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CygnetS: Athena SWAN in Computing Science

CygnetS 2: a full day workshop bringing together those involved in Athena SWAN. October 28th 2016.

The low numbers of women in computing (in the UK, but widely elsewhere) is a known problem. In UK universities the Athena SWAN charter is an important mechanism to drive change, requiring a careful analysis of data to identify barriers and a resultant action plan to support the careers of women. Today we had a really positive meeting bringing together people working mainly in higher education computing departments on Athena SWAN. The goal was to share good practice to help each other work more effectively on the problem of gender inequality in our discipline.

We had three terrific speakers: Colleen Lewis from Harvey Mudd College, Nigel Birch from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and Jess Cockell from the Equality Challenge Unit. BCS kindly hosted us at their London office. The meeting was promoted via CPHC and SICSA. And we had around 40 enthusiastic participants, keen to share their experiences.

I opened the meeting by setting the general context of women in computing in the UK. I also took the opportunity to highlight the recent Suffrage Science awards for mathematics and computing (I'm delighted to be an awardee), the annual BCS Karen Spärck Jones lecture (25th May 2017 in London), and the annual BCS Women Lovelace Colloquium (12th April 2017 in Aberystwyth). Put those two dates in your diary now. Colleen Lewis shared her Harvey Mudd College and UC Berkeley experience. Both have increased female participation significantly, with Harvey Mudd College having 43% female computing majors. How do they do it, and which of these initiatives might translate well to the UK setting? Colleen had a set of tips for us. Some of these were about creating a positive environment embracing diversity: "Care about your students", "Challenge stereotypes","Introduce psychology vocabulary", "Build community". Other tips were more for computing specifically: "Show the breadth of computing in your introductory course", "Provide peer tutoring", "Split the introductory course by prior experience", "Improve Computing teaching" (specially recommended: see CS Teaching Tips, Computing is such a diverse topic, there are lots of ways to be successful in it which can be appealing to different sorts of people: we are not all cookie-cutter programmers. She encouraged us to communicate the excitement of our subject to anyone and everyone. She exemplified this approach with a very lively presentation, which she has kindly made available for us online.

Communication was a theme in Nigel Birch's talk too. EPSRC are committed to the RCUK action plan for equality, diversity and inclusion. This looks at ensuring fair and unbiased peer review, improving the diversity of panels and advisory groups, working in partnership with universities to change practice, and communicating these activities more clearly. There is a particular problem in the ICT area of low participation of women, low numbers of applications from women, therefore EPSRC have commissioned a Diversity study, which is expected to report in Spring 2017. This will capture not just statistics around women in computing, but look at the environment and culture of ICT, and provide qualitative evidence of the experience of women. A similar study in Chemistry some years ago highlighted bad practices in labs and departments which galvanised the community into action. A lively discussion followed around simple actions we can all take to call out inequality when we see it, and EPSRC's role in challenging the community to improve gender equality. There was considerable support in the room for linking eligibility for research grants to Athena SWAN award attainment, and for making evidence of strong diversity and inclusion practices a part of the next research assessment exercise.

The Athena SWAN charter has recently changed. The original focus was academic women in STEM subjects. Last year it evolved to consider all disciplines, and to include professional services staff, and transgender staff and students. Moreover, that broad view of equality encourages to look at the unique experiences and perspectives formed by each person's different identities (intersectionality). Jess Cockell from ECU highlighted the changes of the charter for us, underlining the need to really demonstrate strong commitment to removing barriers contributing to under-representation. We considered the essential features of a good application. It should be honest, with analysis linking the data reported to the actions identified. We were encouraged to seek out qualitative information to support our analysis. The self assessment team should be embedded in the department, ensuring buy-in at all levels to the action plan, so that it becomes everyone's job to create a supportive environment. She also encouraged us to become panellists for ECU, learning more about the process and thereby informing our own developments. Action plans should of course be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bounded).

We finished up with discussion around how the CygnetS network might develop to support Athena SWAN work. The main purpose is to share good practice, but we might also carry out peer review within the network, and build on benchmarking to form a more complete picture of gender equality in computing specifically. We can also provide a repository for resources such as staff survey questions, training courses for staff and students, links to useful articles and books, and evidence-based studies on actions to support women in computing. Working together should mean that we can avoid repeating the same mistakes and all progress faster. At the moment the network is essentially an email list: mail me to join. We've had two events and hope to have more, and also a set of online resources. I'm looking forward to seeing how CygnetS will develop into fully-fledged SWANs.


Last revision: 4th November 2016

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