Two years ago, Heng Ji, a professor at the computer science department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was invited to be a guest speaker at an academic conference in a Chinese city she had never visited before.

But the host also asked Ji to accompany a male American scholar to the event and suggested she show him around the city. The male academic, who was also on his maiden visit to the city and happened to be a friend of Ji’s, knocked back the proposal immediately saying “I’ll be the one accompanying her.”

Ji, an avowed feminist, feels sexism in science can be more serious in China than in the US because of cultural issues. “To some extent, people still see women as an accessory to their male colleagues no matter how outstanding they might be in their own profession,” said Ji.

Organizations and technology seminars for women in the US, such as Rising Stars in EECS, offer female academics an opportunity to present their accomplishments. (Picture: AFP)

Female computer scientists are in a minority globally though – it is not just a China phenomenon. According to a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Washington and Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), who went through nearly 3 million papers in the field of computer science, gender parity is not expected to be reached until at least 2100 even under the most optimistic conditions.

“There is indeed a gap in the field,” said Oren Etzioni, co-author of the study, CEO of AI2 and professor of computer science at the University of Washington, in an email to the Post. “Though authorship among female computer scientists has increased in recent decades, the proportion appears to be leveling off below 30%. This is in contrast to other fields, like psychology or biology, where female representation is much higher.”

American female computer scientists are proportionally more competitive than their Chinese peers. According to a 2020 Tsinghua University ranking of the world’s 2,000 best artificial intelligence experts based on academic publications, 10.3% of the Americans who made it to the list were women, while the percentage of Chinese females was only 6.9%.

Ji grew up in the city of Yiwu in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang in the 1980s. Her parents cared deeply about education and, even though she was a girl in a traditionally male-dominated society back then, her father nurtured her interest in science by taking her to the local bookstore to buy her favorite science fiction novels.

Later, after graduating from Tsinghua University with a Master’s degree in computational linguistics, she pursued a PhD degree in the US. She eventually became a tenured professor in natural language processing (NLP) – a branch of artificial intelligence – at the age of 32. Four years later, she became a professorial chair at the New York-based private Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“My parents never asked me to do housework because I was always studying and reading books. But some relatives didn’t understand this and asked my parents why they were spoiling me,” said Ji. “So I’ve been sensitive about it since childhood and always believed passionately that girls can do anything that boys can.”

Today, Ji is one of the most-referenced authors in her field of NLP but said that female Chinese academics do not get the recognition they deserve.

“I want to index the email addresses of all the magnificent women scientists in China, so when the committees in China invite experts to give speeches, they can reference the list and invite females,” said Ji.

Heng Ji, a professor in the computer science department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Picture: Handout)

Yu Minlan, an associate professor at Harvard’s school of engineering and applied science, who specializes in computer networking, said that in her field in the US, committee members make an effort to gather the names of female candidates before selecting a chair for a conference. “I hope more fields will adopt a similar practice in the future.”

Before receiving her doctorate in computer science from Princeton University and becoming a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Yu graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics at Peking University.

Her father worked at a local university in Wuhu, a city in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui. Yu was lucky enough to have had access to computers in her father’s office in her childhood – a rare privilege for someone in an average Chinese family in the 1990s.

Yu was the only female student in an extracurricular programming class at her high school, and one of only a few women in her undergraduate class at Peking University. This experience presaged the unequal gender ratio she found in academia in the field later.

“Support from peers is very important for studying and doing research. If there’s fewer female students in the field, a girl who wants to join might be discouraged because she could think that there’s no one there for her in time of need,” Yu said. “If more females join computer science, then more women will naturally stay in the field.”

After becoming a professor at the age of 28, she hoped to recruit more females into computer science by participating in workshops and symposia to talk to female undergraduate students, offering encouragement.

“Most female students, especially the ones from China, are very shy. Just like me when I first arrived at Princeton, they are afraid to speak out on their ideas and worried that others might think they are naive,” said Yu. “But if you listen carefully, I think that most of my female students and colleagues often offer unique and interesting observations that men sometimes miss.”

Yu Minlan, an associate professor at Harvard’s school of engineering and applied science. (Picture: Handout)

Ji from UIUC has 16 doctoral students in her team and three of them are female. She pointed out that there are also far fewer female principal investigators (PI) who act as lead researchers on big projects, such as the ones offered by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

“Usually there are only one or two females in a room with 20-30 male PIs,” Ji said. “Once in a PI meeting, I swore that my goal was to send in a troop of women PIs because I wanted to change the culture,” Ji said.

Ji asks her female students to play a leadership role to manage small projects and encourages them to participate in conferences to speak out with their own ideas. “I hope that they will become well-known before leaving my team.”

Women scientists need more speaking opportunities to be visible, instead of doing committee work behind the scenes, and they have to strike a work-life balance when it comes to their families, said Harvard’s Yu.

“To be fair, many science committees ask women to participate to establish gender equality but because there are few female scientists in the field… this can mean lots of committee work and can become a burden.”

Statistically, the career of a male scientist tends to outlast that of female counterparts, according to a March 2020 study by researchers from Northeastern University and IT University of Copenhagen. The active academic publishing lifespan of men, on average, is 11 years, while the figure for women is only 9.3 years.

As a mother of two children, Yu is currently juggling her family life with academic research as she works from home during the pandemic.

“It’s a challenge to distribute my time among all these tasks and family support is extremely important,” said Yu. “My parents and in-laws help take care of the children and as my husband is a professor too, he understands my desire to spend more time on research and with my students.”

Society needs to pay attention to female scientists and create a better environment for them to pursue their careers, says Yu. She wants to see more exposure for women scientists by giving them more opportunities to attend science conferences and present their accomplishments.

Women tend to be under-represented at world-class seminars. At the 2019 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition, the three general chairs and four program chairs were all men, while only 22 of all the 132 area chairs were women. Similarly, at the NeurIPS 2019, a machine learning conference, 85 authors contributed at least 10 submissions, only six of whom were women.

“The field as a whole suffers from a lack of female mentorship and leadership and understanding of how to best recruit and retain women and non-binary individuals,” said AI2’s Etzioni.

“Systematic changes are necessary to shrink the gender gap, such as policy changes to promote inclusivity of women and non-binary individuals, as are thoughtful efforts to support individuals throughout their career life-cycle. ”

Organisations and technology seminars for women in the US, such as Rising Stars in EECS and Grace Hopper Celebration, offer female academics an opportunity to present their accomplishments and receive greater recognition by academia and industry.

People stop to take photos of Widener Library on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Picture: AP)

The China National Computer Congress (CNCC) also holds an annual event in China for elite women in the field to encourage females to pursue their dreams in science.

Although these efforts represent a start to helping women in science, both Ji and Yu think much more needs to be done on a global level.

“I hope that China can organize more activities [like the CNCC] as it can greatly benefit from its female scientists and by encouraging more young women to pursue computer science,” said Yu. “Female students can get to know each other, and it also lets academics know there’s a long list of excellent women scientists coming into the profession.”

UIUC’S Ji says she is a big fan of the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, the billionaire entrepreneur and chief operating officer of Facebook. “I recommend that all my students read it.”

“Girls should never give up on their career aspirations and dreams. They should be courageous and fight, then they will find that challenges can be overcome.”