Margo Seltzer

Bridging the gender gap in computing

These 2 blogs are the output of interviews that took place with Dr. Margo Seltzer on Nov. 8, 2023, conducted by Catherine Gill, Program Associate, Computing Community Consortium for the Computing Research Association (CRA)


Heads-up, Hollywood writers: We need an “L.A. Law” series that injects some high glamor into high tech. Just as the 80s-era legal drama burnished the appeal of high-stakes litigation, a well-written tech series might draw young people, particularly women, into computer science, said Dr. Margo Seltzer, the Cheriton Family Chair in Computer Science at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and former CCC Council member.

“When you think of a computer scientist,” Professor Seltzer said in a 2012 interview with Txnologist, you think of a “nerdy guy with no social skills and all he ever wants to do is program.” She hasn’t seen a great deal of progress since.

Speaking two months ago at the 10th Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany, she said that as far as making computer science an attractive field of work for women, “I still think we do a terrible, terrible job.” That’s where an idea that came up years ago for a drama comes in. “Hollywood,” Prof. Seltzer challenged, “What we need from you is the ‘L.A. Law’ equivalent of a high tech firm. LA Law did a really good job of making the legal profession look fantastic, and quite honestly, there are a lot of similarities between law and computer science. I think it would do both the men and the women a service to project a different image of what it looks like to work in computer science.”

And she doesn’t mean “Silicon Valley,” HBO’s comedy that skewered the bro-mances and sketchy ethics of tech startups and behemoths. “Silicon Valley,” which ran for five years from 2014, “is exactly not what we want,” she said.

One TV portrayal she praises is Mayim Bialik’s neuroscientist on “The Big Bang Theory.” “I love Mayim Bialik but that’s not necessarily the image that every woman wants either.”

At Heidelberg, Dr. Seltzer was pleasantly surprised to hear of women’s progress in computer science. According to the CRA Taulbee survey, in 2022, female CS PhD recipients comprised 22.1% of awardees, a 4.9% increase from 2012’s 17.8%. Over the same period, female CS Master’s degree recipients rose by 3.7%, and Bachelor’s degree recipients by 9.4%.

“That’s fantastic!” she said. “I have a bit of a skewed perception because I teach Systems, and that is often the ‘bastion’ of male dominance…Somewhere between 25 and 30% of computer science bachelor candidates being women doesn’t shock me. It sounds like we are almost hitting the peak, which was around my graduation year from college, 1983, when we had about 35% women. We have never reached that height in the Undergraduate program since.” 

She has a few thoughts about why things have yet to climb back to that level. “The best theory that I heard, put forth by my wonderful colleague and mentor at Harvard, Harry Lewis, was that prior to then, there were no computers in the homes, and so they hadn’t been tagged as ‘boy toys’. But by the time computers got into homes they very quickly became ‘boy toys’. So the perception before women get to college is that CS is not for them.”

According to the Taulbee survey, women made up 24.3% of female faculty members at North American universities last year, compared with 19.5% in 2012. Prof. Seltzer pointed out the discrepancy between women and men in different jobs in academe.

The numbers of female employees in academe “are great at the assistant level, and then they dwindle. I was astonished when Barbara Liscov retired, she was at least 15 years senior to me, and the only other woman in Systems of my generation that I could think of is Liuba Shrira. And I found that terrifying”.

However, she sees data science as a fruitful entry point for those not necessarily captivated by computer science. “I think data science in general has done a better job of marketing themselves than we have, but I think that will help us,” she said. “…We’ve brought in a lot of people by calling it ‘data science’ instead of computer science.”

At the University of British Columbia, Prof. Seltzer’s efforts to encourage diversity in computing include teaching a second systems course. For that, she puts together an 8-person architects panel with a group of racially diverse participants, equally split between male and female professionals across academe and industry.

“A lot of the young women commented ‘It was really nice to see women on the panel, but especially older women, because I’ve always had the perception that I know I could get a job now, but what happens in 10 years or 20 years?’. So I had some of my contemporaries who were able to say ‘Yes, here we are! We exist!’.”

At the Heidelberg Laureate forum, Dr. Seltzer participated in a panel on “Generative AI: Promises and Perils.” The discussion, which included experts such as Sanjeev Arora (Princeton University), Sébastien Bubeck (Microsoft Research), Björn Ommer (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich), was moderated by Anil Anathaswamy (MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow) and can be seen here.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the second half of my interview with Dr. Seltzer when she shares tips for making computer science a more welcoming field for women.

Blog 2:  

At the 10th Heidelberg Laureate Forum, we spoke with panelist Dr. Margo Seltzer about women in computer science in the past decade. 

We asked: What can young researchers do to address the gender disparity in CS?

Dr. Seltzer said: “The most important message goes to both senior and junior researchers alike. This has been my mantra for the last decade: it is not the job of the underrepresented to solve underrepresentation. It is the job of the majority to make their field open, welcoming and enticing. The first problem we create is we put all of the underrepresented people on the diversity committee. That is not going to fix the problem. The problem needs to be fixed by the majority, who are comfortable in their fields. That is the single most important thing.

The second most important thing, and this applies independently of your gender, is to speak up. When you are the person who is being made to feel bad, or are suffering from a microaggression, it is harder, but if you really want to be an ally, you have to be the person who stands up. I recently wrote to one of my friends from graduate school who had an incredible moment of courage and physically stood up in a meeting and called out his advisor for doing the standard practice of – a woman says something, the advisor says it’s a bad idea or ignores it, a guy says that same thing 5 minutes later, and suddenly it is a great idea. This young man stood up and explained what just transpired, and the advisor was totally oblivious that it had happened. More people need to feel that it is okay to stand up when they see unfair practices.

The other side, which is perhaps even more important, is if anyone comes to you, whether you are male or female, and says you did something to make them feel bad or unwanted, the first thing you need to do is listen. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t intend it. It’s the same thing if you step on someone’s foot; I’m guessing you didn’t mean to. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apologize. In the same way, if I say something to you that offends you, I need to listen and hear you tell me what I did, I need to acknowledge what I did to you, I need to say I’m sorry, and then I need to figure out how not to do that again.

I think we don’t teach people that it takes a great act of bravery for someone to approach you and tell you that they were offended by one of your actions, and it also takes a great deal of trust. When someone tells you that you have offended them, they believe that you want to do better. And it is your responsibility to live up to that belief. Those are the kinds of conversations that we never have as a community. It has to be okay to speak up, and people have to learn not to internalize that as a personal attack. You are not a terrible person because you are biased, you are biased because you are human. Failing to appreciate that you have biases to understand what they are, and to actively mitigate them, that’s what makes you a terrible person."

We said, "That’s what I think is the biggest problem with cancel culture is when someone says you have done something offensive, the standard instinct is to go on the defensive, deny, deny, deny, and protect yourself. Because you instantly think that your career is over. When really, this person just wants you to treat them better."

Margo responded, “Exactly. And I do think there are people who really just want to cancel others, and I’m not one of these people who wants to cancel dissenting voices, I think we need to challenge them. Do you believe that? Are you basing this thought on data or anecdotes? And even if it is based on data, are you really sure you are taking into account all of the factors? If women aren’t taking jobs at company Y, is it really because they aren’t interested in company Y, or maybe there is something about company Y that made them uncomfortable.

Those are really different scenarios. But I think we tend to attribute disinterest when people are being turned off actively. I’ve seen no evidence that there’s really any fundamental difference in interest. I have a lot of students of both genders who are simply taking computer science because they know that is where the jobs are. That’s a gender neutral thing. And I haven’t seen any indication that there is any difference in ability. Quite the contrary, the women who persist seem to be stronger because they’ve had to put up with all of the messaging that they don’t belong. But when we support and encourage them, they come to grad school and excel. So it would be great to see more of that.”

We responded, “It almost seems like computer science is the new law school, because in the 80s when you weren’t wildly passionate about something, but you needed a career, you often would go to law school. So, do you think that is a problem? That there are people who are entering the field of computer science because it is the new hot market but they aren’t really passionate?”

“So there are people who have careers and people who have jobs, and it has to be okay to have a job," said Dr. Seltzer. "If you really hate it though, I think you are doing a disservice to yourself to study it. I think there’s a lot of parental pressure, particularly because the job opportunities are so great. I think for a lot of children and young adults, it is really hard to stand up and say this is not for me. I had one student, many years ago, who explained that they really wanted to major in visual and environmental studies, but their parent wanted them to study computer science. And I said we have a much bigger problem to discuss than what courses you want to take. I believe they went on and studied what they wanted to study, but it was very hard.

On the other hand, there is more to the field than just coding. I worry a little bit about the mental model, that being a computer scientist means I’m sitting in my cubicle writing code everyday. In the best places, a lot of the work is really collaborative, there is a lot of creativity; writing code is going to be fundamentally changing dramatically. I have a son with an undergraduate degree in CS and he has ChatGPT open all the time because there’s a bunch of boiler plate code that you write over and over, and why ever do that again. I have not adopted ChatGPT as my coding companion, but I can imagine a future where it is my constant companion. One of my former students who is a writer now describes ChatGPT as a mediocre research assistant. You can’t just take the work and adopt it, but it is a good first try.”

We encourage you to check out this short video from the ACM, announcing Dr. Seltzer as the honoree and we look forward to her Athena lecture.