womENcourage past chair – diversity drives societal change

This year we are going to have the 10th womENcourage celebration, which will be hosted in Trondheim, Norway! We are so excited to share the journey we had so far and looking forward to bigger, greater and more exciting celebrations to come. We are acknowledging this milestone of 10 years with a series of blogs from past chairs who organized this event successfully so far. This month we have Tiziana Catarci, who was co-chair of womENcourage 2019.

1. Brief introduction about yourself: who are you, what do you currently do and how are you connected to the computing field.

I am currently a professor in computer engineering and chair of the Department of Computer, Control and Management Engineering “A.Ruberti” of Sapienza University of Roma. I have published over 200 articles in international journals and conferences and more than 20 books mainly in the areas of human-computer interaction (HCI) and databases (a subset can be found here). Since June 2017 I have been been Editor-in-Chief of the ACM Journal of Data and Information Quality (JDIQ). I am among the World’s Top 2% Scientists according to Stanford’s list.

For many years I have been interested in both gender issues in the so-called STEM subjects (computer science and engineering in particular), and in the dissemination of the STEM culture among girls (activities for which I was awarded in 2017 by the Italian Levi Montalcini Association).

2. How did you hear about ACM-W Europe and then about womENcourage?

I heard about ACM-W from ACM news and reports. Then, a colleague from the ACM-W Committee told me about WomENcourage and I was invited to the 2018 edition in Belgrade, where I had the opportunity to better know and appreciate the event.

3. A few key elements that you remember from the time when you were preparing for the event.

I organized the event with Paola Velardi, a professor in computer science in Sapienza, from a department other than mine. We worked hard but with great synergy and enthusiasm in the months before the event (and after womENcourage we have been cooperating in many other initiatives to attract more girls in ICT, this was also an important takeover from the event). The best part was that we had a very positive and sometimes enthusiastic response from the people we involved and from the many sponsors who supported the event, including the local (regional) and national government. Obviously, we had also various setbacks: the restaurant inside the venue closed unexpectedly; some rooms were not soundproofed enough; some workshops did not provide us with the requested information; the bureaucracy of the university and the one of the ACM were difficult to reconcile; etc., but all solved successfully, also with the help of ACM-W Europe.

4. How were the days of the event?

The days of the event were both stressful and exciting. We had a record number of participants (over 350 from 32 countries and 4 continents) including many scientists of great value and professionals (male and female because we did not want to discriminate on the contrary) talking about several fascinating and interdisciplinary applications of information technology, in the fields of medicine, architecture, social sciences, ethics. Furthermore, the girls were involved, through the hackathon, in the process of devising new solutions for the circular economy, urban sustainability, the balance between work and life, the social applications of artificial intelligence. The event rich program wanted to help them understanding how creative and high impact the computing field is. Of course, we also had important moments of networking, leisure and entertainment.

5. What was your takeaway from the entire process and from the event itself?

I had the opportunity to cooperate with many volunteers (female and male) who strongly believe in the essential value of diversity and inclusion to create a more equitable, fair, and sustainable digital society, as advocated by the title of the conference: Diversity Drives Societal Change. Also, I had the clear perception of how much digital skills represent a huge tool for female empowerment and the importance of spread this message to the young generations.

6. What would be your advice to other people that wish to organize either womENcourage in the future or any other celebration of women in computing? 

Apart from the obvious advices on the practical organization, as the need of always having a B plan for everything, etc., I would suggest to try to organize a program showing that computing is fun, creativity and an instrument to solve the world fundamental problems. Another suggestion is to broaden the audience of potential participants, organizing ad-hoc sessions for kids, families, and schoolteachers. Indeed, we know that girls, starting from the age of six, already begin to stop imagining a future in science or technology. Even the school and educational system often end up precisely reinforcing those conventions and stereotypes connected to gender which exert a silent and persistent impact. Furthermore, it should be considered that guidance takes place primarily in the family, a context in which there are not always adequate skills or full awareness of the existence of opportunities other than more traditional pathways.

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