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Technology Today


A Computer Scientist's Legacy: She Lit the Torch, We'll Carry It
Dr. Sharon Nunes, Vice President, IBM Research

Just as Annika Sorenstam is changing the face of golf, once considered a game just for men, Dr. Anita Borg did in the computer industry over three decades ago. Last month, Dr. Borg, a computer scientist who devoted much of her career to advancement of women in the technology field, passed away and left a great legacy behind. She helped to break down the barriers between women and careers in science and technology.

Dr. Borg was one of the first women to publicly acknowledge that women as a group represent a largely untapped pool of potential talent for the computer and IT industry in the United States. Given the shortage of skilled scientists and engineers, she made it her mission to develop programs and encourage women to train in these areas. Many of my colleagues and I are involved in the groups and programs she started and will continue the tradition.

During her career, Dr. Borg presented many reasons why we need more women in the science and technology fields. The most prominent issue is the general shortage of skilled workers as a major barrier to economic growth. Current workforce projections show that unless women are attracted to science, technology and engineering careers, the United States will not have the trained personnel necessary to compete in the global marketplace. This will potentially impact our economic climate and shift growth to other countries.

We’ve learned that society also benefits from a more diverse science and technology community. Women contribute new perspectives to problem solving and different approaches to effective teamwork that enable project teams to generate more creative solutions and better address society###s needs. Today, all automakers have female engineers on staff. It seems that the women###s review process has finally become a formalized decision among vehicle manufacturers. With women making or influencing more than eighty percent of all new vehicle purchases these days, it seems a wise decision.

There is also a businesses benefit from engaging women in research, design, and development. Women represent fifty percent of the population and a major consumer group. To get an idea of the lengths to which automakers have gone to cater to the female market, consider the following features that have been developed in recent years, thanks to the input of female engineers and designers: thinner, easier-to-grip steering wheels , drop-down mirrors for checking on children in the rear seats, lower armrests and improved line of sight over the top of the front hood.

By attracting women scientists and engineers, companies gain better understanding of their customers### needs, improve product designs, and can compete more effectively. These reasons support the argument that we must attract women to these fields in order to compete in a global economy.

Dr. Borg was a big believer in education as a starting point for getting girls interested in science. Curriculum developers, teachers, industry experts, and schools need to cultivate girls’ interest by infusing science and technology concepts and uses into subject areas ranging from music to history in order to interest a broader array of learners. Combining science with other subjects can open the students’eyes to many interesting careers like art restoration, which requires knowledge in art and science, or technical writing, which requires a combination of English and technology.

More importantly, we need to change the perception of science and technology. Media, teachers, and other adults need to make the public face of women in computing correspond to the reality rather than the stereotype. Girls tend to imagine that computer professionals or those who work heavily with information technology live in a solitary, antisocial world. Quite to the contrary, the women I work with are vibrant, imaginative, and thrive on building relationships to get their work done. They love solving problems and working in teams to get the best ideas. They enjoy the flexibility of their jobs and love making an impact on society through their work.

It is also crucial to sustain an active network of women in the technology industries including information technology, biotechnology and the telecommunications industries, facilitating career development through mentoring networks and promoting the positive aspects of working in these industries. Dr. Borg introduced networking avenues like Systers, an electronic mailing list on technical subjects exclusively for women who are engineers. Many of her contributions will continue to serve the community Dr. Borg essentially created.

Dr. Sharon Nunes who holds a doctorate in Materials Science from the University of Connecticut, joined IBM in 1984 in Rochester, Minnesota, working on materials and processes for electronic packaging. She transferred to Research in 1986 and has held a variety of technical and management positions. She also spent two years working on technical and strategic planning for Research headquarters.