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Women wanted

Award granted to researcher from Unicamp calls attention to the fall of women interest in computing

ANTONINHO PERRIIn September, Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, a professor from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and president of the Brazilian Computing Society (SBC), was in San Diego, in California, to receive an award that recognizes the importance of her academic work and, in particular, of her efforts aimed at expanding women participation in careers connected with information technology. Engineer Ijeoma Terese Ihenachor, from the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, and Professor Suriya Mayandi Thevar, the president of the Indian Association of Women in IT, were also honored with the Change Agent award, granted by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and by the Association for Computing Machinery at a conference that discussed problems relating to research and to the work of women in this field of knowledge. The award is sponsored by Fran Allen, a pioneer of research in information technology and the first woman to be given the title of fellow of IBM, the company’s highest degree of scientific recognition.

Women interest in computing has been declining all over the world. It is strategic to contain this phenomenon. On the one hand, big companies like Intel, Microsoft and HP consider it essential to guarantee the diversity of genders in research in high technology. “Companies depend on the talent and on the experience of women to compete globally”, said Justin Rattner, the technology of the microprocessor giant Intel, explaining why the company is one of the supporters of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. On the other, it is considered that women are a key factor for expanding the interest of the new generations in computing. “If the young lose interest, countries lose space in the global economy. Attracting women means, in the long term, that children and relatives are also involved in this kind of career”, Claudia explains.

Two decades ago, the researcher observes, women went so far as to occupy almost half the vacancies in undergraduate courses in computing in Brazil. From the mid-1990s, the number of female candidates has been falling slowly. In the undergraduate courses, figures from the Ministry of Education show that the feminine participation has gone down from 30%, 15 years ago, to 5% or 10%. As a consequence, the feminine presence in postgraduate studies began to decrease. “The situation is less dramatic, because postgraduate courses manage to attract researchers graduating from other areas as well”, she said. According to a preliminary survey carried out by the SBC, in postgraduate computing science courses, nowadays 25% of the students are women.

The number of female professors varies between 25% and 30% of the total. The SBC is carrying out various activities to change this panorama, such as the Computing Olympics, which involve students from all over the country, from primary schooling to the end of secondary schooling. The medalists from all over Brazil are taken to Unicamp to do a one-week course, at four levels of schooling. “I always go to speak to these youngsters and I have observed the following. Until they are more or less 12 or 13 years old, 50% of the medalists are girls. Between 12 and 14, the percentage of girls already falls to 20%. Over 16, it is rare for a girl to appear. They are simply not interested. This same phenomenon of the age group is being found in countries of the First World, which has even been motivating national policies for a change of image of the area”, the researcher explains.

Claudia Bauzer Medeiros’s efforts to change this scenario include two kinds of initiative. One of them is the SBC’s campaigns for awareness of the need to attract more young people. “It is not just a question of attracting women, but of attracting new generations. And one of the ways of guaranteeing a greater inclusion of youngsters is through the inclusion of women. All the studies indicate the importance of the education of the mother as an agent in the education of the family and in the consequent national progress.” Another kind of initiative is the widespread disclosure of the problem in forums and congresses. “As president of the SBC, I have the opportunity of taking part in different kinds of events in Brazil and abroad, at which I discuss this question and proposals for a solution. Without awareness of the problem, nobody is going to be concerned with tackling it”, Claudia says.

According to the researcher, there are two hypotheses for the feminine lack of interest – one, economic, the other, social. “The economic aspect results from an increase of the competition in the area. Before, women would seek associated professions because there was not so much interest. As the sector evolved and began to offer better salaries, men put the labor market under pressure and the competition was fierce”, she explained. The social hypothesis considers the fact that computing is seen as a profession that privileges working in isolation, in which the whole day is spent in front of a screen. Women are said to have a preference for activities that include human contacts. “?We know that this is a mystification, because computing more and more calls for social interaction and has importance in all the areas”, she says.

Graduated in electronic engineering in 1976, at PUC in Rio, Claudia Bauzer Medeiros has always worked with computing: her first job after graduating was in the state company Furnas (a power utility),as system analyst.  Still in the 1970s, she took a master’s degree in information technology, also at PUC. Later on, she was to do a doctorate in computing science at Waterloo University, in Canada, postdoctoral studies at the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (Inria), in France, and she qualified as a professor and did an entrance exam for being a full professor, defended at Unicamp, where she has been a professor since 1985. She has an academic production in over 30 research projects in the area of scientific databases. A daughter of a doctor and a psychologist, Claudia is unmarried and has a brother and a sister – the former is a professor of mechanical engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and the latter, a mathematics professor at the Fluminense Federal University. “I have marvelous parents who taught their children the importance of study and of work. In my generation, a family in which all the children have doctorates is still rare in Brazil – and each one of us in a different area”, she says.