Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

Hopeful for the Future of Women in Computing

Hopeful for the Future of Women in Computing

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Sitting on a plane heading back to the Pacific Northwest, I’m reflecting on the week I just spent in Minneapolis—a week of inspiration and impact at the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing. I’m thinking about the pertinence of this year’s GHC theme, “Think Big, Drive Forward,” and how our 260-strong contingent of Microsoft employees carried that message forward. Wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the word “Innovator,” my fellow Softies and I strove to support and inspire the next generation of women computer scientists.

Aspirations in Computing Dinner Celebration at Grace Hopper.
Aspirations in Computing Dinner Celebration at Grace Hopper.

It was invigorating to hear from Microsoft leaders Julie Larson-Green and Jacky Wright, as they, along with Maria Klawe, a Microsoft board member and president of Harvey Mudd College, informed conference attendees about career paths, technical leadership, and the future of women at Microsoft. Seeing young professionals’ eyes light up upon hearing that women comprise 29 percent of our senior leadership team, I could sense a renewed interest in careers at Microsoft.

Microsoft’s senior technical women and executives also held closed-door sessions for the company’s GHC attendees, encouraging them to drive their careers forward and be the new spirit of our company. This message took on even greater resonance, among both the Microsoft and general attendees, when it was announced that Microsoft had just been named the most inspiring American company by Forbes magazine

While such accolades are great, we know that for our company to continue to lead technological innovations and succeed in our transformative vision of “One Microsoft,” we will need more gender diversity on our research teams. Moreover, we can build those diverse teams only if the female talent is available, which means that we need to increase the number of women who are pursuing advanced degrees in computer science. We need to take direct action, like that of my fellow researchers—A. J. Brush, Jaeyeon Jung, Jaime Teevan, and Kathryn McKinley—who spent the conference helping PhD attendees prepare their poster presentations, find their dream jobs, publish their research, and pursue career opportunities.  

But attracting more women to computing is an enormous task, one that is beyond the capabilities of any one company alone. Fortunately, the country’s top computer science institutions have banned together in the National Center for Women & Information Technology Academic Alliance (NCWIT AA), a broad partnership that includes academic, nonprofit, government, and industry members. These institutions will help us truly grow the pipeline of women innovators, which is why Microsoft Research is pleased to offer them project start-up assistance through the MSR NCWIT AA Seed Fund. The seed funds are designated for initiatives that recruit and retain women in computing and IT.

My favorite part of the conference is spending time with the winners of the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award. This award recognizes female high school students who have the potential to become amazing computer scientists. These young women run summer camps to excite middle school girls about computer science through Aspire IT. We were excited to support this year’s camp leaders with Surface devices and Kodu Touch, which exposed young women to game development. On Wednesday we hosted a special session with past winners and Microsoft executives, and on Friday night we honored 60 winners across the United States at meet-up sessions in 12 of our Microsoft retail stores.

Pictured from left to right: Kinect aspiration winner Rochelle Willard from USC, Rane Johnson and Rico Malvar from Microsoft Research.Pictured from left to right: Kinect aspiration winner Rochelle Willard from USC with Rane Johnson-Stempson and Rico Malvar from Microsoft Research.

On Saturday, we ended the conference by challenging attendees to “think big and drive forward” change in disaster response during the Grace Hopper Open Source Day. Free and open source software (FOSS) usage is becoming widespread, but learning how to contribute to an existing FOSS project or to release a new open source application can be daunting. Open Source Day enabled participants to spend time coding for an existing FOSS project or to get help starting their own community-developed software project. Our Microsoft Disaster Response Team led a group of young women working to create open source applications for disaster response.

This year’s GHC inspired not only me, but 4,600 other attendees, exciting us all to change the future of technology and women in computing. If every attendee would encourage and mentor just one budding female computer scientist, we could almost double the number women studying computer science today at US universities. I am extremely optimistic we will make a difference, and I can’t wait to see the technology innovations that women will drive.

Rane Johnson-Stempson, Director, Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections

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