U.Va. Engineering School Professor Receives 'Outstanding Academic Title' Distinction for Book

March 5, 2008 — Joanne Cohoon, assistant professor in the University of Virginia Engineering School's Department of Science, Technology, and Society, was "surprised and pleased" to learn that a book she contributed to and co-edited had been selected by Choice Magazine as one of its "Outstanding Academic Titles." Only about 10 percent of all books reviewed by Choice receive the distinction.

Cohoon worked on the book, "Women and Information Technology: Research on Underrepresentation," with Indiana University School of Informatics professor William Aspray. A year in the making, the book is published by MIT Press. It focuses on the declining participation of women in computer science since the late 1980s, in contrast to all other science and technology disciplines.

"The computing industry has a serious image problem," said Cohoon, a senior research scientist at the National Center for Women and IT. "Because of the dot-com bust and the increase in offshoring, many people believe that opportunities in computing are a thing of the past. This assumption is far from the truth.

"Although low-level jobs may be declining, intellectually engaging computing occupations are flourishing. It seems that the general public is not aware that you can combine computing with almost any interest — not just science- and technology-related fields."

These misperceptions, according to Cohoon, are incongruent with the facts: "The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics projections are that computing occupations are three of the top five largest job-growth occupations requiring a college degree," she says.

The challenge is to reverse the public's misperceptions through research and awareness. Through the studies it presents, "Women and Information Technology" argues that it is important to increase the prominence of women and other underrepresented minorities in the field of computing — not only for equity, but also to have a strong supply of qualified information technology workers and improve the quality of work carried out by U.S. companies.

"We are still unable to fill all the jobs for really skilled computer scientists," says Mary Lou Soffa, Owen R. Cheatham Professor of Computer Science and chairwoman of the Computer Science Department at U.Va.'s Engineering School. "If this trend continues and women and minorities do not participate in the field, the United States has a good chance of losing its edge in computing technology."

Cohoon hopes the book will not only increase dialogue, but also inform and inspire action. "It's easy to point the finger and say the problem started in middle school because the school system didn't encourage underrepresented groups to pursue computing," she says. "Instead, we need to focus on what we can do, by effecting change in our specific sphere of influence."

Using the research results explained in each chapter, the book suggests interventions that can be made at all stages — pre-college, college and workforce levels – along the path to a computing career.

"Actions to increase diversity in computing are essential," says James H. Aylor, dean of U.Va.'s Engineering School. "Diversity is key to building the best and brightest computing workforce for the future of this country and world."
Cohoon researches, publishes and speaks on women's underrepresentation in IT and gender segregation in higher education. Her research interests include technology and gender, education and gender, higher education and organizations.

About the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science

Founded in 1836, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society. At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University's highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,000 undergraduates and 650 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering and nanotechnology.

— By Andrea Arco