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Profile: Pernille Bjørn, professor & Head of Department for Research at the Department of Computer Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Women in Tech: “We must pay attention to intersectional challenges”

Dominik Mohilo
women in tech

Four years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Pernille Bjørn, professor & Head of Department for Research at the Department of Computer Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Previously, Pernille presented a keynote address at the ACM ESEC/FSE conference in November.

research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Pernille Bjørn, full professor & Head of Department for Research at the Department of Computer Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Previously, Pernille presented a keynote address at the ACM ESEC/FSE conference in November. 

Today’s Woman in Tech: Pernille Bjørn, professor & Head of Department for Research at the Department of Computer Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Pernille Bjørn is Full professor & Head of Department for Research at the Department of Computer Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark (DIKU).

In 2016, Bjørn initiated a research initiative (Femtech.dk) aimed at changing the gender diversity in computing education and profession by utilising Makerspace Methodologies.

She is the co-founder of Atari Women (atariwomen.org), which has been displayed at Emerald City ComicCon2019 and at the Living Computers Museum in Seattle 2019.

When did you become interested in technology?

Before starting my university degree, I worked at a small distribution company, where my boss made his own IT systems supporting storage, orders, and packaging. While working there he trained me to take over the technical development of these systems and I learned to build, structure, and implement databases. This was approximately in 1993.

I worked there for 3 years, and during that time I did not consider my work to be about computer science, but instead about business optimization – since what I was doing was to figure out how we could do things easier and then implement the technical solutions and apply these into the organization.

How did you end up in your career path?

While working in the small distribution company for 3 years, I took academic courses in the evenings – mostly for fun – like courses in philosophy, phycology, and design – but also more managerial courses like business economics and management. I decided that I wanted to apply for university and I was accepted into a humanistic basic program at Roskilde University in Denmark.

The first week at university I saw a pamphlet on a table, which explained that I could enroll in computer science courses at the natural science basic program while in humanities. I recognized some of the topics and areas which I had done in practice and thought it could be fun – moreover, I found 2 other fellow students from my program who wanted to do this, and we ended by taking all the computer science courses in the natural science program, while being in humanities.

I then decided to do an interdisciplinary bachelor’s and later master’s degree in computer science and educational studies. While doing my thesis, my supervisor told me about the PhD program in computer science. At that time I did not know what a PhD degree was – but I got excited and ended up doing my PhD in computer science and wanted to start an academic career.

Interdisciplinary interests and profiles are needed and there are multiple different opportunities.

Did you receive support from your family and friends?

Since international experience is important in academia, I wanted to take an academic position abroad after finishing my PhD. At that time I had two kids and needed my family to go with me. My husband said that he would like to go to Canada, so I basically applied to all relevant positions and got a postdoc in Vancouver. We moved there for 2 years – and when we returned to Denmark afterwards – we had repeatedly been aboard – in total a little more than 4 years where I have been visiting professor at University of California, Irvine, Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, India – and last at University of Washington in Seattle – where I did the Atari Women research project.

I could never have done all this without my amazing husband and the support he has giving me in moving our family around.

You recently keynoted an ACM conference with a presentation on the Women of Atari. What did you learn from your research there?

Atari Women is a research project dedicated to telling the stories of the invisible women and gender minorities which made important contributions to the computer gaming industry in the early 70s and 80s. I identified and found these amazing women, wrote up their stories, and created artefacts based upon intertextual design to re-introduce their stories of the past in computer gaming.

A day in Pernille’s life

I am a Full Professor and deputy head of department at the Computer Science department at University of Copenhagen, Denmark. There is no typical workday for me – every day is different. As a professor you spend your work on research (doing empirical work, analyzing data, reading academic articles and books, writing papers, reviewing texts etc.), teaching (planning, lectures, seminars, exercises, exams, interacting with students etc.) and administration (management meetings, strategic decision making, news about research, facilitating grant writing initiatives etc.) – but also on various committees doing academic service work for the department or the international research community.

For example, I am currently paper co-chair for a larger conference in Computer Human Interaction (CHI2021), where we over the last year have been in weekly meetings organizing the review and paper selection process of close to 3000 papers with approximately 460+ people around the world.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Many things – I love seeing my former students being successful, getting papers I care about published, and the acknowledgement and recognition of different academic contributions (like my work on technologies for the emergency department, global software development, tech entrepreneurship, and femtech).

I am proud that I become the first woman full professor in the computer science department at University of Copenhagen.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

This is not a simple question, but you can read more about this at Femtech.dk and atariwomen.org

Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?

Again – not an easy answer – social engagement is complex and thus requires complex answers. Please read my forthcoming paper Bjørn, Pernille and Danila Rosner “Intertextual Design: The Hidden Stories of Atari Women” Human–Computer Interaction.

Making computer science diverse is not only about women – but should include all kinds of gender representations as well as all the other diversity dimensions.

Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?

Technologies are everywhere and shape our everyday life in important ways. Technologies reflect the people who develop these, and thus it is critical that the people who create technology represent the diverse nature of people using technologies.

Diversity is many things and includes different dimensions such as gender, ethnicity, experience, age, abilities etc. Making computer science diverse is not only about women – but should include all kinds of gender representations as well as all the other diversity dimensions.

In particular, we must pay attention to the intersectional challenges experienced by e.g. black women in tech.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?

I don’t know, but it is important that it is not just about debating – it is about making interventions which includes a power shift in hierarchy.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?

Technology is impacting life, work, and leisure all over the world in important ways. This is why interdisciplinary interests and profiles are needed and there are multiple different opportunities.

Follow your interest and make an impact in the world.

More Women in Tech:

For even more Women in Tech, click here

Author
Dominik Mohilo
Dominik Mohilo studied German and sociology at the Frankfurt University, and works at S&S Media since 2015.

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