GUEST BLOG: Women in tech will grow alongside digital

In this blog post, Vicki L. Hanson, president for the Association for Computing Machinery, explores the possibility that as digital becomes a vital part of all industries, more women will begin to enter the IT sector. 

In May, it was my honor to be elected as the president of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery), the world’s largest computing society. The fact that ACM’s new vice president and secretary/treasurer are also women has sparked interest among media covering technology fields.

Several journalists have thought that having an all-female executive team was somehow planned in advance. It was not. But it did mark an important shift in the computing field. After all, although ACM has 100,000 members across 190 countries, 88% of our members are men. A vote of confidence from our male colleagues, affirming that the field’s largest computing association would be in good hands with women at the helm, signifies, at least, that gender bias is on the wane.

As computing becomes more prevalent in all aspects of our lives, and as the ability of computers to address a myriad of challenges grows, people in all professions, from the social sciences, to business, to the humanities, to communications, to medicine, will need to become versed in computing. While most will not become expert, basic skills will be required for them to be effective in their careers and to deal with the myriad of online offerings for communication, entertainment, retail, and government services.

I hadn’t anticipated pursuing a career in computing. As a PhD student in cognitive psychology, I became interested in communication disorders and psycholinguistics. These experiences led me to a role at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, where I helped develop technologies for deaf children and, later, for people with other disabilities. Delving into technology to find ways to help people was rewarding in ways I wouldn’t have expected.

My experience is not unique. As many more women are introduced to computing via strengthening links between computing and other fields, prevailing assumptions of what a computing professional looks and acts like will become outdated.   And as the impact of computing on multiple aspects of society and human experiences continues to grow, more and more exciting options become available.

More often than not, computing is a highly collaborative pursuit. Whether it was working as part of a research team to draft a new accessibility technology, refining that technology in trials involving people with disabilities, or sharing experiences with colleagues at a conference, my career has included countless fulfilling partnerships.

The efforts of ACM’s Council on Women in Computing (ACM-W), as well as ACM-W student chapters, add to the sense of discovery and excitement that will naturally come to many women as they are introduced or (re)introduced to the computing field. These groups provide nurturing environments that include mentors, friends, and numerous opportunities for professional development.

For example, ACM-W Europe recently held  its popular womENcourage conference from September 12-13 in Linz, Austria, while ACM-W India has found that hosting female-only hackathons is a great way of bringing young women together from across India’s diverse regions.

In so many areas, computing has caused us to entirely rethink assumptions that we thought were fixed. Our ideas about the kinds of people who work in the computing field, and the real or imagined barriers to their participation, are being redefined every day.