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Communications of the ACM


Making the World Fair and Just

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Wendy Powley (left) and Gloria Childress Townsend.

Wendy Powley (left) and Gloria Childress Townsend.

Wendy Powley (WLP) and Gloria Childress Townsend (GCT) represented ACM-W at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Annual Summit in Las Vegas May 16-18, 2016.  NCWIT is an organization that provides structure, resources, and management for the many efforts taking place to increase diversity in technology.  The 2016 Summit brought together approximately 700 attendees from across the U.S. and beyond.

We begin our joint blog with stories about our relationships with NCWIT, and then we investigate our NCWIT 2016 theme, "making the world fair and just."

GCT: As a member of the ACM-W Council for Women in Computing, I'll highlight two of my collaborations with NCWIT. ACM-W developed Celebrations for Women in Computing (Celebrations) in 2004, a project that organized small regionally-based conferences to support women in computing. In 2009, NCWIT and ACM-W worked together to secure a Broadening Participation in Computing grant from the National Science Foundation. ACM-W organized 12 new Celebrations as part of its contribution to the project. NCWIT brought the organizers of the Celebrations to its Annual Summit and also sent its Research Scientists (usually the wonderful Joanne McGrath Cohoon) to the Celebrations to provide workshops about the recruitment and retention of women in computing for faculty members.

Secondly, as the current committee chair for ACM-W Chapters, I work with NCWIT in its "Student Seed Grant" project. The project, with the help of Google funding, provides three levels of grants, ranging from institution-wide grants for established ACM-W chapters to grants for organizing new ACM-W chapters. NCWIT helps spread the well-established ACM-W chapters' concept to new school locations. 

WLP: NCWIT provides resources for outreach activities, recruitment and assessment. They rely on members to produce and share resources that are made available for download. ACM-W has an excellent model for Celebration events that bring together women from within a local geographical area to network, learn, and collaborate. Over the coming year, ACM-W plans to produce a "Celebrations in a Box" resource to share with NCWIT affiliates, which will contain a guide to planning a Celebration event, sample timelines, suggestions for obtaining sponsorship, templates for correspondence, etc.

WLP: The Queen's University School of Computing (where I work) is a member of the NCWIT Academic Alliance. Our ACM-W student chapter recently received a Google igniteCS Grant and is busy planning an outreach program for high school students that will take place this summer. At the NCWIT Summit, I was made aware of the program assessment tools provided by NCWIT that we can use to assess the effectiveness of our programs. I also learned of some new curriculum resources that will be perfect for use by the student outreach leaders.

WLP: Is the world a fair and just place? Are computer systems a mirror of an unfair and unjust society? The lack of diversity among developers will, no doubt, lead to bias in systems.

In his keynote on Monday, May 16, Moritz Hardt from Google Research pointed out that machine learning systems can be biased. In a machine learning system, data is collected, the system is trained on a set of representative data and models are built and deployed. Bias may occur at any stage of the machine learning workflow, but let us consider, for a moment, the data collection process. It is typically believed more data leads to lower error.  However, by definition, less data exists on minorities which will lead to a higher error rate for the minority population. If we do not have enough data on a population, a "majority" model may not be suitable and may result in a high error rate for the minority population. It is important for system developers reconsider the data collection to ensure it is representative of the population the model will be used for, not representative of the population we see in front of us. In order to develop fair and just systems, developers must be aware of potential bias and build the systems accordingly. Can we develop systems that model a much more fair and just system than our world around us? It is possible, if we acknowledge and overcome our own biases.

GCT: Melissa Harris-Perry (Wake Forest University) presented the second plenary on May 17.  She gave some very practical advice for all women (all people) in her keynote. Harris-Perry quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."  She indicated that, if we want to make the world fair and just, we allow all people to dream and allow them to fail; then, they will be much more likely to succeed. Harris-Perry asked listeners to encourage others in their spheres of influence to dream, to never stifle the dreams of anyone, from young children to the elderly. Allow these same people to fail; again, with compassion and understanding. With these two seemingly disparate ingredients, dreams and failures, spread equally across the entire population, the world will be fair and just, and people will succeed in that world.

WLP: Harris-Perry gave an interesting, entertaining and enlightening talk on the broader societal issues that contribute to the lack of diversity in tech. There were many takeaways from this talk, but the one I found most thought-provoking was a point she made about role models.  I have often heard (and used) the phrase "you can't be what you can't see," in reference to the need to have female role models for our female students. Harris-Perry, however, noted that role models are not necessarily important for the minority group, but they are crucial for the majority. Until everyone sees women and minorities in leadership and professional roles, diversity will remain an issue.

GCT:  I attended "Shattering the Glass Slipper of ICT Professions," by Karen Ashcroft. Ashcroft delivered a wonderful plenary during NCWIT 2015.  Naturally, I chose her 2016 workshop from a host of choices. As in 2015, Ashcroft said "Lean In" thinking preserves binary models of gender difference and, in turn, the thinking preserves the male status. Paraphrasing more of the plenary:

In the binary model, women always appear deficient. Try just one more time to squeeze your foot into a shoe that was not made for you, Ugly Stepsister! There are identities associated with any profession/job. Professionals find their lives a lot more difficult when they "don't fit the mold." Glass slippers are never as simple as men's and women's work (binary). For a "fair and just world," flip the professional identities: say how the organization benefits from a range of identities.

NCWIT influences the lives of computer scientists at the personal/institutional level and at the organizational level. ACM-W has a long-term and effective collaboration with NCWIT.  The NCWIT Summit was a great opportunity for us to meet new people and talk with several ACM-W volunteers.

We return to Canada and Indiana, taking the NCWIT messages about making the world fair to apply to our respective ACM-W Celebrations and Chapters committees.

Wendy Powley is a research associate, project manager, and Adjunct Lecturer at the School of Computing at Queen’s University, and serves as chair of the ACM-W Celebrations committee. Gloria Childress Townsend is professor of Computer Science at DePauw University, and serves as chair of the ACM-W Chapters committee.


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