Not Man or Woman; Scientist

This Spring Florida Tech's Evans Library celebrated women in science, at Florida Tech and abroad. Special library exhibits, highlighting major scientific contributions made by women, led up to an April panel event where three members of Florida Tech’s own faculty got to speak on their experiences. Among those faculty was the Harris Institute for Assured Information’s (HIAI) own, professor of Computer Science Heather Crawford, Ph.D.

During the presentation, the presenters were asked to pick a woman of inspiration in their field who has influenced their work. Rather than only choosing one, Crawford went off brief with her presentation focusing on three inspirational women in the field of computer science, all at different points in their professional journeys.

“You shouldn’t look for inspiration from people who have achieved, and who are higher, solely. Certainly look to those people, but I’m sure they were equally inspiring early on in their careers before they were famous and thus considered worthy of inspiration,” said Crawford. “My message for this event was don’t just look at people who have achieved, look all around you for inspiration.”

Coincidentally the other presenters, Dean Mary Beth Kenkel, Ph.D. of the College of Psychology and Liberal Arts and Brooke Wheeler, Ph.D. from the College of Aeronautics, had the same idea. According to Crawford, this event that looked to celebrate great scientists, who just so happened to be women, was a breath of fresh air.

“I left feeling like less of an anomaly and more like part of a community of scientists who happen to be women,” said Crawford. “I found it an incredibly uplifting event. I would be honored, as I was this year, to be invited to participate again next year.”

A Growing Chasm

One of four women in her freshman class at University of Calgary, and the only female professor in Florida Tech's School of Computing, Crawford is no stranger to the disparity in the extremely male-dominated field of computing. According to the American Association of University Women, the percentage of women working in computer science related professions has steadily declined since the 1990s, dropping from 35% to 25% in the last 15 years. In regards to this downward trend, Crawford believes the problem has come from the solution.

“It’s not going to be a presentation or assembly that solves this issue, it’s going to come from taking away the subtle hints we give girls that maybe STEM isn’t for them.”

—Dr. Heather Crawford

“I think the problem is being attacked in the wrong way. I don’t think you create equality by bringing one group above another. You bring equality by treating everyone the same,” said Crawford. “I look forward to the time when gender doesn’t matter anymore. When I am just a computer scientist, or just a professor, as opposed to a female professor.”

When you separate the sexes with events, scholarships, or conferences geared toward women only, in Crawford’s opinion, these competitions lose value. Those women-only events are changing equality in the wrong direction; putting too much emphasis on accepting work because a woman researched it rather than because it’s valid. If work and research is going to be accepted in the male dominated field, it has to stand in the male dominated community.

Tapping into New Talent

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2020 there will be more than 1.4 million computing-related job openings. At current rates, however, we can only fill about 30% of those jobs with U.S. computing bachelor’s graduates. Girls represent a valuable, mostly untapped talent pool. How do we solve this problem? Crawford has some suggestions.

“It’s not going to be a presentation or assembly that solves this issue, it’s going to come from taking away the subtle hints we give girls that maybe STEM isn’t for them,” said Crawford. “All the little signs, that by themselves don’t seem to mean anything, are what is stopping women from considering STEM. We’re not saying ‘Don’t like math, don’t like science’ but we’re giving them these signs that some things are for boys and some things are for girls.”

These hints, something as simple as a TV commercial that shows only boys exploring a tide pool while the girls are playing with dolls, can be damaging in the long run. When we get rid of the notion of these traditional gender roles and leave the lane wide open, we are naturally going to see a more diverse representation, not only in computer science but in all fields of study. As professionals like Dr. Heather Crawford and all of the HIAI faculty continue to work together and serve as exemplars in their field, regardless of gender, the journey to improvement will continue.