Align With STEM Stars: University Dean Paves Way For Women in Computer Science
Growing up the daughter of two lawyers, Carla Brodley, dean of Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences, says she rebelled against parental advice to be a math major.
Instead, her dream was to work for Book Of The Month Club and be in charge of picking the book each month.
To get there, she majored in English at McGill University in Montreal. But Brodley soon discovered she did better in her math classes. At the advice of her roommate, she took programming classes in computer sciences. When she came home from college after her first year in 1982, she told her mother about switching majors.
Brodley says her mother asked her, “Is there anything that makes you forget to eat?”
Yes, her computer science class work did just that. She graduated in 1985, and her father never said, “I told you so.”
Brodley is leading the charge to focus on increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in studying and pursuing careers in the United States through a new $4.2 million investment by Facebook.
Align, the program that allows students who did not study computer science undergrad to pursue a masters in computer science, has given 200 students scholarships. More than 575 students are enrolled in the Align program at Northeastern’s locations in Boston, Seattle, Silicon Valley, San Francisco Bay Area, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The university has a goal to extend the program to its international sites in London, Toronto and Vancouver.
“I don’t think Northeastern should be the only one solving these problems,” Brodley says. “We should solve this as a country. We need to increase diversity of thought and demographics.”
Facebook’s funding allows Northeastern to partner with Columbia University, Georgia Tech and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The goal is to inspire similar programs in at least 15 U.S. colleges and universities.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 13 percent growth for employment in computer and information technology occupations between 2016 and 2026.
According to the National Science Board, women earned more than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2015, but only 18 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences. Other groups, including African Americans and Latinos, were also underrepresented among those who earn degrees in computer science.
According to Yahoo Finance, “A report commissioned by HP, which polled 1,000 women aged 20 to 32, found while 70% of respondents were interested in tech sector jobs, a quarter (25%) said they didn’t study STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects because they had a lack of confidence in their ability to do so.”
This is a global concern. Yahoo reports, “Fewer than 17% of workers in the UK technology sector are women, according to a report released earlier this month. Inclusive Tech Alliance, the membership body behind the report, suggested 1 million more women need to be hired in order for the UK tech industry to reach gender parity.”
The Align program received seed funding from Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company created by Melinda Gates, and corporate partners, including Dell Technologies, for scholarships to support students in the program. Of the students who began the program this academic year, 52 percent were women and 19 percent of those from the United States were underrepresented minorities.
Erika Jefferson, President and Founder of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE), writes in Scientific American, “In March, the National Science Foundation reported that in 2016 alone, Black women earned more than 33,000 bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering and accounted for 24 percent of doctorates awarded in STEM. But that same report showed that in 2017, only 5 percent of managerial jobs in STEM were held by Black women. So, where are we?”
Jefferson writes, “This disparity is occurring amid record employment levels, and there is a critical need for qualified technical workers—but we cannot expect women and underrepresented minorities to remain in work environments where they cannot grow and thrive. We also cannot expect girls to enter fields where they do not see positive role models. It is imperative that we stop the constant drip from the leaky STEM pipeline by working hard to retain women—and especially underrepresented women of color—from the middle to the end.”
She adds, “It is critically important girls and women around the world have role models, mentors and champions in the workplace of the future who look like them.”
Brodley agrees. “We have to provide welcoming pathways for women to discover computer science.”
Looking back, Brodley says she was the only girl in her 9th grade computer science class. After graduation from McGill, she went to work at an energy consulting firm doing data analytics, and soon decided she didn’t love it. She tried being an actuary at an actuarial firm, and didn’t love that either.
So she pursued a masters degree in AI (Artificial Intelligence) at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, earning that in 1988, and went on to earn a PhD in machine learning in 1994. She became an assistant professor at the School of Electrical Engineering at Purdue University.
“I am pioneering something here,” Brodley says. She earned tenure there in 2000.
She had a second child, and then a third child with special needs, and had gotten divorced, so she decided to move back to the Boston area to be near family.
Hired as a full professor at Tufts University in 2004, Brodley got a secondary appointment in the medical school in 2010. She got a call from a headhunter in 2014 in the search for a dean at Northeastern.
While she was very happy at Tufts, she was uncertain about even throwing her hat in the ring for a dean position. Remarried, her husband said to her, “Life is an amusement park, why stay on the same carnival ride?”
Now as dean at Northeastern’s College of Computer Sciences, Brodley says she has leadership lessons to share to women in STEM and women in academia.
Get the leadership position. “As the only woman in a room for committee meetings, you can still have a leadership position even if you are not in charge. Speak up if your ideas are good ones.”
Call out mansplaining. When interrupted, Brodley suggests saying, “Thank you, John for re-expressing my ideas so that everyone in the room can appreciate it. Everyone laughs and no one does it again.”
Don’t volunteer for service jobs. Run the conference, but do not volunteer on the service committees. And if you are on a committee, make sure you are leading with that committee. “
Never say yes right away. Say, “Let me think more about whether I can do that, based on my other commitments and the level of quality work I would find acceptable.” Brodley says you can say no and suggest the person ask you again when you have the bandwidth.
“I love what I do,” Brodley says. “Treat work like monopoly, you care about it, but it’s not like your children are ill.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com