Margaret Burnett Makes Computers More Inclusive

Think fast: Can you name two female computer scientists or software engineers that have shaped our society? Ask the same question about male computer scientists, and most people could probably name Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others. Many famous male techies are household names, but where’s the female representation?

margaret burnett rewire pbsThe problem is, women are scarce in these fields. Studies show that just 17 percent, or fewer than two out of 10, of computer science degrees were awarded to women in recent years. Even fewer women actually find jobs in related fields after graduation.

What’s even more surprising is the existing software female computer scientists encounter is often riddled with built-in gender biases that make it more difficult for women to problem solve once they’re in these hard-to-get jobs, said Margaret Burnett, an Oregon State University distinguished professor of computer science.

Fixing gender-inclusiveness ‘bugs’

Burnett leads the GenderMag Project, which aims “to help software developers & usability professionals find and fix software features with gender-inclusiveness ‘bugs’,” according to Burnett’s faculty webpage.

“This is my ‘change the world’ project,” Burnett said.

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Pioneering computer scientist Margaret Burnett. Photo courtesy of Margaret Burnett.

These bugs aren’t related to how a program looks, but rather to differences in the way men and women work through problems. Because many programs are built by male programmers, alternative problem solving strategies aren’t often taken into account. That leaves us with programs that aren’t as accessible to everyone as they could be.

“Would females and males be better supported at problem-solving if the problem-solving software they used took into account individual differences that often cluster by gender?” the GenderMag website asks. “Although gender differences in a technological world receive significant research attention… the possibility of gender issues within software… has received almost no attention. We hypothesize that factors and features within software have a strong impact on how well female problem solvers can make use of the software, and that addressing these factors can help both female and male problem solvers.”

Differences in problem solving

It’s common for women to problem-solve by “working in ‘batches’: first they get a lot of information, then they act upon it fairly thoroughly, then, if still needed, might go back for another big batch of information, and so on,” Burnett said.

Men often “first want to gain just enough information to work through the first step,” she said. “They know so little information, their action might be a mistake, but if it is, they’re willing to back out and gather a little more information.”

(It’s important to note that people of all genders can be either type of problem solver–these two methods have come to be associated with men and women through studies of gender and problem solving.)

Making sure computer programs support both of these problem solving methods is the goal of Burnett’s GenderMag Project.

Burnett has been revolutionizing the industry for decades. In 1970, she became the first female software developer hired at Proctor and Gamble Ivorydale, a facility that employed 13,000 employees at the time.

In fact, software development was considered a management-level position and “they hadn’t had a woman in a management level position at all,” Burnett said.

If anyone’s equipped to change the world of computer science to better people of all genders, it’s Burnett. She was the principal architect of two visual computer programming languages–Forms/3 and FAR. This year, she was one of three professors honored by the Computing Research Association for excellence as mentors of undergraduate students.

She also co-founded the field of end-user software development, making it possible for those of us without a computer programming background to use and enjoy our favorite technologies, including wikis and visual programming software like LEGO Mindstorms.

A flair for the mathematic

Burnett has seen the work landscape change for women over her decades in the industry. She grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, an era when many women were stay-at-home mothers, unless they “had to work,” she said. Women whose husbands weren’t able to support their families alone were encouraged to pursue “pink careers,” or jobs in fields dominated by women, including teaching, nursing and secretarial work, she added.

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Margaret Burnett around the time she worked as Proctor and Gamble Ivorydale’s first female software engineer and manager. Photo courtesy of Margaret Burnett.

Growing up, Burnett loved math, but she wasn’t certain how to apply that love when she thought about her future.

“I guess I was envisioning a career for myself even then,” she said.

She credits her mother for encouraging her to choose the life–and career–she wanted, rather than the one society expected her to have.

“She was not a career person at all (but)…she basically forgot to tell me that there was stuff I wasn’t supposed to do as a woman.”

Burnett’s own stubbornness helped, too.

“Of course, I have a stubborn streak. Once I set my mind to do something, I’m not likely to back down,” she said.

At first, Burnett wasn’t aware of many math-centric careers other than teaching the subject to children, which she didn’t want to do. That all changed when she met a next-door neighbor who had majored in math and worked for IBM. When she learned more about the neighbor’s work, she thought, “Oh, yay! Something you can do with math!” she said.

One less glass ceiling

When Burnett started college in 1967 at Miami University in Ohio, she had never seen a computer. At the time, computer science was called by a different name–systems analysis–and colleges were just starting teach their students the discipline.

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An example of the computer technology Margaret Burnett was working with in her first job as a software engineer. Photo by Ben Franske via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite her academic excellence, it wasn’t until her last day at Miami University that a professor asked her “Why aren’t you going to graduate school?”

However, she already had her first software engineering job lined up at Proctor and Gamble Ivorydale. Despite her interest in graduate school, Burnett propelled herself into her groundbreaking industry work.

Though Proctor and Gamble Ivorydale only had men in management position when Burnett applied, her interviewers were impressed by her expertise.

“Those credentials weren’t easy to come by,” she said.

Still, once the company hired her, higher-ups weren’t certain what instructions to give her about things as simple as where to eat lunch, since she was a woman. Should she eat with the other women, who were administrative assistants, or should she eat with her colleagues, who were men?

“I was kind of an odd duck,” she said. “It was very weird… Nobody knew what to do… The rules of the game weren’t known,”

She lived through numerous changes as the company navigated how to support its first female manager.

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An example of the computer technology Margaret Burnett was working with in her first job as a software engineer. Photo by AlisonW via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the company’s hang-ups were motivated by “supposedly chivalry-oriented things,” she said. For example, some weren’t comfortable with the idea of her working at night, though her male colleagues did, because they thought it wasn’t a safe time for a woman to work.

Sometimes, she was on the receiving end of condescending comments. Sometimes when it was mentioned that she would be attending a professional meeting, men would say, “Oh, she’ll brighten up the meeting.”

Most of her peers respected her, but she encountered problems with some employees farther up the chain of command. One man “drove me nuts with his insulting remarks,” she said.

Still, when she left the company one year after she started there, the number of female managers had increased from one to four.

That was a glass ceiling that broke,” Burnett said.

A brighter future for computer science

margaret burnett rewire pbsIn Burnett’s eyes, what would improve the technology industry as we move toward a more inclusive future? Software creators should understand how men and women process information differently, and incorporate these differences into design processes, she said.

Burnett offered this advice for women in computer science fields:

• If you’ve experienced gender bias, “know it’s a thing” and not just you, she said. Whether someone else has claimed your idea as theirs or people have talked over you in meetings, “we now know about these problems, so we have the vocabulary and concepts to talk about them… This is helpful in building confidence (and)… being able to survive it.”

• Take advantage of support systems that already exist, such as the women’s chapters of the American Computing Association.

Hear Burnett talk more about inclusivity on the podcast “Engineering Out Loud.”

Rachel Crowell

Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at [email protected]