When Margaret Burnett was growing up in the 1960s, being a female with a gift for math led to one likely career: teaching. She didn’t see herself in front of a classroom, but when a neighbor got a job with IBM after majoring in math in college, Burnett saw an opportunity. As an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio, she would rush home to do her computer programming homework. “It was like a new puzzle. I loved it,” she says.
Burnett broke a gender barrier in her first software-development job, as the first female ever hired into a management-level position in a sprawling Procter & Gamble manufacturing facility. In 1992, she broke another gender barrier: Burnett and Cherri Pancake were the first tenure-track female faculty hired in computer science at Oregon State.
Terra: What accomplishments are you most proud of, and how have gender and diversity influenced your career?
“For me, these are the same question. In research, I’m most proud of the gender aspects of a software project that Laura Beckwith (former Ph.D. student) and I started. It is the most important thing to ever come out of my lab. She and I put together this research question: Do some of the gender differences that have been reported in psychology, sociology and education have implications for the way people use software? We’ve been working on it for about 10 years, but it continues to climb. I think we’re about to change the world with it.
“In education, I’m most proud of my student mentees, about half of whom have been female. It’s been so exciting to take a student who is good, to lift them above whatever barriers they’re not even thinking about and say, ‘You’re better than this,’ and watch them soar. It’s awesome.”
In 2015, Burnett received the Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.