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July 22, 2004

interview with Ellen Spertus

Ellen Spertus was one of my heroes when i was a computer science undergraduate. She is a kick-ass computer scientist who wouldn't stand for MIT's sexism and did her part to highlight gender-based inequalities.

Ellen is now a professor at Mills College (although doing her sabbatical at Google). At Mills, she helps run the Mills Interdisciplinary Computer Science program. This program is a fantastic opportunity for women (and men) who didn't major in CS to return to school in order to get the CS skills necessary to go on to graduate school or to work in industry. This is a re-entry program that focuses on computer science, not just programming-related job skills.

Because i thought Misbehaving readers would enjoy the stories of other women in computing, i asked Ellen a few questions about how she got where she is and what she would recommend for other women interested in the field. The complete interview is contained within...

Tell me about you. How did you get into computer science?

Even though I was born well before (1968) the rise of the personal computer, I grew up around computers. My father, who loved computers and had gone to MIT, got a computer terminal when I was about 6 or 7. It connected to the office mainframe at 120 baud and output directly to heat-sensitive paper. It didn't even have a CRT. I learned to program in BASIC, typing in programs from Creative Computing magazine.

My big brother Michael was a star mathlete and taught me math as far back as I can remember. He also told me stories of great mathematicians and computer scientists, such as Archimedes and Seymour Cray. Despite my being female, teachers expected me to be good at math, because of my brother. My mother and sisters weren't interested in math and computers, so I was considered an honorary male.

When I was 12, I went to one of the first computer camps and was delighted to have found my peers. I felt that way again when I went to MIT for college, where just about everyone had been misfit in high school.

Tell me about your path to Mills and Google.

I majored in computer science all the way through at MIT (bachelor's, master's, PhD). CS was the MIT degree program with the lowest percentage of women (even lower than physics, nuclear engineering, etc.). As I mentioned, I was pretty male-identified and was somewhat misogynistic. Specifically, I thought that technical fields required more intelligence and effort than non-technical fields and that women's underrepresentation meant that they were stupid and/or lazy. I no longer feel this way.

Part of what changed my opinion was the MIT Barriers to Equality report, which documented the subtle and not-so-subtle biases against women in computing. That started my wondering about women's underrepresentation in CS. That, and MIT's requirement (which I thought terribly unfair) that undergraduates take 8 courses in the humanities, arts, or social sciences, led me to Sherry Turkle's course "Women and Computing". At the beginning of the semester, Prof. Turkle said that we would have to write a 20-25 page term paper. I expressed astonishment at the idea that we could write that much. I ended up writing a 100-page report, "Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?". One of my favorite quotations in the report, which expresses how I now thought (and still do) was:

"As the data from women's career studies and anecdotes from personal experiences of women professionals begin to accrue, one of the questions that arises is not `Why are there so few successful professional women?', but rather, `How have so many been able to survive the vicissitudes on each rung of the career ladder?' " -- Dorothy Zinberg

I continued to be involved in issues around women and computing. I gave a talk at Smith, a women's college, and had my first glimpse of a different model of education, and I liked it. Originally, I had wanted to be a professor at a research university, ideally MIT. Seeing the miserable life that MIT junior faculty led and the lack of rewards for teaching and advising gave me second thoughts. When I neared graduation, a reconfiguration of my values led me to consider Mills, also a women's college, as one of my top choices. My job search confirmed my misgivings about research universities, where junior faculty are advised not to spend too much time teaching until they get tenure [since teaching doesn't count]. I asked about the environment for junior faculty and women at schools I visited. At one, I asked whether a woman could have a child and still get tenure. The president responded that he didn't see why not: it was just 3 months out of 6 years. (I joke that if my husband had asked, he would have said it's just 15 minutes out of 6 years.) I felt I would be happier at Mills because it rewarded what I wanted to do: teaching and advising well, encouraging women, and doing low-quantity high-quality research. For more about my job search, see "Tips for a Massive Academic Job Search".

I graduated from MIT and started teaching at Mills in early 1998. It had all the benefits I expected, although I underestimated how difficult teaching would be. Something that surprised me in my first semester is that students asked questions when they didn't understand something. At MIT, students asked questions in order to show off; if you didn't know something, you kept quiet. I've developed a teaching philosophy of being "nurturing and rigorous". At MIT, the assumption was that teachers had to be harsh to be rigorous. I no longer believe this.

I received tenure at Mills last year and began planning my sabbatical. My dissertation was on Internet search, and I'd regretted missing the dot-com boom, so I chose to work at Google, where my interests are in search and social networking. I work on Orkut and am having a blast.

Tell me about the Mills Interdisciplinary Computer Science program.

The Mills Interdisciplinary Computer Science program was founded by Lenore Blum (now at CMU) in the 1980s as a way of bring women into computer science and interdisciplinary work. The prerequisite is a college degree NOT in computer science. The program has two tracks: a reentry program, which prepares students for PhD programs in computer science, and a Master's degree program, in which students do accelerated computer science coursework and a thesis applying this knowledge to another discipline. The list of thesis topics is quite interesting. One of my favorite recent theses, by Erica Rios, is a demonstration and analysis of how the Internet can be used for social change. See also "Leveraging an Alternative Source of Computer Scientists: Reentry Programs".

While the program is coed, it appeals primarily to women, who may not have thought of majoring in computer science when they were undergrads. Many of the students worked in less technical parts of the computer industry, such as QA, web design, or technical writing, before discovering a love and talent for computer science. It's wonderful to see women's confidence (and earning power) increase as they master computer science. I've seen many Mills women go on to top grad schools and interesting interdisciplinary careers. I'm always happy to talk with potential students about whether the program is a good fit. We still have openings (and funding) for fall 2004 and spring 2005 admission.

How would you advise young women interested in computer science?

Attend a school that is supportive of women in computing, such as Carnegie Mellon University. Maintain a support network, locally and online. Don't assume that the men know more than you do, just because they seem more confident. Have a sense of humor.

Posted by zephoria at 08:18 PM in People | Permalink


Sexiest geek alive?????? Wrong, so wrong, in so many ways.

Help Desk Software

Posted by: Help Desk Software at Jul 26, 2004 6:17:53 AM

My thesis topic is To What extent can undergradute women improve their perception of their computer skills. What direction or case studies would be helpful for this topic? Thanking you in advance

Posted by: Tanya at Aug 31, 2004 4:53:41 PM