“Can women do research?”

…was definitely not the question this past weekend at the 2nd annual Graduate Cohort Program of the Computer Research Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W). But the event coincidentally fell on the heels of Harvard President Lawrence Summers’s ill considered and widely reported comments in January that effectively cast doubts about the native abilities of women in science.

The CRA-W event offered an elegant, practical answer to valid concerns about the current low numbers of women completing advanced CS degrees and heading for jobs in computer science research. Rather than mulling over problematic research on the relative abilities of men and women in scientific fields, organizers of this conference aim at increasing success and reducing attrition of women in the career path leading from graduate study into the computing research field in academia or industry.

Mentoring and networking are core elements of the program and considered keys to boosting the staying power of women in a field that has been traditionally dominated by men.

This year’s event, held in San Francisco, brought together 220 first- and second-year women graduate students from 73 universities, plus 26 researchers who came to speak and share their experiences. One of several CRA-W programs, the Grad Cohort Program [http://www.cra.org/Activities/craw/gradcohort/index.php] is building a community of women through its meetings and peer support networks. Many of last year’s first-year grad student participants returned this year to be in the second-year group.

“I think this year’s [program] was really successful,” says longtime CRA-W member and Grad Cohort Program co-director Jan Cuny, of the University of Oregon. “Both groups--last year’s cohort and the new one this year--were incredibly engaged. Last year’s cohort formed some committees to help with follow-on activities during the year and we’re hoping to help them get more ongoing peer support in place.”

With separate tracks for the first- and second-year grad students, presentations encompassed topics like: skills for surviving graduate school, how to build a solid foundation in the research process, networking and professional interaction, working with mentors and advisors, career paths, and more.

Student participants have positive things to say about the program. “It’s actually surpassing my expectations,” says Patricia Lee, a Ph.D. student in Computer Science the University of California at Irvine, who has been working with embedded systems, comparing simulation-based testing versus model checking. She says that the program has changed her thinking about “…working with my mentor and advisor, and reaching out more to other students and networking more.” Having already been a working professional before returning to the university to pursue her Ph.D. studies, Lee points out that she thought she had all her contacts--CRA-W’s Grad Cohort Program has made her realize how she can benefit by broadening them.

Sponsors are taking notice as well: Last year’s sponsor, Microsoft, continued its support, joined this year by Google and Lucent.

As for President Summers’s recent speaking debacle [http://www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/2005/nber.html; see also http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2005/01/19/harvard_womens_group_rips_summers?pg=2], Grad Cohort Program co-chair Mary Lou Soffa, of the University of Virginia, who also serves on the boards of CRA and CRA-W, didn’t want to dwell on the incident but did call Summers’s remarks irresponsible and harmful by virtue of “raising a finger of doubt.”

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