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Diversity in computing

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue August, August 1 - August 31, 2001 | BY John Gehl 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Valerie Taylor is an associate professor in the Electrical and Computing Engineering Department at Northwestern University and the General Co-Chair of the up-coming Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Symposium.

UBIQUITY: Tell us a little about the upcoming symposium you're helping to organize -- the Celebration of Diversity in Computing Symposium.

VALERIE TAYLOR: We decided that, given all of the discussion right now related to the Digital Divide and all of the people looking at diversity in the area of computing, we thought it was a good time to actually have a conference to celebrate diversity in the computing fields.

UBIQUITY: This will be the first suchsymposium?

TAYLOR: Yes. We're using, as a model, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conferences, in which I've been very active. Those are truly celebrations where you have speakers that are women, where you're talking about issues related to women in the field of computing, and where you're talking about research. Similarly, for the Richard Tapia celebration we have truly diverse speakers of all ethnicities as well as well as male and female speakers. The attendees will be able to see diverse speakers talk about research, which is something you very rarely see at a conference.

UBIQUITY: In the sense that ... ?

TAYLOR: In the sense that, for example, if you go to a conference related to parallel processing, more than likely you will find at most one minority speaker, and the majority of the speakers will be white males, though you may find a few females. And so when you attend a particular conference in the area of computing you don't necessarily see diverse speakers. If you look at under-represented minorities, there are so few in the field of computing that if you look at any particular conference the numbers are even smaller. Hence, the conferences focused on a particular field of computing do not provide a venue for under-represented minorities to see each other. With the Tapia Symposium we wanted to celebrate the diversity in the various fields of computing.

UBIQUITY: Who do you expect to be in the audience?

TAYLOR: We're expecting undergrad and grad students of diverse background with a particular emphasis on under-represented groups. And then we also want diverse researchers and professionals.

UBIQUITY: So is it correct to say that some of the presentations will be about the issue of diversity, while others will be substantive presentations on things like parallel computing and whatnot?

TAYLOR: Right. And the reason for doing that in the Celebration, is that we wanted the attendees to see diverse speakers reporting on actual research they've done in their particular areas. Our desire is for the people in the audience -- especially undergrad and grad students -- to see people who look like them doing research in the area of computing, and know that it can be done. And that people are actually having fun doing their research.

UBIQUITY: What's your personal background? How long have you been at Northwestern?

TAYLOR: I've been at Northwestern now for ten years now, and my background is in parallel processing. I do work in the area of performance analysis and modeling of parallel and distributed applications.

UBIQUITY: And who is Richard Tapia, after whom the Symposium is named?

TAYLOR: He's a mathematician who's very well known for his research on interior methods, but also celebrated for the work he's done with minorities -- in particular through the programs that he's organized at Rice University to introduce teachers to the field of computing. He's done marvelous work developing his graduate students, establishing mentoring relationships for women and minorities to pursue graduate studies, and retaining them in the program and making sure they graduate.

UBIQUITY: He's Hispanic?

TAYLOR: Yes, his heritage is Mexican, which is where his parents lived before they emigrated separately to the U.S. Richard himself was born in Los Angeles.

UBIQUITY: Try to assess the problem of lack of diversity.

TAYLOR: Let me speak just about under-represented minorities (African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans), because I'm better informed about this group than I am on, say, Chinese-Americans. In particular, the issue of diversity relates to appreciation of different cultures for which I am better informed about under-represented minorities. This illustrates the need for the Tapia Symposium as we are each more familiar with our own culture but need to know that the field of computing includes diverse cultures. I think the problem of under-representation of minorities in computing goes back to K-12 programs. It's a problem that happens because these minorities are just not encouraged to go into the field of computing. They're just not getting the encouragement that you need to go into the math and science programs. Partly, it's an issue of insufficient resources available in the public school systems. Further, there are not sufficient numbers of teachers who feel comfortable enough to convey a passion for science and mathematics. And, frankly, another issue is that often if students do well in math and science their counselors are likely to encourage them to pursue medicine or law or business rather than one of the sciences or engineering.

UBIQUITY: Why do the counselors do that?

TAYLOR: Well let's consider the sources of role models, for which one major source is television. The problem is that if you happen to see a computer scientist on TV he's this white male geek, whereas when you see lawyers and people in the medical profession you see something else entirely. It really kills me. Whether it's shows in the tradition of "LA Law" or shows like "Boston General," the actors are portraying people who appear professional, dynamic, exciting. Then you look at that program they have for engineers, which was a spin-off from the "X Files." I've forgotten the name of the show, thank goodness. It was by the same producer, and it's about three weird-looking white men of the type who wear horn-rimmed glasses, have no social life, and just sit in front of a computer all day and all night. So, watching something like that, who would want to go into engineering?

UBIQUITY: The question answers itself.

TAYLOR: Compare the shows about engineers to the ones about lawyers or doctors. The characters on the lawyer shows look dynamic, drive nice cars, having a little social life, you know. And then you turn to some medical show, and you see people who have a little social life, look dynamic, and so forth. And then you see engineers on some show, and they're ridiculous or boring or both. Engineers never have a social life in the way we're portrayed in the media. Nothing at all, except maybe having a pizza at 2 am in the company break room. Now think about that in terms of different cultures. I mean, you look at the African-American culture or especially the Hispanic culture, which is very family oriented, with homes that are multi-generational. And to give young persons the impression that they will have to give up their social lives in order to be engineers or computer scientists would be putting up major road blocks in their way. But it's just not true that they have to give up their social lives; that's not reality, it's just television.

UBIQUITY: What has your own experience been? Did you struggle to become a computer scientist?

TAYLOR: My parents were and are excellent role models: my mother is a school teacher and my father is an electrical engineer. He started a business when I was young, and seeing him start a business and keep the business -- which he did until he retired -- helped us through school and everything. Paid many tuitions. My sister's in information systems and my brother went back to be a paralegal, but his degree is in marketing. And we were always taught you can be whatever you want to be. My mother, when it was time for us to go to college, said, "Be sure you're pursuing a career for which you have good job opportunities after you graduate," and my father always put us into different programs related to engineering even when we were in high school.

UBIQUITY: Tell us about your education.

TAYLOR: I grew up on the south side of Chicago, and went to parochial schools -- first to St. Leo's elementary school and then to Maria High School. Very strict. When I got to college I was so happy to be able to chew gum in a classroom -- it's the little things in life! -- and wear jeans anytime I wanted. And then I went to Purdue for my undergrad and master's degrees and then to Berkeley for my Ph.D.

UBIQUITY: Did you find much diversity at Purdue or Berkeley?

TAYLOR: Some, but not very much. In all of the years of classes that I've taken since I was a freshman in college, I've only had one female instructor -- just one, and that was at Purdue. And out of all the classes I've ever taken I've never once had an Hispanic or African-American professor. Just white males.

UBIQUITY: What kind of impact did that experience have on you?

TAYLOR: Well, at first I didn't even think about becoming a professor, because there was never an image of a black woman professor in my mind -- because I had never seen one. But I eventually decided to become one anyway in part motivated by my advisor at Berkeley.

UBIQUITY: What's was it like to become one?

TAYLOR: It was disorienting at first. All of a sudden you become a professor and you go through a stage where you're imagining yourself under different scenarios. That's where role models come in, because usually you'll start off imagining what other people would do in a particular situation, that may help to govern your actions. Normally, you'll look at yourself in different roles and circumstances and you'll ask, "How am I going to react if something like that happens?" And you'll say, "Well, I'll react like Professor X did -- I liked how Professor X reacted under that condition. And Professor X looked like me. Okay. That's how I'll act." But of course I had never had the luxury of having studied with a Professor X who looked like me.

UBIQUITY: So how did you proceed?

TAYLOR: Well, I'm not a male, so I wasn't going to be standing up there in a suit and my voice was not going to be low. So I had to worry about what was going to happen when students started to challenge me, if that were to occur.

UBIQUITY: And did it occur?

TAYLOR: It did occur, and does occur.

UBIQUITY: And how do you handle it?

TAYLOR: In my own way. What I usually do is say to the challenger in a non-confrontational way: "That's an excellent question -- how about if you delve into this area and come back and tell us tomorrow what you found out because I'm sure everybody else will be interested." I've found it to be a pretty effective way of motivating students.

UBIQUITY: Do you have much diversity among the students now at Northwestern?

TAYLOR: What is much? It's all relative. I would say in my classes, I would say in terms of ethnic diversity, it's about 10 percent.

UBIQUITY: African-American and Hispanic?

TAYLOR: Right. And that's undergraduate classes.

UBIQUITY: What about women?

TAYLOR: That's different. Our classes may be around 20-25 percent women.

UBIQUITY: A recent news report indicated that Georgia Tech produces a particularly high number of minority engineers. Why is that institution apparently so successful in doing that?

TAYLOR: When you look at Georgia Tech you'll find that its faculty is very diverse. I believe that in the engineering college they have 11 black faculty members -- which is unheard of in any other university in the college of engineering. I think Georgia Tech is a prime example of the fact that if you have diverse faculty you will attract diverse students. You know, it's a given. That's particularly true with regard to the graduate program, where students will have a very close relationship with their faculty advisor. Which means that if you can have someone who looks like you -- Oh, imagine that! -- you can see how they interact in that environment and you can say, "Do I see that for me?" But if you've never seen anyone who looks like you in that role, it's very hard to put yourself in that environment.

UBIQUITY: How do you connect the two ends of the problem: at one end the K-12 failure to encourage kids to become scientists and engineers, and at the other end the inability of many colleges and universities to recruit sufficient numbers of minority faculty who will be able to inspire the next generation?

TAYLOR: The connecting link is motivation, of two different kinds. I think to increase the minority numbers in higher education you need to start with K-12 programs, where a lot more work is needed to make sure students are motivated from all different factors to go into computing. And then at the higher education level, you need diversity among your faculty, especially to motivate students to go beyond the undergraduate program. At the K-12 level you have to motivate students to learn science. At the university and graduate levels you have to motivate them to become scientists.

UBIQUITY: And of course that's the rationale for the Richard Tapia Symposium. Do you expect the Symposium to have a large number of attendees?

TAYLOR: Well, this one is our first one so we're targeting 150 to 200 attendees. Then our full conference will be in 2003, and we'll be having them every two years. So in 2003 we want to have around 500 to 600 attendees. That's just the right size where you can get to know a significant number of people. For this firstsymposium, we'll be targeting about 60 percent undergrad and grad students, and I'm happy to say we've already received 103 scholarship applications to attend the Symposium. We were so excited. Now we're still in the mode of raising money for our scholarships, and we do have some funding for the scholarships, which costs about a thousand dollars per student.

UBIQUITY: And organizations have been helping fund the scholarships?

TAYLOR: Yes. For example, NASA has committed, and we have some funding from NSF, NCSA, Microsoft, Usenix, Georgia Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, CRA and Rice University and there are some other companies that are being pursued for which decisions probably are forthcoming in the next week or so.

UBIQUITY: How can companies go about helping with the funding effort?

TAYLOR: The simplest way would be just to contact me, and we'll go from there. I would love to hear from them. My e-mail address is: Valerie TAYLOR <>.

UBIQUITY: And where can people go to find out more about the Symposium?

TAYLOR: They should look at And they should cancel all other plans they may have for October 19th and 20th, because the place to be seen on those dates will be the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Symposium. The place to be seen, and the place to be!


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