How did three distinguished women in research computing overcome political and societal obstacles? How have they dealt with the different work/life expectations that our society places on women? Do they see progress toward equaling the playing field?
On March 25, three prominent members of the faculty at the University joined moderator Betty Leydon, Vice President for Information Technology and CIO to discuss their use of Princeton’s high-performance computing facilities and a range of varied issues, from the challenges of performing research in a male-dominated field to the importance of mentorship.
Emily Carter (Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Applied and Computational Mathematics) originally trained as a research chemist though she works now in Princeton’s School of Engineering. For the last decade or so, her applications focus has been to determine how materials fail due to chemical and mechanical effects and how to optimally protect these materials against failure. At present, she is turning her attention toward materials design for energy applications, including exploring novel materials for solar energy conversion to electricity and water splitting, metal alloy design for fusion reactor walls, and optimization of lightweight metal alloys to improve vehicle fuel efficiency.
In this research, she has a research group of 16 people, including 14 graduate students drawn from many different departments and backgrounds and two post-doctoral fellows looking for training in new areas to enhance and enrich their own research capabilities before they assume faculty positions of their own. She has also undertaken collaborative research with other groups.
Jennifer Rexford is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science with a specific interest in issues related to networking and the internet, how to manage and deploy networks and especially how to employ a network that was not designed to serve many modern needs. From 1996-2004, she was a member of the Network Management and Performance department at AT&T Labs–Research. At Princeton, she has become interested in how networks can be redesigned more efficiently, how to make them programmable, how to encourage users to share ideas and applications, and how to move from point to point effectively. Her research has focused upon routing protocols, how to communicate well while avoiding congestion and promoting good performance. In her work, she collaborates often with others in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering in relatively small groups.
Olga Troyanskaya is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, where she runs the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics. The goal of her research is to bring the capabilities of computer science and statistics to the study of gene function and regulation in the biological networks through integrated analysis of biological data from diverse data sources. Most of the work in her lab involves computational experiments, using very large computational clusters to examine biological data. In the past, she noted, it might take seven years to perform an experiment and two years to analyze the data. Today, with high performance computing facilities, we can generate comparable data much more quickly, in months. There was a need, therefore, for computer scientists like Troyanskaya to develop statistical, search, and visualization algorithms that could analyze results and test predictions more efficiently. She notes that nearly all of the work in her area is collaborative, with biologists, systems programmers, experts on parallel computing and visualization, and with data modelers.
“Are you working with more women today than when you started?” asked Leydon. “And what kind of gender-balance changes are you experiencing?”
In pre-calculus in high school, replied Carter, she and one other woman were looked upon skeptically. It wasn’t much better at Berkeley, with two women out of 350 in an introductory Physics course. It’s now much better at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Now in her 21^st year as a faculty member, Carter notes that there were few female students when she began teaching. There were a few female graduate students in the first decade but today, she notes that her group is nearly half female. The number of female speakers at conferences remains depressing, she adds, and while it’s getting better, there are still times when she is the only one.
When she switched from hardware-related work to her current focus on networking issues, Rexford noted that the representation of women was markedly different. She was one of two women in her graduate program in the early 1990s because women had gravitated to more software-oriented disciplines. At conferences, she was one of two women. After her switch to networking, nearly 10% of conference attendees were now women. As an undergraduate in Electrical Engineering here at Princeton, there were only three women faculty in the entire School of Engineering. When she arrived on the faculty, she was one of five in her department alone, a profound transition in a relatively short period of time.
Troyanskaya graduated from high school in 1995, from college in 1999, and graduate school in 2003. In her 1995 Calculus class, her teacher commented that girls are as good as boys in math but not as good in computer science. The interdisciplinary nature of her field seems to attract more women than were the effort only in Computer Science. Still, the conferences involve no more than about 25% women, and fewer still if you count only speakers.
“What are the main obstacles?” asked Leydon.
All agreed that confidence is an enormous barrier for young girls in math and science. Said Troyanskaya, if you ask a question of a random sample of male and female graduate students, the men who are 40% confident of an answer, they will just say it, but women who are 90% certain will still express some uncertainty. It effects basic confidence, and even manifests itself in salary negotiations.
Work-life balance, added Carter, because without wives, it’s much more difficult to arrive at an appropriate balance between obligations at home and work. Home life entails a second shift that often requires that women leave the work place earlier than their male colleagues. And many male colleagues have wives willing to provide support not only at home, but as personal assistants. Generally, female CEOs are not married and don’t have children. Many women unfortunately decide not to pursue an academic career owing to the tremendous personal sacrifices that such decisions would entail. It’s often seemed necessary, adds Carter, to mask human qualities, to act with unemotional professionalism in order to counter stereotypic images of women in higher education.
Added Troyanskaya, men who are doing their work but having fun are seen simply as having a personality. Women who express themselves naturally are often not taken seriously.
Rexford added that women faculty members are also under extra pressure to join committees that add an additional burden. The University wants our voices to be heard, and we’re pleased to be asked, but that adds to the pressure.
Troyanskaya recalled that, on applying for an NSF grant, a male colleague once remarked that she was likely to get the grant because she’s a woman. The decisions are gender neutral, of course, but the perception complicates reality. Get the grant and it’s because you are a women, while being turned down would be perceived more harshly than normal.
“Has there been significant improvement at Princeton?” asked Leydon.
At Princeton, Carter states, we’ve become quite gender blind, from the perspective of hiring, promotion, and salaries.” Rexford noted that women tend not to negotiate as aggressively for salary and that can have a huge impact on relative wages over a career. Fortunately at Princeton, she adds, there’s an expectation that you don’t need to, and that makes for a much more comfortable environment.
Betty Leydon has been Vice President for Information Technology and CIO at Princeton since June 2001. After graduating from Bucknell in 1967, she joined IBM where she worked as a computer programmer and systems engineer for seven years. In 1986 after seven years in France, she joined the University of New Hampshire to oversee initiatives in computer aided instruction and two years later became the Executive Director for Computer and Information Services. From 1994-2001, she was Vice Provost for Information Technology and CIO at Duke University.
The podcast is available.