This article comes from Kimberly Kowal Arcand, Visualisation Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. It forms part of a wider report issued by technology company Digital Science to coincide with Ada Lovelace Day, the annual celebration that promotes women working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM).
“Championing The Success of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, and Medicine” includes a collection of think pieces around current issues faced by women in STEM authored by industry leaders. The report explores areas of gender inequality and potential causes of this inequality, offering up a collection of solutions.
“Computer science is the only field in science, engineering and mathematics in which the number of women receiving bachelor’s degrees has decreased since 2002 – even after it showed a modest increase in recent years.” Selena Larson.
This is my story, but it is also the story of countless others.
My career is found at the intersection of two forward-looking and fast-paced fields: astronomy and computer science. While I never mapped out this particular trajectory, it’s been a compelling and fascinating journey so far – I look forward to where I can go from here.
Unfortunately, success in these STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines is not a given for many, especially women and people of colour. Far too often, there are hurdles and obstacles – many unseen and unrecognised – to reach key milestones for those who fall outside the traditional perception and background of what a scientist, technologist, engineer or mathematician should be and where they should come from.
Those who do navigate the gauntlet of challenges and go on to have careers in the fields of STEM may have their contributions overlooked or even dismissed.
There are many who persevere, however, and Ada Lovelace Day is an opportunity to celebrate such accomplishments. While we need to look realistically at the current landscape in STEM fields for women and other underrepresented groups, we can hopefully remain optimistic that the power to change the situation lies within all of us.
Let’s see where experts believe we are and where we still need to go in the two fields where I have spent most of my professional life.
In Silicon Valley, workers at major employers such as Google, Apple, and Facebook are 70 per cent male. Why are there so few women in computer science?
According to Selena Larson, key factors include an overall culture that encourages girls to play with dolls, not robots, and turn their thoughts towards more “traditionally female careers”, accepting the strong stereotype, which developed in the mid-80s, that programmers are typically young white males. This attitude continues into high school and well beyond. For example, male students (81 per cent)  take the advanced placement computer science course at a higher rate than female students (19 per cent).
It’s not all bad news, thankfully. Many individuals and organisations have worked tirelessly – particularly in recent years – to open the field of computer science to all who are interested. By 2020, it is estimated that there will be 1.4 million computer-science related jobs available in the US, but only 400,000  computer science graduates to fill them. What’s being done to help women and others be included in that missing million workers?
Making changes in computer science
At the university level, there has been some good news. For example, Carnegie Mellon University has been focusing on improving their computer science program with better networking and mentoring opportunities, and has recently noted that 40 per cent of their incoming computer science majors are women.
Additionally, the University of California at Berkeley redesigned their Computer Science 101 course and now reports  that more women have been enrolling in the course than men.
I also work in the field of astronomy – it allows me to explore the farthest reaches of the universe and communicate what scientists find with anyone who is interested. Astronomy has a long history of women making incredibly significant contributions to the field; however it also has similarly been known to exclude and exhibit bias towards women.
Astronomers: 2013 snapshot and changes over time
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) is crucial to tracking data and reporting on trends for women in the field. The following charts are reproduced from their report, January 2014 Status – A Report on Women in Astronomy, and help show the “fractional representation” facing women in astronomy.
Source: AAS CSWA
If we then take a quick look specifically at astronauts: Over 560 people have trained to be astronauts to date, but only 75 astronauts have been female.
Some astronauts can face challenges to become certified to do spacewalks, if, for example, they are of a smaller stature. Spacewalks require special suits  that are not tailor made, but rather come in medium, large and extra-large sizes. Recently retired astronaut Cady Coleman, for example, at 5’4” is likely NASA’s smallest astronaut  able to wear a spacewalk suit; astronauts smaller than her would not be able to fit in and manoeuvre around in the spacewalk suit.
There is still much to be done, but there is real reason to be positive for the field of astronomy today. Within the past couple of years, women and men have used social media to shine a light on, and perhaps put a stop to, several examples of sexual harassment in the field and galvanise support for the victims. By banding together, people who support equality and a level playing field for all have been able to create communities which are capable of standing up to the ‘old boys’ network that has existed for so long.
Moving forward in astronomy
In the past ten years, CSWA reports that institutions of higher education have been able to recruit and retain more women into assistant professor positions in astronomy than before. In 2013, NASA’s second-in-command said more women are needed amongst its ranks. Out of 18,000 civil service employees, about 6,000 are women, according to Business Insider, and the current class of eight NASA astronauts is made up of 50 per cent female, and 50 per cent male members. Taken from Space.com report :
“I was in college when Sally K. Ride flew and frankly I don’t think I really paid attention to the space shuttle program until STS-7, [Ride’s first flight],” said Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator, in the Space. com report. “She had a great influence on me. She shaped my life in this program… role models do, in fact, matter. We’ve all in a way been touched by Sally.”
For me, Ada Lovelace Day is an opportunity to take stock of the situations that currently exist in STEM fields and renew my resolve to speak up and speak out where I can. We can change things. We can reach out, extend our hands, and help lift others up. We can open doors that have long been shut to too many, and we can build new doors where none currently exist.
- When Women Stopped Coding http://www.npr.org/sections/ money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding
- State of Girls and Women in STEM https://ngcproject.org/statistics
- Computer Science is for Everyone! https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/ blog/2013/12/11/computer-science-everyone
- Why So Few Women Are Studying Computer Science http://readwrite. com/2014/09/02/women-in-computer-science-why-so-few/
- The 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey: Portrait of a Generation of Women in Astronomy http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/the-2013- cswa-demographics-survey.html
- When It Comes to the Spacewalk, Size Matters http://www.npr.org/ templates/story/story.php?storyId=6627320
- NASA Needs More Women, Top Official Says https://www.space. com/22175-nasa-needs-women-sally-ride.html
Kimberly Kowal Arcand is the Visualisation Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which has its headquarters at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a leading expert in studying the perception and comprehension of high-energy data visualisation across the novice-expert spectrum. Arcand is an awardwinning producer and director, and the co-author of four popular science books.