A presentation to be delivered by Harvey Mudd College (HMC) President Maria Klawe at an information technology forum in China on Nov. 2 was nearly called off when forum organizers deemed her presentation, “Increasing the Representation of Females in Computing Careers,” to be too controversial.
The conference, the first-ever Chief Information Officer (CIO) Forum, was held at the Wuzhou Guest House in Shenzhen, China, and featured a series of presentations on information technology development from around the world. Klawe was originally invited to speak at the forum by Stephen Ibaraki, a former president of the Canadian Information Processing Society.
When Klawe submitted the abstract for her presentation, it was at first rejected by the forum organizers, many of whom are high-ranking Chinese government officials and university instructors.
“When I was invited, I agreed to go, and at some point these organizers asked me to send an abstract,” Klawe recalled. “I sent the abstract, and I heard back from one of the organizers via e-mail several weeks later. They told me, ‘We don’t think you should talk about this because most of the attendees are male, and we think it would be offensive given that so many men are there.'”
According to Klawe, attendance at the forum numbered nearly 500, only six of whom were women.
Klawe replied to the e-mail several weeks later, dismissing claims that her proposal would be ill-received and insisting on the importance of gender diversity within the field of computer science.
“I wrote back, and said, ‘The fact that so many of the attendees are male is an even bigger reason why I want to talk about this,’” Klawe said.
Two weeks later, forum organizers replied to Klawe, maintaining their stance that she would be forbidden from giving her presentation at the forum.
“’They’re not going to let me talk about it, and [if so] I’m not going to go,'” Klawe recalled e-mailing Ibaraki after hearing from the organizers.
According to Klawe, Ibaraki then sent another e-mail to organizers of the forum, expressing the importance of diversity to CIOs and citing Klawe’s status as a board member of Microsoft Corporation and a widely-recognized expert in her field, and warning them that if her proposal was not accepted in its original form, she would not attend the forum.
“Almost instantly, I got back an e-mail from the person who had been telling me ‘No’ for the last couple weeks, saying, ‘I humbly apologize for being rude. Of course you can talk about this,’” Klawe said.
Klawe reported being nervous before giving the presentation, but afterwords, it was clear that the results were no less than phenomenal.
“I was comfortable even though there were not many women,” she said. “This was a unique experience for me because I was wondering what the reaction was going to be.”
“This was the first time I’ve ever been told my topic was not welcome, but after the talk, they were just so happy,” Klawe added. “I’ll bet it was the most popular talk at the conference.”
Gender inequality in the technological sciences is a topic that Klawe said is particularly important to her and to the educational communities of China and North America.
“[One of] the reasons I was interested in talking at the CIO forum is because one of the things I’m really passionate about is attracting more female students to computer science,” she said. “In the computer sciences and at just about any meeting I’ve been to [in this field], I’ve been either the only woman or the only one of two women… and for the last 23 years, I’ve been the first woman to hold all of the jobs I’ve had.”
Sisi Cheng HM ’15, a computer science student at HMC with experience in both American and Chinese education systems, said computer science in China attracts even fewer female students than it does in the United States.
“Gender is a big issue in general in China because there are not many girls that are educated,” she said. “Computer science is a male-dominated field.”
Klawe said she is confident that there is a promising future for women who enter the computer sciences, whether in China, the U.S., or other countries. She added that she expects to continue to give presentations abroad on various issues within the field, including gender diversity, in coming years.
“I plan to be in India and China about once every two years,” Klawe said. “For science and engineering, these are very important countries. So much of the innovation is happening in India and China now.”