Each month, we ask Senior Technical Women to share their stories and what they have learned. This issue’s Senior Technical Woman Profile features Carla Ellis, Professor Emerita of Computer Science, Duke University.
1. How did you decide to pursue a career in technology?
When I was in college (1968-1972), it would have been difficult to picture what computing, as a career choice, might mean. I was good in math and science, I wanted to do something useful, and I had fun with my first programming experiences. However, what really mattered was that I had a number of influential people in my life encouraging me to pursue my interest in this emerging field and believing in me at a critical time. I am glad I listened because my career has been more rewarding than anything I could have imagined back then.
2. Based on your own experience, what skill(s) or characteristic(s) do you think are most important for technical women to succeed?
While it’s obvious that it’s important to continually keep one’s technical skills strong and current, maintaining (or building) one’s self-confidence is also essential. Believing in yourself enables you to more freely communicate your ideas and collaborate. Just knowing that managing self-confidence has been a challenge faced by many incredibly successful technical women can help. One thing to do is to actively celebrate each accomplishment so that you don’t discount your successes as you move on to your next problem.
3. What was the greatest challenge that you overcame in your career?
When I was a young assistant professor, I naively believed that you could just do great work and people would notice. It wasn’t yielding quite the level of success I’d been hoping for. No one had explained to me the value of professional networking. I had to discover that it was my responsibility to promote my ideas (and myself) and to actively engage with my research community to become visible. Doing this didn’t come naturally to me (that self-confidence issue again), but it was a major turning point in my career.
4. How do you manage work/life balance?
I try to practice the art of saying “no” in order to leave me time and energy for the more important things in both my work and personal life. I have a set of criteria that I use to help me decide whether to say “no” to a task request or even a tempting opportunity. My rules include things like my relationship with the person who is doing the asking and how the proposed activity fits within my priorities (which implies I can articulate what my priorities really are). I also give careful consideration to how to diplomatically say “no”, especially when the person asking is important to me. For example, this approach has allowed me to avoid unproductive committee assignments or cleaning house to someone else’s meticulous standards. Finally, if I do say “no”, then I refuse to feel guilty about it.
5. What advice would you give to technical women who want to consider an academic career?
Find multiple mentors to cover every aspect of the career path you aspire to — someone who knows the ins-and-outs of the organization, someone who knows the demands of the specific track you wish to pursue, someone outside the organization who can provide another perspective, and someone who can help with work/life balance. They don’t have to be formal mentors, but they need to listen well and they need to be people whose advice you respect.
6. How do you stay current in your technical field?
The “right” answer is to read the literature both broadly and deeply. The true answer is that I attend conferences and talk with colleagues to narrow that reading list to something manageable.
7. In your opinion, what (if any) are the remaining barriers faced by women in technology?
I think one of the most difficult barriers involves the implicit biases that affect how women’s accomplishments are still often evaluated differently from those of men. Even well-meaning colleagues may hold these unconscious biases and be in denial that they view women and men any differently. We pride ourselves on being a meritocracy and we hold ourselves and others to high standards. But the evaluations of merit aren’t necessarily applied consistently because of these implicit biases. The different standards seem hard to challenge because they are so hidden and denied. I’ve seen this dynamic play out in cases of hiring and promotions where one could never make a claim of blatant discrimination. I believe it’s important to make everyone more aware of the existence and impact of implicit bias.
Carla Schlatter Ellis is a Professor Emerita of Computer Science at Duke University. She received her Ph.D. degree in Computer Science from the University of Washington, Seattle in 1979. Before coming to Duke as an Associate Professor in 1986, she was a member of the Computer Science faculties at the University of Oregon, Eugene, from 1978 to 1980, and at the University of Rochester, Rochester NY, from 1980 to 1986. She previously served on the board of the Computing Research Association (CRA), as Co-Chair of the Academic Alliance of the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), and Editor-in-Chief of ACM Transactions on Computing Systems. She is currently a member of the CRA Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W) and co-chairing Invited Talks for GHC 2011. She is a Fellow of the ACM. Her research interests are in operating systems, mobile computing, and sustainability as it applies to computing. She is married with a grown-up son and two dogs.