NYTimes.com Article: 3 Women and 3 Paths, 10 Years Later
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Thu Aug 21 16:40:18 PDT 2003
This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.
Keep hope alive -- but this has, sadly, really been a decade of stagnation in participation in CS/SE...
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
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3 Women and 3 Paths, 10 Years Later
August 21, 2003
By KATIE HAFNER
AFTER Ellen Spertus earned undergraduate and advanced
degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the
1990's, she could have set her sights on joining the
faculty at a large, prestigious academic institution. Or,
like many other young technologists, she could have found a
lucrative job in the Internet-driven economic boom.
Yet Dr. Spertus chose instead to teach at a small liberal
arts college for women, Mills College in Oakland, Calif.
She went there determined to teach computer science in a
way that was not only compelling and rigorous but also, as
she puts it, "nurturing." She is particularly dedicated to
encouraging young women who seem as though they might be
able to buck the statistics and enter the computing field.
Dr. Spertus cares about such young women because she used
to be one of them. "I'm unabashed about being a computer
geek and a woman," she said.
Ten years ago, she was one of three M.I.T. graduates in
their 20's who were profiled in The New York Times as women
who might change the face of the computer industry. The
other two were Stephanie Winner, a computer chip designer
at Apple Computer, and Megan Smith, a mechanical engineer
working for General Magic, a hot start-up that has long
since disappeared. The common thread was rock-solid
confidence, developed through parental encouragement and
Each, in a different way, has made a mark on her field over
the last decade. But as they have seen firsthand, the face
of the computing field, notorious for a scarcity of women,
has changed little.
A decade ago, women accounted for 15 percent of computer
professionals. That number has risen only slightly, to 20
percent, according to the Institute for Women and
Technology, a nonprofit group based in Palo Alto, Calif.
And women in the computer industry are at a disadvantage in
pay, earning an average of $55,000 to their male
colleagues' $65,000, according to the National Science
In academia, the picture is little different. Of the 61
M.I.T. students receiving Ph.D.'s in computer science and
electrical engineering in 1993, 10 were women. In 2003, 63
Ph.D.'s were awarded; 10 went to women.
As for Dr. Spertus, Ms. Smith and Ms. Winner, all three
have all kept a hand in the computer industry, though
sometimes drifting from their original areas of expertise.
Ms. Smith, now 38, was already moving away from the
technical fray and toward management a decade ago; she has
since pursued a succession of Internet start-up
opportunities. Ms. Winner, 39, who had two children in 1993
and now has four, was already voicing concerns about the
tug she felt between work and family; she has found a more
balanced life through work in a legal office. And Dr.
Spertus, 35, who wrote an undergraduate paper titled "Why
Are There So Few Women in Computer Science?," has since
produced many more: she is now a tenured professor of
Although their career paths are varied, all three have
remained committed to the idea that women in technology
should be the norm, not the exception.
Ellen Spertus was a conspicuous centerpiece of M.I.T.'s
nerd pride movement while she was a student there. She was
a skilled programmer, and loved a course in which students
built a computer from a "nerd kit" of circuit boards and
chips. She began her job hunt in 1997, a year before
earning her Ph.D. She received invitations to interview at
25 institutions, including the University of Chicago, Yale
and Brandeis, but when an offer came from Mills, she
withdrew the other applications.
At first her M.I.T. colleagues were surprised. But she
found the idea of teaching at a small women's college
tremendously appealing. "I thought I'd rather go to a
school where I wouldn't shortchange students," she said.
"The whole point of the job is teaching computer science to
women." And, she added, "I was attracted to a place where I
didn't have to feel I was representing all women."
She has not regretted the decision. She has adapted not
only the nerd kit course but also M.I.T.'s difficult
introductory computer course - so brutal that it has been
called the Cherokee Bear Kill Ritual - to the Mills
curriculum. But hers is a gentler approach than the one she
experienced at M.I.T.
"I've always disagreed that you have to be brutal in order
to be rigorous," she said. "I think you can be
simultaneously nurturing and rigorous."
The number of Mills students in computer science remains
low, with two to six earning bachelor's degrees each year,
and roughly the same number earning an advanced degree in
what Mills calls "interdisciplinary computer science,"
which combines computer science with another field like
education, music or business. For that reason, Dr. Spertus
has created a computer class for nonmajors that is
consistently oversubscribed and has attracted a few
converts to the field. While embarking on her teaching
career, she married a fellow computer scientist, Keith
Golden, in 1998.
Given Dr. Spertus's stature as a computer scientist, it
might seem incongruous that one achievement she is
especially proud of is having been named "Sexiest Geek
Alive" in a Silicon Valley pageant in 2001. In the contest,
whose judges included technology writers and editors, she
wore a corset printed with circuit board patterns and a
slit skirt that exposed a slide rule (her father's, from
his own days at M.I.T.) strapped to her leg in a leather
"I wanted people to know that geeks aren't just men," she
Dr. Spertus's only regret, she said, is that she did not
take part in the dot-com frenzy. Her thesis research was on
retrieval of information from the Internet, and her
principal insight, she said, was similar to the one that
became an underpinning of Google's technology.
"I don't regret my decision to join Mills," she said. "I
just wish I could have done both."
At M.I.T., Megan Smith was a gifted mechanical engineer.
Obsessed with building things - especially things with
moving parts - she sawed, cut, drilled and milled her way
through her studies.
In 1987 she was part of a small team of students that built
a solar-powered car and raced it across the Australian
outback. For her master's degree project in 1988, she built
a joystick with motors underneath that produced a variety
of tactile sensations.
A lanky woman with the limbs of an athlete, Ms. Smith has a
way of looking at once intense and utterly distractible.
She has an uncanny ability to infect others with her
enthusiasms. And she has shown a knack for gravitating to
the most prominent young companies in Silicon Valley.
While at General Magic, a company conceived by Apple
Computer veterans to do for mobile computing what the
Macintosh had done for the desktop, Ms. Smith began
drifting from engineering to business. She began working
with the company's corporate partners, and in time, the
only daily reminder of her own technical work was a desk
drawer filled with mechanical engineering paraphernalia.
Ten years ago, Ms. Smith displayed some twinges of regret.
"It's really, really difficult to let it go because you're
a pioneer, an example for younger women, and you need to
stay in it," she said then. "But then you feel drawn into
this other stuff."
Those twinges have since all but disappeared. "You can make
contributions from any of the different roles you're in,"
she said in an interview.
After leaving General Magic, she joined another start-up,
PlanetOut, a Web site (www.planetout.com) catering to gays
and lesbians, not long after she came out herself. In a
commitment ceremony in 1999, she affirmed her partnership
with Kara Swisher, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
They have a 15-month-old son, Louis.
By 1998, Ms. Smith was the chief executive of PlanetOut.
The company's plans for an initial public offering were
dashed by dot-com crash. PlanetOut is still around, and
after a merger in 2001 with Gay.com, it is profitable, she
said, as part of PlanetOut Partners. But Ms. Smith is now
working on business development at Google, where she says
she is surrounded by women holding technical positions.
Among women in technology, at least, Ms. Smith is not
alone. She said she had noticed a pattern of female
programmers' becoming program managers - in other words,
leaving the technical side for management.
The Patent Agent
That was the course taken by Stephanie
Winner, who has evolved from chip designer at Apple into a
project manager there and at a succession of Silicon Valley
The scarcity of female chip designers has been a recurrent
theme in Ms. Winner's career. Just 6 percent are women,
according to the National Science Foundation, and that
figure has not changed over the years.
In 2000, when she was a project manager at the graphics
chip maker 3dfx Interactive, "I looked around to see which
positions women were in, and there were hardly any," she
recalled. She told a colleague about her observation. "He
was from Intel, and I was hoping he would say, 'Oh, no, I
know so-and-so and so-and-so,' but his reaction was more
just, 'Buck up and be a role model.' "
But Ms. Winner's desire to be a role model for other women
has been eclipsed by her desire to spend time with her four
daughters, ages 7 to 12. She now works at a Silicon Valley
law firm as a patent agent, interviewing inventors and
preparing patent applications. (The job requires a
scientific or engineering degree, a brief preparatory
course and a qualifying examination.) She works 30 hours a
week, in contrast to the 50 she used to put in.
She does not miss the technical work, which she describes
as a "grind." And she has no desire to return to program
management, which, she said, is a lot like being a mother.
"You're always tracking all the stuff everyone is doing,"
Although Ms. Winner has left the technical fray, she
continues to notice the scarcity of women. "I have not yet
met with a single woman inventor," she said.
They knew they were not likely to be the generation that
would level the numbers. Their triumphs are relatively
small: Ms. Winner is no longer mistaken for a secretary.
Ms. Smith no longer receives letters addressed to
<object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl"
value="148943">"Sir"</object.title> or <object.title
value="120637">"Gentlemen."</object.title> Dr. Spertus is
respected not only for her research, but also for her work
on behalf of young women. Nationally, the figures for women
attaining Ph.D.'s in computer science mirror those at
M.I.T.: in 2000, the most recent year for which federal
figures are available, 15 percent of the 577 new doctorates
went to women. Nonetheless, Telle Whitney of the Institute
for Women and Technology said she was optimistic about
women's role in technology over the next 10 years. "I see a
lot of programs in place," she said. "If you go to a lot of
the major tech companies, they're really making an effort."
I.B.M. in particular focuses on encouraging school-age
girls to seek careers in technology. Over the last five
years it has established partnerships with school districts
throughout the country as well as summer camps for girls in
middle school that focus on math and science.
Two years ago Cisco Systems created a Women's Action
Network to encourage professional development and
networking among Cisco employees.
Microsoft has partnerships with several organizations to
examine ways of addressing the issue of women in
technology. The company is also working with faculty
members at colleges including Mount Holyoke, Smith and
Wellesley to develop a stronger technology curriculum and
to encourage women to go into such fields.
"Over all, it's still a big slog," Ms. Smith said. "We're
still climbing Mount Everest, and we're maybe halfway up."
Nevertheless, she said she could see evidence of progress.
"There are pockets, and there always have been, all the way
back to Ellen Swallow Richards," said Ms. Smith, referring
to the first woman admitted to M.I.T., in 1871. "And what's
exciting is there are more pockets of success now."
Then there are the individual efforts of people like Ms.
Winner, who encourages her four daughters to embrace math
and science. If Ms. Smith sees a lot of men asking for
raises, she makes an extra effort to reach out to female
employees, who are not likely to be as vocal. And Dr.
Spertus continues to take it one class at a time.
"If I focused on the big picture, I'd be discouraged," Dr.
Spertus said. "But every day I work with women who are
excited and learning and growing."
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