In Memoriam: Joanne Cohoon, Advocate for Women in Computing and IT

Joanne Cohoon, seated, with fellow leaders of UVA CHARGE, a program to increase the representation of women faculty in STEM fields

Joanne McGrath Cohoon believed that one of the most critical challenges for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics was in the area of computing, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand is going to be many times more than the number of qualified workers. That is one reason why Cohoon dedicated her career to removing barriers and encouraging women to join the field.

Cohoon, a professor of science, technology and society in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, died Feb. 14 at age 61. She also served as a senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and was one of four principal investigators for UVA CHARGE, a National Science Foundation-supported program to increase the representation of women faculty in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Cohoon researched, published and spoke on women’s underrepresentation in IT and gender segregation in higher education.

“The need is drastic,” Cohoon said in a 2014 story about her work, including facilitating national workshops for high school teachers on how to diversify their computer-science classrooms in an effort to increase the pipeline of students who are prepared for IT careers. “We could suck up all the students who have any kind of STEM background and fill those jobs, but then we’d have nobody doing anything else.”

Pamela Norris, executive associate dean for research in the Engineering School and program director for UVA CHARGE, said, “As one of four co-principal investigators, Joanne was an important, and beloved, member of the UVA CHARGE team. She tirelessly demonstrated her personal conviction that ensuring the full participation of women faculty in STEM at all levels of the University of Virginia will enhance the overall research and educational mission of the University.

“She brought her enthusiasm, humor and strength of conviction to our team, and her insights and sheer presence will be greatly missed.”

Professor Michael E. Gorman, who hired Cohoon when he was chair of the Department of Engineering & Society in 2003, said, “I thought of her as a gift. She had experience in sociology and education, was working on increasing the enrollment of women in computer science, and had so much success obtaining outside funding that she supported herself full-time.”

Gorman said Cohoon earned a significant portion of the outside funding for the department because of her work promoting STEM education for women.

Professor Bernard Carlson, the department’s current chair, said, “Joanne Cohoon was a valuable member of both Engineering & Society and the School of Engineering. She worked tirelessly to develop curricula and teaching techniques that would encourage women to enter the computer science field.”

For her efforts, she recently was awarded the Anita Borg Institute’s 2015 A. Richard Newton Educator ABIE Award, recognizing educators for developing innovative teaching practices and approaches that attract girls and women to computing, engineering and math.

“She had this energy and enthusiasm and absolute conviction that there were specific strategies that, if implemented, could be assessed for their effectiveness in recruiting and retaining women in STEM,” said Gertrude Fraser, associate professor of anthropology and another co-principal investigator for UVA CHARGE. “She had the evidence and was willing to meet with me and to share her findings, to brainstorm whether they could be adapted for faculty women. She had so many stories to tell about her work with high school teachers, who, once given the social and technical capital, were able to identify, inspire and teach girls in new, more pedagogically powerful ways.”

Cohoon is survived by her husband, James Cohoon, an associate professor in the Computer Science Engineering Department; her father, James McGrath; her sisters, Diane McGrath and Carolyn McGrath; her sister, Anna LeGoff, and brother-in-law, Edward; her children, James Cohoon, Genevieve Asher and Johanna Cohoon; daughter-in-law, Helen Cohoon; son-in-law Nathaniel Asher; and grandchildren, Helen Ann, Stellan, Josephine and Axel.

In honor of Cohoon’s life achievements, UVA CHARGE has established the Joanne McGrath Cohoon Enhancement Grant Program, a small grant program for women faculty in STEM.

A memorial service was held Saturday.

Media Contact

Elizabeth Thiel Mather

Director of Communications School of Engineering and Applied Science