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A Plea for the Return of Affirmative Action Programs

A bit of a shaggy dog story. In the summer of 1975 I participated in the Bell Laboratories summer program for women and minorities. I spent the summer evaluating Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) programs, making a recommendation for which program to include in the PFORT portable Fortran library. It was a fabulous experience. Go forward one year to the summer of 1976. I spent that summer at Argonne National Laboratory on their summer program for women and minorities. Yes, imagine an era in which government labs and corporations actually had sanctioned affirmative action programs! That summer I worked on the BLAS, the Basic Linear Algebra Subroutines that are at the heart of LINPACK, a software library for carrying out linear algebra operations. My supervisor was Jack Dongarra who is now an internationally recognized expert on supercomputing and the keeper of the "top 500 list" of supercomputers (www.top500.org).

Fast forward to today. My department, with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) CS department, hosted a visit by Jack Dongarra. Jack generously visited Union in the morning, spent the afternoon at RPI, and then gave a talk. My guesstimate is that the room held 160 people. It was completely full. There were 8 women there. Four faculty, 4 students. Jack gave a wonderful talk, really fascinating. But I came home completely depressed. We've all been trying lots of things to get more women into computing, but it sure seems that the impact is pretty minimal these days. Why am I in CS? Certainly the two summer experiences I had played a big role! I can look back at the projects on which I worked, the sense that I was doing real work that would be important to other users, and the rich, exciting settings in which I did that work. I know that it made a difference. I know that those projects sent me back to college motivated to continue my studies. And all of that was in an era in which majoring in CS wasn't even a possibility at my school. But I still did independent studies in CS, worked on projects for faculty, did whatever I could to get my hands on computers.

So what do I conclude from this? We need to get back to a point where affirmative action is not a dirty word. As a country we are desperate for people to fill CS and IT jobs. The latest update from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that employment in all computer occupations will increase by 22 percent by 2020. Among software developers demand will increase as much as 32 percent. Where are the people going to come from to fill these positions? We need all hands on deck, but first we need much more aggressive strategies to get increased numbers of all kinds of people to consider CS and IT. All kinds of people. And that means bringing back affirmative action strategies that will help us to quickly get critical mass so that we can recruit and retain larger numbers of women of all kinds and larger numbers of underrepresented minorities. We need dramatic change quickly. Imagine the potential impact if Jack Dongarra and his lab colleagues had been able to have a few women and minority summer students every year from 1976 to now. I'm sure the demographics in the auditorium at RPI today would have been quite different.

Valerie Barr
CSTA Computational Thinking Task Force Chair

Comments

Hmm your blog is super helpful...thanks!

You gotta be in it to win it! At a recent (2011) computer programming contest where the colleges were looking for high school talent like crazy and rewarding students with unheard of scholarship opportunities JUST FOR PARTICIPATING, I only saw one black student and only a very few women, and they were mostly from the same high school. As a computer science teacher I have not been able to attract underrepresented groups because they cannot fit my courses in their schedule because of the other courses and APs that they feel they must have and that will not lower their GPA. On another note, your choice of the words "affirmative action" in your title is a curious one to me because where I now live there may not be two more divisive words in the language.

I think you're right in that unfortunately Affirmative Action is seen as a dirty word. But even if its meaning was shifted somehow and more women and minorities were encouraged to enter the CS field of study, there still wouldn't be enough people to fill the trend in SW related jobs, which show a long term increasing trend and even accelerating in the future. But I believe it is not just affirmative action that is needed in order to get more people into CS related jobs, but an overall shift in mentality in the USA. Americans want the big money, so most who have a good head on their shoulders want to go into finance or something like that. So, I think the shift away from that mentality which may be just as hard as the shift away from Affirmative Action as a dirty word, is what would turn the tide. Both very difficult.

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