From university research labs to corporate board rooms, that the computing professions must assiduously address the issues of improving the demographic diversity of their practitioners, the equity with which individuals are treated, and the inclusion of each of those individuals' experiences and expertise is not in dispute.
Paradoxically, though, one of the best ways to help make everyone feel more comfortable as a member of the computing professions may be to stretch out past one's personal comfort zone, according to Nvidia Chief Scientist Bill Dally. Those with a position in the profession need to realize their own actions are needed to bring about a more inclusive profession, and they may sometimes be called upon to go where they are uncomfortable, but that is where they are needed, according to Dally.
His comments were part of the "Valuing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Our Computing Community" panel during the co-located 27th IEEE International Symposium on High-Performance Computer Architecture (HPCA-27), Principles and Practice of Parallel Programming (PPoPP 21), International Symposium on Code Generation and Optimization (CGO), and ACM SIGPLAN 2021 International Conference on Compiler Construction (CC '21) virtual conferences. The joint panel, sponsored by the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering, was organized and moderated by Timothy Pinkston, professor of electrical and computer engineering at USC. Pinkston gathered some of the computing community's most accomplished representatives to discuss how the profession and its members should prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) actions.
In an essay introducing the panel, Pinkston stated his intent to include prominent voices who were not "persons from racial/ethnic populations underrepresented in computing." Though hearing more from such underrepresented voices would certainly be appropriate, Pinkston said, he also believes "much more attention and contributions to this important issue are needed from members within our community who are not from racial/ethnic populations currently underrepresented in the field. That is, what's sorely needed are more advocates, allies, and champions."
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within the computing community are not new, but they have received greater attention and urgency since the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. last year. ACM, for example, responded by creating the Committee on Systemic Change: "The events of 2020 have caused ACM to re-examine whether there are systemic issues within the organization that perpetuate exclusionary practices that disadvantage members of the computing community. Through the creation of the Systemic Change Committee, ACM reiterates its commitment to inclusion and seeks to address cases where systemic change is needed to address injustices."
The Committee is a standing committee under the aegis of the ACM Council on Diversity and Inclusion. The council was formed in 2019 and co-chair Natalie Enright Jerger said after the panel session that she thought the work of the two bodies was proceeding well.
"With any new body, I think it takes some time to understand how the larger organization works and to get the ball rolling, but I think both the Council and the Committee are well underway now on some key activities," she said.
During the panel session, she noted several examples of ACM special interest groups (SIGs) that had already launched diversity and inclusion initiatives, such as the joint SIGARCH and SIGMICRO CARES subcommittee (the group says it includes "well-known and respected people in the architecture community who are approachable and willing to listen to and help people who experience or witness discrimination, harassment, or other ethical policy violation, either at our events or related to ACM publications"), SIGPLAN's formal diversity guidelines, and SIGACCESS's accessible conference guidelines.
Enright Jerger would also like to see a way for entities across ACM to have convenient access to information on best diversity practices.
"One of the challenges we've faced in getting things rolling with the D&I (diversity and inclusion) Council is that it is difficult to know everything happening across the breadth of ACM," Enright Jerger said. "I think it's super-important that individual SIGs don't reinvent the wheel and can learn best practices from each other. The Council is certainly advocating that all groups within ACM consider diversity—we'd like to see additional diversity on boards and councils, in SIG leadership, and on awards committees.
"D&I needs to be pervasive across ACM," she said. "It can't be siloed as its own entity. As appropriate, we are working with other boards and councils, such as publications, education, and SIG governing boards to help them integrate D&I into their activities. Everyone we've talked to is very receptive to engaging with and supporting these efforts. We've built connections and need to in turn start executing our plans."
Both ACM and the IEEE Computer Society are reaching out to members for input via surveys to better focus their DEI initiatives. The ACM survey can be found here, and the IEEE survey is here.
Government efforts underway.
The U.S. government is also expanding its commitment to broadening the pool of talented computer professionals to help senior faculty and industry executives' reach beyond the "A list" of typical institutions and programs, according to panel member Margaret Martonosi, assistant director of the National Science Foundation's Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate and the Hugh Trumbull Adams '35 Professor of Computer Science at Princeton University. In particular, Martonosi mentioned the recently launched CISE-MSI program, which anticipates funding 10-16 projects in the upcoming year at colleges including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges and Universities.
CISE is also piloting CSGrad4US, a fellowship program intended to attract current CISE-area bachelor's degree holders to apply to graduate school. The program is a year-long preparation program in which individuals selected for the fellowship will receive mentored support in identifying a graduate program, finding a research mentor, and applying to graduate programs. Fellows will also have opportunities to form a network with one another and with faculty advisors. The program organizers are especially interested in attracting "women, African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Native Pacific Islanders, and persons with disabilities to apply."
Martonosi pointed out that recent demographic statistics estimate only 20% of computer science doctorates are held by women, and only about 3% by Blacks, Hispanics, or Native Americans. Passively waiting for those numbers to increase, she said, will not work.
Strengthening the pipeline
While much of the panel discussion addressed improving DEI efforts at the university level or within recruiting and retention policies in industry, many of the underlying issues of providing equitable opportunity in STEM fields occur in the pre-collegiate curriculum, outside the strict domain of academic or industrial computer scientists. Panel participants say they see opportunities for both public education systems and professional societies such as ACM and IEEE to advocate for students of all backgrounds to achieve success.
Martonosi, for example, cited the Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science Principles framework for high school students, launched during the 2016-17 academic year. In post-panel remarks, she described it as the single largest launch of any exam in the AP program's history: more than 55,000 students took the exam in May 2017.
"We've seen those numbers surpass 100,000 students per year in recent years," she said. "Most importantly, the numbers of female, Black/African-American, and Latin-x students taking an AP computer science exam have increased by more than three times during this period, as compared to prior to 2016-2017."
Martonosi also mentioned the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women's Academic Network) initiative, launched in the U.K. in 2005 to champion gender equality in scientific fields. She said professional computer societies could serve as clearinghouses of information on such programs for members in other nations, to help advocate for stronger DEI efforts.
"Helping to support these DEI innovations where they start, and also helping to share promising practices worldwide, would be great roles for ACM, IEEE Computer Society, and other professional organizations to play," she said.
Pinkston said society-led initiatives could also occur at levels much more granular than serving as public policy resources. For instance, he said guidance provided to SIGs and technical committees by the leadership could include adding workshops to their technical conferences on topics such as effective outreach to K-12 STEM partners; he also said SIGs and TCs could provide funding for travel grants to special workshops targeted toward K-12 students from underrepresented and underserved racial and ethnic populations at conferences.
What is needed for the profession to advance DEI efforts, Martonosi said in her closing panel remarks, was for each individual to find a personal balance "between patience and impatience, between persistence and indignation.
"If you are too impatient, watching how long these things take or for the needle to move, it's just draining," she said. "On the other hand, if you are too patient, nothing ever changes. So we have to figure out how to effect change where we can, in terms of our position and where we are in our career spaces, and to have just the right amount of indignation to make sure things do change."
Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.