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Long Live the .250 Hitter

Ubiquity, Volume 2008 Issue December, 12-01-2008 | BY Elena R. Strange 


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The dearth of women in computing is very much on everyone's mind. Elena Strange offers a new perspective on this. She observes that the solid, utility hitters (and players) are the backbone of every baseball team. In playing on her computing teams she has no aspirations for MVP awards and strives for personal excellence in the things she does. She asks her male colleagues to value her as a .250 hitter without holding her to the standard of a .314 hitter. This simple change could open the gates to a flood of women in computing. Elena holds Grace Hopper as the equivalent of the legendary .314 hitter in computing. Hopper told her friends that she was never aspiring to be a legendary leader, but only to do the best possible job with the tasks that were before her. Be personally excellent and interact with people from your heart, said Hopper, and all the rest will take care of itself. You can see in Elena's story the seeds that Grace Hopper planted.

When he signed Jackie Robinson in 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey was trying to make history. He wasn't aiming merely to stack his roster with the best ballplayers; he was aiming to hire a black man, to give the Dodgers "unrivaled entree to the best players in the Negro Leagues" [7, pp. 69]. There was nothing color-blind about Robinson's recruitment.

Rickey didn't lower his standards one bit to break the color barrier. Robinson was a phenom by any measure. Among his many successes were National League rookie of the year, National League MVP, 6-time all star, and a career batting average of .311 [7]. He led the Dodgers to 6 pennants and one world series championship, and he was inducted into the baseball hall of fame in 1962, his first eligible year. Even Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider, standouts of the 1946 Dodgers lineup, lagged behind Robinson in batting average, hits per season, and they even trailed him in hall of fame induction---both were elected in the 1980s, well into their retirement years, and only after multiple appearances on the ballot [8]. Although Robinson is most often associated with barrier-breaking, his ballplaying was even more impressive.

In computer science, our Jackie Robinson came in the form of a military officer. Her name was Grace Hopper, and she cut a path for women in science the way Jackie Robinson cut a path for black men in baseball. Like Robinson, Hopper's talent is undeniable. After earning a mathematics doctorate from Yale in 1934, she graduated first in her class at Midshipmen's School and was commissioned as a lieutenant into the U.S. Navy. There, she was one of the programmers on the Mark I calculator, a predecessor to the modern computer. She invented the compiler, as well as a programming language, FLOW-MATIC, that drove the development of COBOL. Hopper's considerable list of honor impresses no less than Robinson's. It includes an eventual promotion to rear admiral, the first "man of the year" award from the Data Processing Management Association, a defense distinguished service medal, and the national medal of technology. She even has a ship named after her [9].

Jackie Robinson and Grace Hopper. Quite a pair of legacies to live up to.

Except the Robinson legacy doesn't exactly set the standard anymore, at least not the way it once did. The year of his major-league debut also saw the midseason acquisition of Larry Doby, followed by Monte Irvin in 1949, both baseball greats and future hall-of-famers. For some years following, black ballplayers trod an unequal path, and it seemed that only the most talented broke into the major leagues. Slowly, though, what started as a trickle of African-American players turned into a flood, sweeping with it Latino and Asian players as well, and in 2006 the percentage of non-white players stood at approximately 41% [4]. These days, there are some truly mediocre black players in major league baseball (MLB)---a true sign, I believe, of parity. There's a Ryan Howard for every Jimmy Rollins, a Pokey Reese for every Torii Hunter. People of color have broken into professional baseball management as well. 28% of employees at the MLB central office are non-white, as well as 31% of MLB coaches [4].

Sixty-four years after the Mark 1, women in computer science aren't faring as well as minorities in baseball. Although we represent more than half the population of the U.S., in 2005 we accounted for approximately 20% of all computer science doctorates [3] and 22% of bachelor's degrees [1]. Professionally, women hold only 27% of computer science jobs [6] and 17% of full professorships in the discipline [3]. We're still trickling into the field, at all levels of education and profession; the flood hasn't broken through.

We have seen the integration of baseball in part because the sport has been able to overcome its initial biases. Computer science hasn't yet. Not every baseball player is a .311-hitting Jackie Robinson, and not every computer scientist is a compiler-writing Grace Hopper. The backbone of both fields is the .250 hitters, the journeymen who aren't stars or benchwarmers but somewhere in between. But in the MLB, a .250 hitter gets the same favor regardless of his color, and I don't think that's true for women in computer science. You can't deny the talent of a true standout, and I've known my share of both sexes. Most of us don't quite measure up to that bar, however, and in my experience, male colleagues of even caliber tend to be taken a bit more seriously than women. Even with similar skills and knowledge, they seem to have more credibility by default.

I would bet that every woman in computer science now, like every black man in the MLB 50 years ago, has a story or two about being unfairly doubted. One of mine occurred midway through my first year of graduate school. I was meeting with a study group---all men, as usual. We had split up some multiple-choice homework, and I offered the answer to the first question, B. They didn't believe that was the right answer, and I started to go over my solution. Another student wandered into the lounge, a man academically indistinguishable from me, and he concurred with my answer. The guys in my group nodded, jotted down the B, and moved on. They didn't even check the work, just accepted the answer when it came from another student instead of from me.

Of course, I could be reading too much into this exchange. Maybe it was the confirmation of the answer that solidified my group's confidence. But similar experiences have piled on over the years, and I can't help feeling that I have to be, if not Grace Hopper, at least more competent than those around me to be considered equal. And I've found myself wishing I could be Grace Hopper---undeniably brilliant, able to blow everyone away. But in truth, I'm something of a .250 hitter. I have my own niches and areas in computer science where I excel. I'm pretty darn good at what I do and do everything to the best of my ability. I'm not looking for MVP trophies.

Could my experiences help explain the lack of women in computer science? Not fully, of course, and maybe not at all. But for me, a little egalitarianism would have gone a long way towards making my path through computer science feel a little less exclusionary, and a little more agreeable. If more women could be accepted into the fold without feeling they have to be smarter than everyone else, maybe that would take some pressure off. Maybe then more women would stick with computer science through college, graduate school, and professionally.

We .250 hitters might not be stars. We might not revolutionize computer science the way Hopper did. But we are the backbones of the teams. Our field thrives on the contributions we make in our own niches and subniches. We provide the decent, consistent performance that baseball writer Bill James describes as "a day-in, day-out devotion, a self-discipline, a willingness to play with pain, and´┐Ża predisposition to the team game" [5, pp. 75]. There's no better motivation for doing science than improving it, however incrementally we do so. We play for the love of the game.

The computer science story isn't all bad news, of course. The number of women receiving bachelor's degrees in the field nearly doubled from 1996 to 2005 [1], and our share of doctorates in 2006 represents an all-time high [3]. With the influence of some fantastic mentors and colleagues, my own positive experiences have far outweighed my negative ones. The baseball story isn't all good news, either, and maybe it's not the unqualified success that computer science should aspire to. The robust percentages of minority players and employees includes Asians and Latinos, and in fact the percentage of African-American players has declined in recent years and stands at 8.2% as of 2006 [4]. Given that the overall U.S. population that year was 73.9% white and 12.4% black [2], however, I think we can say that professional baseball is doing pretty well with minority representation. Certainly a black ballplayer can make it to the major leagues by being a utility man and not another Jackie Robinson. If we treat the .250 computer scientists as essential players, regardless of gender, maybe we can go a ways toward turning the trickle of women in our field into a flood.


[1] Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. National Science Foundation, 07(315), 2007.

[2] US Census Bureau. ACS demographics and housing estimates, 2006.

[3] Joan Burrelli. Thirty-three years of women in S&E faculty positions. InfoBrief, National Science Foundation, 08(308), 2008.

[4] Richard Lapchick, Boma Ekiyor, and Horacio Ruiz. The 2006 racial and gender report card: Major league baseball. 2006.

[5] Michael Lewis. Moneyball. W.W. Norton and Co., 2004.

[6] Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. Women in science and technology: the sisyphean challenge of change. 2004.

[7] Scott Simon. Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball. John Wiley and Sons, 2007.

[8] Sports Reference, LLC. 2008.

[9] Kathleen Broome Williams. Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea. US Naval Institute Press, 2007.

Source: Ubiquity Volume 9, Issue 44 (December 9 - 15, 2008)


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