Saturday, January 5, 2008

Women in CS News from Canada 2008 (Ambassador: Julita Vassileva)

Happy New Year! I thought that it is appropriate to start with the first January report about a stereotypically cold place – Canada. Right now it is -25 C (-13F) here in Saskatoon, we are right in the middle of this big country. I have gotten used to the cold in the last 10 years since I came here, though in the country where I was born, Bulgaria, in doesn’t get nearly as cold in wintertime. So let me introduce myself: I am Julita Vassileva, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan. I hold the NSERC / Cameco Chair for Women in Science and Engineering and I am the current ACM-W Ambassador for Canada.

In this first report I will give a brief overview of the statistics of Canadian women studying Computer Science (CS), women working in the IT sector and describe some measures taken to promote the status of women in academia. I will feature some of the Canadian outreach activities promoting CS to female students. Finally, I will highlight some recent achievements of Canadian female researchers in Computer Science.


According to [1] only 27.4% of the IT workforce (public and private sector) in Canada is female, and the only categories of IT that women dominate are technical writing and graphic design/illustration. Women represent only 10% of the 160,000 licensed engineers across Canada.
According to a recent article published by Computing Research Association [2]:
“the overall CS degree enrollment and production trends at Canadian institutions are similar to those seen in the United States. The number of degrees awarded at all levels has grown rapidly in the past decade. Recent enrollment figures would suggest a slowdown in bachelor's degree production in the coming years, in contrast to continued growth at the graduate level. … The biggest decline in bachelor's degree enrollments has been among women: 30 percent fewer women were enrolled in 2003/04 than in 2001/02, compared to an 8 percent drop among men for the same period.”

The percentage of students enrolled in a Bachelor’s program that are women in 2003 was 18%, in MSc. Program – 28% and in a PhD. Program – 24%.

The proportion of female faculty in Canada in 2007 was 32.6% [3], down with nearly 5% since 2001/2002 when it was 37.3% [4]. However, for Science and Engineering areas the proportion is only about 14%. Similar to the US the proportion of women newly hired into tenure-track positions is higher, around 19%, while for full professors, it was as low as 7.7%. Yet, some Computer Science departments, for example, at the University of Victoria, have a very high proportion of women-faculty (approx. 33%).

Government Programs and Institutional Actions

To address the situation with underrepresentation of female faculty in Science and Engineering, the Natural Sciences and Research council of Canada (NSERC) [5] has launched two programs:

• University Faculty Awards
• Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering

The goal of the University Faculty Awards program is to enhance the recruitment, retention, and early career progression of women and Aboriginal people in tenure-track faculty positions in the natural sciences and engineering in Canadian universities, by providing opportunities for them to establish a strong research record. Through this program, a University can nominate a Canadian or permanent resident female candidate. It has to commit a tenure-track position. If the applicant is successful, NSERC contributes $40,000 CDN / year as salary contribution for up to five years. The new faculty member enjoys reduced teaching and administrative load during the award, which allows her to kick-start her research. Unfortunately, as of this year, the UFA program has been cancelled. The program was highly competitive, and it was found that women hired through this program would have obtained faculty positions anyway, so it didn’t result in increasing the number of female faculty overall. A new program is currently being developed to address the underrepresentation of women and Aboriginals in the natural sciences and engineering.

The Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering program is regional, with one Chair for each of the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Prairie and British Columbia regions. The goal of this Chair program is to increase the participation of women in science and engineering and to provide role models for women considering careers in these fields. The five current chairs are: Dr. Cecilia Moloney (Engineering, Memorial University) – Atlantic Region, Dr. Valerie Davidson (Engineering, Guelph University) – Ontario, Dr. Nadia Ghazzali (Mathematics, Laval University) – Quebec, Dr. Julita Vassileva (Computer Science, University of Saskatchewan) – Prairies, Dr. Anne Condon (Computer Science, UBC) – British Columbia and the Yukon.

Several Canadian Universities have undertaken an evaluation of their practices as they relate to gender. For example, the University of Calgary performed an evaluation of the workloads of faculty from equity perspective. Their recommendations can be found online [6]. The University of British Columbia Faculty of Science performed recently a study of the working climate for science faculty, led by Rachel Kuske. The results can be found online too [7]. Other Universities are planning to perform such studies too. Hopefully the implementation of the recommendations of these studies will help female faculty advance in their careers on equal pace with their male colleague.

Supporting Education and Outreach

The Jade Project was launched in 2005 by Professor Anne Condon from the University of British Columbia who holds the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for British Columbia and the Yukon. It aims to increase the participation and success of girls and women in the physical sciences and engineering, particularly computer science. Three major components of the project are:
  • CS101 - Connecting with Computer Science. This interdisciplinary college-level course, introduces computer science principles through applications in the arts, psychology, and biology. For example, in the biology module, students learn how fragment assembly, a key step in genome sequencing, can be modeled in a way that makes it amenable to solution using a computer.
  • The Canadian Distributed Mentor Project (CDMP) is a program to encourage undergraduate women in computer science and computer engineering to go to graduate school. Coordinated by Dr. Faith Ellen at U. of Toronto it supports outstanding undergraduate women in Computer Science at Canadian institutions to immerse themselves in research, working closely with a female mentor. The goal is to encourage these students to consider a research career in computing. The number of undergraduate students involved in the project has grown from 4 in 2001 and 2002 up to 11 in 2007.
  • Jade Bridges Program. Bridging across the province, this program supports a network of leaders in B.C. academic institutions, who are working to recruit and support the careers of women in the Physical Sciences and Engineering, with the goal of increasing institutional commitment to the goals of increasing the representation of women.
Professor Anne Condon was the Program Chair of the 2007 Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computer Science in Orlando, Florida.

There are many local outreach activities for girls in high- or middle-school out of various computer science departments in the country, such as computing day camps, lab-tours, exhibitions and school lectures.

Individual Achievements

There are many outstanding Canadian female researchers in Computer Science. Here I will list just some recent achievements (in West to East order).

Gail Murphy from UBC has won several awards, including a Steacie. She has also just won a U. Washington Diamond alumnae award.
Karon MacLean from UBC has had her work featured in the Economist.
Rachel Pottinger won a Denice Denton Emerging Leader Award.
Renee Miller has a chaired professorship at Toronto, the "Bell University Lab Chair of Information Systems".
Marina Gavrilova from the University of Calgary recently became the first woman Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal Transactions on Computational Sciences, Springer. A book on Biometrics she co-authored has become a World Scientific International Bestseller of the month for September 2007. Dr. Gavrilova is presently directing two labs: Biometric Technologies and SPARCS Lab, co-chairing ICCSA conference (since 2003), working on a book on Intelligent Methods in Computational Geometry, and participates in SciberMentor program, a science and engineering email mentorship program out of the University of Calgary.
Sheila McIlraith, and Toni Pitassi from the University of Toronto, were chosen as two of 50 researchers across Canada to receive inaugural NSERC Discovery Accelerator Supplements (DAS) in March 2007. The Discovery Accelerator Supplements support faculty who are on the verge of research breakthroughs. Dr. Suzanne Fortier, President of NSERC notes, "These new grants target 50 outstanding researchers. Based on their success and accomplishments so far, we believe they are poised to make real breakthroughs in their fields, and we believe it is critically important to support them financially at this time." McIlraith’s DAS was awarded for "customizing computer system components," and Pitassi’s - for "solutions to computational complexity".

Until next time - keep warm out there!


[1] Ticcoll, D. 2005. Canada’s Information Technology Labour Market 2005: Issues and Options. Report of the Software Human Resource Council Expert Panel. Ottawa: SHRC.
[2] CRA Report January 2006.
[3] CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) Almanac 2007
[4] Canadian Coalition for Women in Engineering, Sciences, Technologies and Trades, CCWESTT
[5] Natural Sciences and Engineering Council, NSERC
[6] Joldersma, H. (2005) NEXT Steps: Report of the Gender Equity Project, University of Calgary:
[7] An Assessment of the Working Climate for the Science Faculty at UBC:

Tracy Camp wins Outstanding Faculty Award

We celebrate a recent honor of an ACM-W member (and previous ACM-W Co-Chair). Colorado School of Mine's recently presented Tracy Camp with an 'Outstanding Faculty Award' (an award that doesn't occur every year). Tracy was nominated for the honor by her research group, making the award even more special.