The “Ideal” Gender Ratio in Tech

I was recently asked, “What is the ideal ratio of men to women in the computing workforce?” while discussing issues of equity and education in computer science. (As my own addition, it should be remembered that non-binary people also exist in computing) The short answer is: my goals are to address access to computing education and activities, so there is no ideal ratio. The rest of this post is meant to address the long answer.

The idea that there might be an ideal ratio of men to women in the computing workforce is one that I think is directly correlated with the idea that men make up the majority of software engineers because they are truly the best at the job. The conclusion is then, if a company happens to hire a certain “Ideal Ratio,” they must be lowering their standards and hiring those with less aptitude. I think that you can only truly believe this if you truly believe that women are not as smart as men. [1]

Briefly ignoring the heavy gender bias factor, I’d like you to think about this instead: how did you get into computing? Are your parents software engineers, so you always knew about the job? Did you take a computer science class in high school, or participate in a computing after school activity or camp? [2] Did you first take a computer science class early in college and decide it was what you wanted to do?

Now imagine that your parents are not software engineers, or that you had never met a software engineer before your 20s. Imagine that your high school didn’t have a programming class (3 in 4 high schools in the US don’t! [alt source]) or after school club, or your parents couldn’t afford or didn’t enroll you in a computer science camp. Imagine your advisor led you away from your first college CS class, that no one showed you what computer science was like. If you’re a software engineer, you’re probably good at coding. You probably did well in your CS classes. If no one had shown you computing, would you have ever tried it?

I do not know of any standard primary or secondary school curriculum that currently [3] exposes every single student to computing. Even for those schools that offer computing as an elective within their curriculum, we know that there are factors that keep women away from advanced science courses. Students are, generally, required to take other subjects: math, English, history, biological sciences. The subjects may have their own issues, but I believe it would be difficult to say that students have never tried them.

As college majors have seemingly moved away from “what you study for X amount of years” towards “what you do in your [first] career,” it makes sense that students choosing majors would be, in some ways, choosing their ideal career path. [4] Even in those schools where students do not choose a major prior to admission, I can anecdotally tell you that those with undeclared majors have some fragment of an idea of what they’d like to study. If a student never gets the opportunity to try out computer science, I believe it is safe to say it is unlikely [5] that they will choose to study it.  When a student doesn’t choose to study computer science, they don’t end up in a large part of what is the current software engineering pipeline.

For those women who choose to study computing or who graduate with computing degrees, (in 2010, so a large part of the current workforce, 17.6% of computer science degrees were awarded to women) there is then the problem that a tech workforce already made up of men tends not to be very friendly to women and that departments may fail to retain women in computing majors. I think you can extrapolate what might happen from there. [6]

I can’t give you a numerical ratio for the perfect gender balance within the computing workforce, because the perfect gender ratio in computing is whatever ratio there might be if every person was given equal access to computing.

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I won a research award!

Around two decades of quarantine-time ago, back in April, I blogged about my very first research ‘presentation’ taking place at a digital symposium. In the month after that symposium, I released the visualization of my project (to surprising public acclaim), finished my finals, and graduated. Then, a few days after the date of my ‘graduation,’ I received an email telling me I had won Outstanding in the Science & Mathematics Poster session – essentially top prize in my category of 400-or-so poster presentations! (link to the award winners)

I think this is where I’m supposed to say that I’m ‘shocked,’ or that I ‘can’t believe I won,’ or something else suitably humble. I am definitely thrilled and a little surprised that I received an award for my first-ever presentation of research. But I cannot entirely say that I didn’t present without an eye towards the awards. I am a rather results-driven person, and the result of a possible award is what drove me to spend ~30 hours drafting, recording, and editing a video; and a fair amount of additional time responding to judge comments and convincing my friends colleagues they should also be checking out and commenting on my research. Luckily, doing all of that was very fun for me.

This might be slightly old news, (it happened in May and I’m writing about it in July) but it’s good news, and I think we all need a little bit of good news to put out into the world. Here’s hoping I can bring this award-winning-research energy into my first semester of grad school!

How to Revive Old Sculpey

(or other polymer clay, but I only tried this with sculpey brand)

I recently revived 9 different blocks of 10-year-old sculpey found in the back of my old desk. Here’s the method I developed, after working the first 4-5 blocks, that I believe will work with any color, type, or age of sculpey.

Add Oil

From what I’ve gathered in my (very) un-scientific research, Sculpey is made of PVC, colorings, and fillers and plasticizers to soften the material. When those softeners have lost their effectiveness through age, sculpey becomes brittle and unworkable. Most softening methods include re-adding some sort of softening agent so that you can yet again mold the clay. I settled with using Baby Oil, mainly because it was the cheapest recommended substance, and also because it was readily available in my house. Mineral oil is the same thing, and also acceptable.

To add the oil, the best method I found was to put the block of clay on a generous piece of parchment paper, and drizzle the oil (about a tablespoon, or however much it takes to cover the surface) on top of the clay. Then, let it sit for 12-24 hours. If you try to kneed the oil into the clay right away, you’ll end up with a partially sludgy substance with the potential to thickly cover your hands. (if you are impatient and this does happen to you, I recommend paper towels and lots of soap)

Work the Clay

After the oil has had a chance to soak into the clay, use a tool to chop your block of sculpey into many smaller pieces. It may still be crumbly and brittle inside – that’s okay. Then, take all of those small pieces and smush them together, in order to start re-forming them into one big ball of clay. I recommend keeping the pieces within the parchment paper at this point so that you don’t have to get the oil all over your hands.

The next part is going to take a little bit of time: you’re going to want to keep manipulating, stretching, and re-balling the clay until it begins to feel more elastic and new-clay-like. I’ve noticed some colors of clay take more time, with metallic clays (any color that looks shiny or glittery) often taking a long time or remaining slightly brittle. Temperature can also be a huge factor in this step. I had the best luck with all of my clays when I attempted to work them in around 85 degree heat. (It wasn’t the most comfortable sculpey-making situation, though)

Make Something Simple

Your newly rehydrated sculpey is never going to be 100% the clay it was before. So, I recommend using your zombie sculpey to make something that doesn’t require too much molding. I decided to create coasters by marbling the colors together and rolling it out into circles. Any other project that involves super simple shapes should also work out just fine.

Presenting at a Digital Research Symposium

This past Thursday I had planned to present a research poster for the first time – at the University of Illinois’ Undergraduate Research Symposium. Then the pandemic happened, and, well, I suppose it’s lucky that I had yet to design my poster.

In lieu of my inaugural in-person research presentation, the poster session was organized into a forum, with presenters recording short videos of themselves talking about their work. While I’m disappointed not to be able to speak directly to the symposium attendees, it was fun to dust off my video editing skills and put them to good use.

The research I am ‘presenting’ (currently, as the symposium started on Monday the 27th and stretches through this Friday) is my senior thesis: Visualizing Curriculum Commonalities and Prerequisite Chains Through Metro Maps. It is a project that began as an idea to artistically illustrate the course paths of majors in Illinois’ College of Engineering, and which turned into a saga of scraping poorly formatted websites for data, searching out graph drawing papers, reading almost the entirety of a dissertation from 2008, and implementing my own metro map drawing algorithm.

Unexpectedly, I have still found presenting digitally and asynchronously to be rewarding. I have been able to have Illinois students and faculty from across departments view my work, have had intelligent discussion through answering thoughtful questions about my design choices for the map and how I thought the visualization might impact students as they create their class plans. I’ve also been able to receive an evaluation of the comprehensibility of the (admittedly rather technical) project to academics in non-technical fields, and my friends were able to support me by logging on and leaving encouraging forum comments.

My advisor and I plan to release an interactive visualization of the map, my thesis’ true final product, in the next few weeks. In that time, I’m hoping to put the feedback I’ve received to work making the web-based version of the project the best it can be.

Hello Again!

Hi, I’m Tamara.

A long time ago, in 2014, I had a book blog under the name ‘Tamaraniac.’ I wrote book reviews, and created recommendation lists of young adult novels, and took a lot of book pictures in my then twinkle-lighted bedroom. I worked for two independent bookstores (the lovely Red Balloon Bookshop and Subtext Books) writing shelf reviews, helping with order lists, working special events, and getting to meet many great authors.

Then, I went off to college at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I decided to study Computer Science. I still read as much as I could during breaks, and I still took pictures of those books for my instagram, but I essentially stopped writing book reviews. I took down my blog and replaced it with a professional site. I spent less time on social media, and I lost touch with the book world.

Next fall, I’ll be beginning my PhD in Computer Science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I’ll be doing research in computing education: a field that seeks to understand topics such as how people learn computing, why they learn computing, and how we can help them learn and understand computing better.

In short: my interests have changed and broadened. While I still love reading, (I’ll soon be living a 5-minute walk from Ann Arbor’s independent bookstore!) I also want to talk about what is happening in my field and research, about the art projects I’ve picked up during the pandemic, and probably about plenty of other things in the future. On this (new) blog, I plan to chronicle my life as a graduate student, my research, and my thoughts about what is going on in the world of Computer Science; as well as write about the books I’m reading and things I’m creating.