Margaret Burnett has been breaking gender barriers throughout her career — and helping others overcome them as well.
In her first software development job, Burnett was the first female ever hired into a management-level position at a sprawling Procter and Gamble manufacturing facility. In 1992, Burnett and Cherri Pancake were the first tenure-track female faculty hired in computer science in the College of Engineering. Burnett was named a distinguished professor in 2016, the highest academic honor Oregon State University can bestow on a faculty member.
As an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio in the late 1960s, Burnett would rush home to do her computer programming homework. “It was like a new puzzle. I loved it,” she says.
Still, Burnett didn’t consider taking her education further until she was ready to graduate, and a professor asked her, “What, you’re not going to grad school?”
“That stuck,” she says. “It’s amazing how one sentence can change someone’s direction. That’s what happened to me, and I make a point of doing that now.”
At Oregon State, Burnett has been a pioneer in making computers more useful for everyone. She has developed game-based computer education software and has also tackled the problem of computer software that is often designed by men and fails to acknowledge the different ways in which men and women communicate and process information.
Although women use computers at about the same rate as men, they hold only 26 percent of the professional jobs in information technologies. Burnett has worked for decades to change that. As a leader in multiple activities to encourage diversity in the STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics —Burnett was awarded the 2015 undergraduate research mentoring award from the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
Burnett believes it’s her job “to lift everyone around me up,” but gives her students the credit for their accomplishments.
“I’m not making them better,” she says. “I’m letting them make themselves better.”