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Top Computer Scientists, UCSD Leaders, Longtime Friends, Supportive Colleagues: Q&A with Jeanne Ferrante and Francine Berman

Jeanne Ferrante, Associate Dean at the Jacobs Shool of Engineering and Francine Berman, Director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center sat down together, at the start of the Fall 2006 quarter, to talk about pressing issues facing women in engineering in anticipation of the upcoming Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in San Diego, October 4 to 7, 2006.

One topic that is sure to create buzz at the 2006 conference is a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, " Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering ".  The report finds that bias and "outmoded institutional structures" in academia hinders the number of women in the sciences and engineering.

The proportion of women enrolled in engineering undergraduate and graduate programs around the United States has remained around 20 percent for the last few years, according to a 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office and the percentage of women in faculty positions in engineering departments is generally no higher.

Why are conferences like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2006 important?

Ferrante: Being in a room with a thousand people -- nearly all of whom are women involved in computing -- is a powerful experience for a woman in the field.

There is a lot of technical learning at these conferences, but perhaps more lasting for a participant is the excitement for their field and the growth of their professional network.

Berman: I heartily agree with Jeanne, it's really important for people to see people at the next rank of the ladder. It's important for high school women to see successful female undergraduates, for female undergrads to see successful female graduate students, for the grads to see female faculty. It's important for junior faculty to see senior women in the field as well as female administrators. To an undergrad, a tenured professor or a dean may be too big a gap -- your next stop is not a tenured professorship, it is graduate school. We want to make sure that everyone can talk to somebody a step ahead of them in their career, and everyone has someone that they can share experiences with who is trying to do what they've just done. To look forward and to help in places where you've been is really important.

Ferrante: Anecdotally, some of our students who went to the conference last year came back saying ?Wow!? The experience made a big difference in their lives, in how they felt about continuing on with their studies and in their level of confidence. That's what conferences like this are really aiming for, having that transformational effect.

Berman: It's easier to go down a well traveled path. If you're trying to create the path as you go, it takes more energy. But if you go down a path that other people have gone down before, you can focus on getting where you want to go.

The low numbers of female faculty, especially at the senior levels, in the fields of engineering and the hard sciences in the United States suggests that the path is not very well traveled. What do you think can be done to improve the situation?

Berman: If we're really serious about diversity in science, engineering, and technology, it's important to recruit more qualified women into applicant pools. This is everyone's job, not just women's. The problem of diversity should be solved by everybody, because it affects everybody. If the applicant pools are both high quality and more diverse, the workforce will likely be high quality and more diverse. If the workforce is more diverse, then I think we have more of a chance of creating a diverse campus.

Ferrante: Besides widening the pool, and making sure we search broadly for excellent candidates, I also think it's important to consider multiple criteria during faculty selection. Certainly, successful job applicants have to be technically excellent. At the Jacobs School we've also been asking candidates about their contributions to diversity and their leadership contributions as well.

Berman: I challenged my colleagues this year. If every person in my department sought out the most outstanding women they could and encouraged them to apply to open positions in our department, we would, over time, have a tremendously diverse faculty. There is no reason not to beat the bushes and try to enlarge the applicant pools. This is an approach that can be used more broadly. We should be striving to diversify our pools with qualified candidates at every level.

Ferrante: One initiative we've started here at the Jacobs School is TIES - Teams in Engineering Service. In one of our projects, multidisciplinary teams of undergraduates go into the K-12 schools and work with teachers and kids. These kids get to absorb the undergrads' sense of excitement for engineering and computing. The undergrads get to be role models, and the younger kids get to see that it is possible to move on to the next level, to be engineering undergraduates. We also started the Women in Computing group at UCSD. This group provides another way for us to approach some of the issues we have been discussing: recruiting and retaining women in computing at UCSD at all levels, networking and mentoring, teamwork and leadership opportunities, professional development and promotion of scholarship among women.

To take advantage of the Grace Hopper Celebration being in San Diego , I am also running a seminar on Women In Computing this fall, open to both undergraduate and graduate students. All of the students will be attending or volunteering at the conference, and the class project will be a web page or wiki to attract women to computing at UCSD.

How is UC San Diego addressing the disparity between the number of men and women who rise to the tops of their respective fields of engineering, science and technology?

Berman: Jeanne and I and a few others here at UCSD started the Women's Leadership Alliance to encourage senior women in campus leadership positions to network, think about leadership development, and give and get professional recognition. These activities especially benefit emerging women leaders. Initially, the group started out with just women faculty, but expanded to include staff. There are many strong female leaders at UCSD who are administrators and staff ? it has really enriched our group to include them.

Ferrante: Leadership training can nurture a real sense of the value of diversity and an understanding of how things can go awry in the absence of diversity. We hope to work to expand such training at UCSD. The Women's Leadership Alliance group meets quarterly and often hosts speakers. On October 11, we're hosting Art Ellis, the new Vice Chancellor for Research, and Kim Barrett, the new Dean of Graduate Studies.

As two successful women in engineering, what do you think makes a good leader?

Berman: I think there are many kinds of leadership, and different cultures support different kinds of leadership. At the San Diego Supercomputer Center , we have a team-oriented culture. Both women and men are part of the team. A lot of environments have a limited set of leadership styles, and some leadership styles are not as palatable to some as they are to others. I'm not particularly excited about empire building leadership styles. That's not the kind of leadership style that I think facilitates the kind of collaborative work we do at SDSC.

Ferrante: I agree with Fran, there are many styles of leadership. My own style often places me ?under the radar.? I get my satisfaction from seeing good results: for example, starting a new program like TIES, building it, making sure it lasts, in collaboration with a great team of people. I don't put much effort into claiming ?credit.?

Berman : All leaders have the same set of issues -- how to go forward, how to be successful. Often times, leaders who are underrepresented in their environment have an extra set of challenges that may range from stylistic challenges, to lack of a sufficiently large network, to cultural challenges, or challenges related to your own expectations. People can be underrepresented in their environment in lots of different ways other than gender.

The Grace Murray Hopper conference focuses on women who are underrepresented in the science, engineering and technology communities. One of the best consequences of these kinds of conferences is that you add to your personal and professional networks. I've met some very strategic women through these kinds of activities that I call upon when I am challenged with something that I think they can give me particularly good advice on.

Ferrante: For women, particularly for younger women, it's important to see other women who are successful and have a balanced life, which for many includes children and family.

Berman: The Grace Hopper conference, and the TechLeader workshop that Jeanne and I helped organize at the conference, give people a chance to share information around their challenges but also provides an opportunity to recognize the opportunities and positive aspects of our jobs. At the end of the day, most of us are in our careers because we enjoy what we do. Sometimes we are so serious about the challenges and the downsides that it's hard for people to see that we have a lot of fun.

Francine Berman: ?So Jeanne, what are the most fun parts of your job??

Ferrante: That's a really good question, Fran! Hmmm?I enjoy teaching, and watching students grow in their skills, research accomplishments and confidence. I also really like setting up programs and improving the academic culture in ways that can make a difference for people. For example, the TIES program, which I mentioned earlier -- teams of engineering students working with nonprofits. Interestingly enough, the TIES program has a higher concentration of women than in Engineering in general, although that was not an explicit reason for starting it. I do think, however, that this observation starts to get at some of the barriers to getting women and underrepresented minorities into technical fields. They are not always as comfortable with technology as the guys who grow up playing video games and toying with technology all the time. I think some women come into undergraduate engineering programs and feel unprepared. And if they encounter difficulties, as all of us do, female students are more likely to see it as their own fault, as studies have shown. One such study of our own students was authored by Bioengineering Professor Sangeeta Bhatia and colleagues several years ago.

Jeanne Ferrante: ?What's the most fun part of YOUR job, Fran??

Berman: There are lots of things that are fun about my job as director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center . We have a wonderful staff. I really like the mix of strategic thinking, vision and leadership involved in being Director, and I think it's particularly fun to talk about science and engineering with different kinds of groups, especially non-specialists. I think science is incredibly cool. The challenge of sharing this passion with people who don't think or know science is cool is really fun for me. I also enjoy the process of team building. That's been one of the great challenges and successes at SDSC -- creating a more team oriented culture.

How did you get into computer science and computing in the first place?

Berman: I didn't come from the tech direction. I loved math and thought science was pretty cool. As a kid, I loved puzzles and thought it was really fun to go to the planetarium. I was a math major in college. I still love math.

Ferrante: Me too. I was a math major. We had that in common. We first became aware of each other because of our work in graduate school. We've known each other a long time!

Berman: I read about Jeanne's work as a graduate student. It was an area I was thinking about writing my thesis on. I ended up going into a different area, but I remembered Jeanne's research publications. I think we first met at a theory conference, and we've reconnected at different conferences over the years. You were in compilers and I was in parallel computing.

Ferrante: But then I got into paralleslism and by then you were into grid computing. But we still went to some of the same conferences! Fran played an important role in getting me to come to UCSD. I had been at IBM for a number of years, then spent a year on sabbatical in Boulder , Colorado . I called Fran up and I said, ?What do you think about such and such a place?? and she said, ?Well! If you'd consider going there, you should come out here to UCSD.? She made me come and visit, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Berman: Jeanne and I have been part of each others professional network for a long time. I was not the only person pushing for Jeanne and her husband to come to UCSD! There were others here at UCSD in Jeanne's professional network as well who admired her work. It's hard to imagine being in academia without a network that you really rely on. I especially enjoy talking with Jeanne because she has a special understanding of some of our common challenges. We also share more practical professional information.

Ferrante: I think being a professor is all about personal best. You're competing against the impossible problems that everyone in your field is working on. But this diversity issue is not an impossible problem. With enough effort and support, we can make UCSD a more positive and supportive place to study and work for everyone.

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