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Broader Horizons

By Karen A. Frenkel

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 55 No. 8, Page 21

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ACM-W, which has has traditionally been dedicated to supporting ACM's women members, now has new leadership and a broader mission, with Valerie Barr, chair of the computer science department at Union College, succeeding Elaine Weyuker, an AT&T Fellow at Bell Labs. The pair previously served as co-chairs for six months.

"ACM-W has focused on supporting women in computing, and has had particular focus on and responsibility to women members of ACM," says Barr. "While it is important to make sure that women of achievement are recognized within the women in computing community, we want to be sure that women are supported, celebrated, and advocated for within the general computing community. But now we are ready to also take on responsibilities to ensure all ACM members are aware of the role of women in computing, and to help ACM achieve organizational goals for growth and international reach through our work with and for women."

ACM-W needs to reach the 12% of ACM's 104,000 members who are female and make sure they know about ACM programs, like professional development, and non-ACM programs, like the Computer Research Association-Women's mentoring workshops, and special programs for women at conferences like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

To attract women who are not ACM members, ACM-W will reach out to faculty and students at community colleges. Women in computing at community colleges are a large and untapped market for ACM, says Barr, who notes that community colleges are a less expensive way for women to return to the work force.

ACM-W is also reaching out to students and faculty by awarding scholarships so they can attend conferences. In addition, ACM-W aims to create new programs that promote informal interaction between women at conferences so experienced computer scientists can meet and advise newcomers. Unfortunately, few opportunities exist for women at conferences to talk informally, says Barr. Moreover, young faculty do not make attending non-technical, non-peer reviewed conferences a priority because they do not count toward tenure. Therefore, ACM-W will consider how to support networking opportunities for women who attend technical and professional conferences, possibly by arranging birds-of-a-feather meetings.

"We want to be sure that women are supported, celebrated, and advocated for within the general computing community," says Valerie Barr.

In terms of conference scholarships, ACM-W has received $20,000 in funding from both Wipro Technologies and Microsoft Research. The Wipro scholarships will provide each awardee $600 and $1,200 for intra- and intercontinental conferences, respectively, for registration and attendance fees. ACM-W plans to give at least 10 intra- and 10 intercontinental awards each year for the next five years. The Microsoft Research scholarships will enable European women to attend conferences, and recipients will receive the same amounts for intra- and intercontinental conference expenses as the Wipro awardees. ACM-W expects to award about 15 Microsoft Research scholarships this year.

"We see the conference scholarship program very much as a pipeline program for young women who make a credible case that going to a conference will help them make decisions about what they're doing in CS," says Barr. "We're trying to encourage B.A.s to go on to graduate school, M.S.s to get Ph.Ds., and early Ph.D. candidates to focus on a research topic and stick with it."

Barr wants ACM-W's activities to be more prominent because it will increase the visibility of women in computing. Barr also wants the rest of the ACM community to take better notice of the contributions women make to the field. "We've done a good job telling women about women," she says, "but now we need to tell everybody else about women."

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Based in Manhattan, Karen A. Frenkel is a freelance writer and editor specializing in science and technology.

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