatically increase the number of women and under-represented minorities in computing. An overarching challenge that we face as a nation is diversity in our ranks and in our student populations. Society believes that women and minorities should be more widely represented in our institutions in science and engineering. NSF and others have for years studied the problem, encouraged efforts, tracked results, and helped disseminate successful techniques. But, somehow, those efforts are not scaling and we seem stuck.

The representation of these groups is nowhere near their proportionate share of the population. And in the case of women in computing, it is worsening. Analyzing the Taulbee data on degree information of CS doctoral-granting institutions, we saw that, after being stuck at 13% for several years, there was a slight increase in the production of women to 16% of the PhD pool last year. How can this be if the undergraduate production of women is dropping (from a maximum of 37% in 1984 of the B.S. computer science graduates to 27% in 1994, to a report from many computer science departments that their enrollment is now under 20% today)? I believe it is because we are filling the graduate ranks with international women graduate students. While we certainly welcome them to our ranks - they add to the diversity of the pool in more than one way - this only underscores our poor performance at recruiting and retaining U.S. women.

I believe that the paramount issue is no longer to discover what is to be done about increasing diversity, but to actually do something about it. We must put many more efforts in place and learn from them. This will take leadership and it is leadership that you must help provide.

NSF and others have been investing in the long-term, careful research that will help us validate and better understand what works and what doesn't. This is essential, but we must not let the absence of completed studies deter us from undertaking more immediate efforts. There are some pragmatic efforts that appear to be successful and that need to be tried in other environments. Remember, one can learn from experimentation, and in complex situations like changing student demographics we probably will never have a completely validated formula for success.

I want to challenge you today, as leaders, on three fronts:

First, tell us what you think we should be doing on the national scene. But, remember, at best NSF can support demonstration projects and validation studies. You and your institutions must make the investments of time and money that are necessary to make real changes.

Second, form effective partnerships - with other women and with men. This cannot and should not be a women-only effort because it will fail if it is - that is simply one of those realities you must understand. The good news, though, is that almost all of my male colleagues are as anxious as you to do something about the under-representation of women in computing. But they need leadership.

Finally, I challenge you to set a realistic goal for your particular professional environment and to use what you have learned here to work toward that goal. At the next Hopper Conference in two years, I would like you to be able to say:

  • I helped initiate one or more activities that have a good chance of increasing the number of women in our student population;
  • I formed a partnership with others - including some men - to bring about change in my department or group that will help insure that the women that do enter succeed;
  • I personally mentored a student or younger colleague to help them move forward in their career.
I applaud you for coming to this meeting, for your dedication to research and education, and for serving as catalysts in advancing our nation's role as world leaders in science and technology. I look forward to hearing your suggestions and to hearing of your success.

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