Margaret Burnett on pioneering, mentoring, changing the world & GenderMag

Margaret Burnett is a professor of Computer Science in the School of EECS at Oregon State University. She is a pioneer woman in computer science whose work has been honoured with numerous awards, including ACM Distinguished Scientist. Her passion is to change the world by designing more gender-inclusive software. In this conversation, she shares experiences being the first woman software developer at Proctor & Gamble Ivorydale in the 1970s, and creating two start-ups as well as a women’s business network in the 1980s. She also talks about her work in academia, in particular about her GenderMag project, as well as practical experiences including mentoring and management using dove-tailing strategies as well as managing family life by drawing fences. She also tries to do one thing every day to make the world a better place. An inspirational person in so many ways!

“Don’t ever say yes unless you know why you are saying yes. ” “No one person can do everything.”

“Try to do something every day that makes me feel like the world is a little better”

 “Please help me change the world! … When people change their products [to be gender inclusive] everyone likes them better.”

She talks about (times approximate) …

1:30 Being the first woman software developer hired by Proctor&Gamble Ivorydale and navigating how to fit in as a women in this era and in this industry, “not having a vocabulary”

8:00 Pulling up roots and moving to Santa Fe New Mexico, following husband; starting up a new business, and doing freelance programming

11:54 Dealing with reactions to being a woman in IT and a client who didn’t want to deal with her because she was a woman

13:27 Moving into academia – influence of professor as an undergrad; being dragged ‘kicking and screaming’ to a new town pregnant with first child, doing a Masters degree at Uni of Kansas and starting another business; dealing with two careers and daycare issues

15:30 Going to social events where everyone wanting to know what husband did for a living but not wanting to know what she did for a living; deciding to start an organisation of professional women to help them network, the ‘Lawrence Women’s Network’; starting to teach a course at the university and discovering she really liked teaching, which became the motivator to go and do a PhD

17:45 Doing a PhD to become a faculty member, the second woman to ever get a PhD; Going back to university to get a PhD from Uni of Kansas in Computer Science

18:25 Starting in faculty job, promoting women’s issues but almost sub-consciously and serving own interests, bringing women into her lab, win-win-win team working style; how she includes her undergrad researchers into work;

21:35 Her academic children and grandchildren all over the world

22:30 Now 25 years at Oregon State; Taking more academic risks after tenure; Considering it a badge of honour if she gets all 1s on a paper ... 5s are good too … but shows she is ‘out there’;

24:45 Whenever she says ‘yes’ she has to have a reason; Reasons for saying yes and for not saying yes

27:25 Reflecting on ways she has changed – loves taking risks academically. GenderMag as an example; the beginnings of GenderMag, with Laura Beckwith, looking at software and whether there were gender biases at the user-facing part of it; reading literature from diverse disciplines, hypotheses ‘dropping into her lap’; clustering tendencies, women tend to take a bursty style, men tend to take a tight iteration style when problem solving; gender differences in the way people use software, spending about 10 years running studies

31:20 Working with a medical company where (mostly women) practitioners hated their software; collaborators especially Simone Stumpf very good at helping keep an eye on the practicality

32:50 Led to method, GenderMag – gender inclusiveness magnifier – now downloadable, and a CHI17 paper about research-backed personas built into a method and a vocabulary about problem solving and information processing style; study with Nicola Marsden, multi-personas that don’t invoke stereotyping

37:00 The story of a Distinguished Speaker talk on GenderMag- changing the language from ‘you’ to the personal ‘Abby’; average is 1 feature out of every 3 they evaluate they find a gender inclusiveness problem with their own software

39:18 Not advocating for a pink or blue version but thinking of it as a bug; “If there is a feature that is not gender inclusive then…there is a barrier to some segment of the population”; tooltips as an example; also risk aversion

42:15 Getting the toolkit and methodology out into the world – still learning; GenderMag teach resources; talking to industry; downloadable kit; needing top-down and grassroots interest; call to listeners who might have ideas for changing policy, changing the world

46:24 When people change their products [to be gender inclusive] everyone likes them better

47:00 “Try to do something every day that makes me feel like the world is a little better” – something ‘that counts’

49:20 Dove-tailing work strategies through setting up collaborations, and saying no - “No one person can do everything. My bit is GenderMag … that’s my corner of the diversity world.”  Drawing the boundaries, the purposeful yes.

51:40 Managing the group: weekly group meeting, project sub group meetings, various GenderMag meetings, one-on-one meetings with graduate students; collaborative writing style; involving students in reviewing papers (mentoring dove-tailing with professional workload)

55:10 Other mentoring strategies – ‘pushing’ people forward, encouraging people to consider ‘the brain is a muscle’ and it’s ok to be ‘bad’ initially;

59:30 Managing life and work with kids – drawing fences around the day, avoids “always feeling like it is the wrong thing”, but no extra hobbies until after the kids graduated; “don’t have the fences anymore because I don’t need them so much anymore and energy patterns have changed”

01:04:04 End

Related Links

Margaret’s home pages - ;

The Lawrence Women’s Network -   

The GenderMag Project -

Laura Beckwith -

Simone Stumpf -

Nicola Marsden -

CHI2017 paper: “Gender-Inclusiveness Personas vs. Stereotyping: Can We Have it Both Ways?” -

ACM Distinguished Speaker -