Monday, November 5, 2012

Scientific computing versus computer science

I recently attended a local meeting on women in computer science, at the invitation of someone I met at a different meeting on high performance computing. Not that I consider myself a computer scientist, rather I'm more of a scientific computationalist, with the major focus of my research involving high performance computing.
Still, it's an interesting contrast. While the percentage of women in physics and astronomy has generally grown over the last three decades, the percentage of women in computer science reached a peak around 1982, and has decreased ever since.
You can make any number of guesses for cause of this decline. I've heard that it's because computer science grew out of math departments, but moved into engineering departments in the mid-1980s, so it followed the trends of those two fields. I've also heard that it's due to the rise of gaming and the rampant culture of harassment of women (see here for just one article on the subject). However, I didn't see much exploration of that. Granted, I missed half the meeting because of teaching obligations. Still, it was really great to see a big room filled with women in computer science, ranging from undergraduates to tenured faculty.
There were discussions about imposter syndrome, gender bias, and work-family balance. At one point I was talking about my hour-long commute and my reasons for it (my husband commutes an hour in the other direction, so we split the difference), and I was asked, "how do you manage?" My answer to this question is always, "I make it up as I go along." Which is really all any of us can do, when it comes to work-life-family balance. On the other hand, I met another woman at the meeting who had the same commute as me for the same reasons. So even though we're making it up as we go along, at least you learn from meetings like these that you're not alone, and maybe you can even carpool along the way.