What I learnt at the ACM WomEncourage Conference
I went to the WomEncourage conference in Trondheim, Norway in September 2023, and here are some lessons that I learnt.
- It’s amazing to be in a female-dominated computing environment. We are all used to spaces where people are talking about computing being very male dominated. Mostly that is ok, and mostly we can feel welcome and part of that environment. But it’s a wonderful change to be discussing technical details about computing in a room that is 80% female – being in the majority feels good.
- Women working together is inspiring and uplifting. WomEncourage was formed by a group of women who had been working to support other women in their home countries and came together to form ACM-W Europe, and soon after came up with the idea of an annual conference – here is the inspiring story. Anyone in tech can join ACM-W and get involved in working with this community, and this is something I would very much encourage our female staff and students to do.
- Hackathons don’t have to focus on coding. The WomEncourage hackathon required teams to come up with innovative ideas about how tech could create meaningful solutions to some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Understanding tech and having plausible ideas about what could work was key, but the focus was on hacking the ideas and not the code.
- There is a huge skills gap in ethics and DEI in tech. Employers cannot find enough people with technical skills who also have an understanding of:
- How to support and encourage diversity within the workplace (tech firms are often terrible at this and want to get better)
- How to develop technology that is ethically aware and accessible to all – e.g., not just aimed at the most common (white, male) demographic
Encouraging our students to develop these skills is not just about doing the right thing – it’s about equipping our students for the modern job market and helping tech firms fill these crucial roles.
- Most people (companies, universities, etc.) are doing the right thing in terms of talking about unconscious bias and other diversity issues. But very often this has very little payoff because it’s not deeply engrained into every day life but instead is an add on. This is rarely effective.
- In university settings, ethics is often taught as a separate or additional subject rather than as a core part of every single branch of CS and tech – and it’s often taught by people with no background in ethics. Every time we teach or learn anything, we should regard thinking about the ethical and societal impacts to be as important as the technical knowledge.
- The paths into tech careers are many and various. Women and other minorities can flourish by following a ‘standard’ path in tech or by creating a new path that focusses on their passions and skills. Birgit Penzenstadler, whose research focusses on sustainable software development, talked about how she brings yoga and mindfulness into her teaching and research practice.
- There’s some great music in Trondheim, from the all-female student a cappella group that welcomed us to the conference (https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/WomEncourage+Conference+-+welcome/1_jajg1v42) to an organ recital on the largest organ in northern Europe in Nidaros Cathedral (https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/womEncourage+conference+-+recital/1_667zdc01)
If you want to see the Northern Lights, you’ve got to be patient and hope the clouds will part.