Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Why it's Exhausting to be a Woman in Tech/CS

Or I could have called this, "A day in the life of a senior woman in CS."

I am usually an upbeat, positive person. But, even I sometimes find myself exhausted by simple virtue of the fact that I am a member of an underrepresented group in my field.  I am a computer scientist where (according to the most recent Taulbee data) the numbers nationwide are: under 20% of our undergraduates are women; under 20% of our new PhDs are women; under 21% of our newly-hired tenure track faculty are women; just over 15% of our full professors are women; and under 25% (23.2% and 22.8%) of our assistant and associate professors are women. I belong to the systems community where the numbers are even worse.

So, what has happened in the past 24 hours:
  1. I spent an hour double and triple checking data that demonstrated clearly that several years ago, both I and another female colleague were being paid $20,000 less per year than our male peers (i.e., colleagues with pretty much identical credentials, years since degree, experience, etc). I do not know what the status is today, because salaries are a huge secret at my current institution; a practice that allows this kind of thing to happen.
  2. Talked with a junior woman about a complicated situation.
  3. Read a thoughtful blog post by someone I believe is well-meaning, attributing the lack of gender diversity to "women just don't want to do CS." (This is admittedly a gross over-simplification of his argument, but I'll come back to this later.)
  4. Read a wonderful response to said blog post.
  5. In response to my forwarding of items 3 and 4, read this post about gender and board gaming (who knew?).
  6. Continued my slog through the 350-page National Academies report on sexual harassment in Science, Engineering, and Medicine in Academia.
  7. Agreed to write a letter of recommendation for a woman Ph.D., who has been working in industry at a research lab for six years, has been promoted twice, and still hasn't been given a green card.
  8. Wrote a letter of recommendation for a female colleague, being nominated for an award by another female colleague. Why is it that men virtually never ask me to write award letters for women? Think about that: under 20% of my colleagues are women, but it is almost always the women who think to nominate women for awards.
And that's just a single day. I wish I could say that the past day was extraordinary. It is perhaps a bit on the heavy side, but it's not atypical. I have a (virtual) stack of unread papers that I've saved away as being really interesting and directly related to my research. I never get to these, because I feel like I'm constantly fighting fires: trying to help people understand what's really going on in the trenches, talking with women who've been mistreated in oh so many new and creative ways, talking to students of all races and genders who are being mistreated in equally creative ways, reading what's being written out there about gender, diversity, and inclusion, and when possible, trying to provide insight, data, and constructive action.

With respect to #3: it was a difficult read, but I forced my way through it.

Here is the paragraph that started to really get under my skin:
As Damore mentions in his essay, this issue has acquired a moral dimension, which is why the response is often anger. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, has described this as elevating certain ideas to a sacred status. In this case, suggesting that men and women are different either in interests or abilities is considered blasphemy. So let me commit some blasphemy.
Let me speak for myself: there is a moral dimension to this issue, but it has nothing to do with Haidt's argument. As a woman in computer science, I believe that all of us have a right to be treated with respect in our environments. There is way too much evidence demonstrating that women and members of other underrepresented groups are much less likely to be treated with respect than their majority male colleagues. Until that situation changes, we cannot even begin to evaluate the veracity of Reges' thesis that underrepresentation is a choice not the result of any problems with the culture.

Also, he introduces a bunch of data about the gender gap in certain fields, but we have new data and insight suggesting that there is way more going on here than gender.

Finally, this statement shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue: "We have harvested the low-hanging fruit by eliminating overt discrimination and revamping policies and procedures that favored men."

Eliminating overt discrimination?  Really?  Then please explain some of these excerpts from the recent NAS study:
  • Finding 6 in chapter 3: Sexual harassment remains a persistent problem in the workplace at large.
  • page 52: Higher education is also replete with cases where offenders are an "open secret" but are not sanctioned.
  • page 82: [Context: about reporting sexual harassment.] More often, however, managers expressed mild sympathy but neither took any action nor encouraged the target to do so. Even more commonly, however, these proximal authority figures minimized or normalized the experience, discouraged further reporting, or recommended that the target "work it out" with her harrasser (or some combination thereof).
OK, now, because I am basically an optimist, I'm going to assume that if you've read this far, then you believe there is a problem and are wondering what you can do about it. I will soon be posting a short talk I gave recently on this subject, but in the meantime, here is my TODO list for you:
  1. Speak Up: Adopt a zero tolerance policy for bad and inappropriate behavior. This does not require being a jerk. It means that if you are a member of an underrepresented group, you need to speak up when someone treats you badly. You must act like it's the most natural thing in the world to speak up, because, it is -- expecting to be treated with respect is the most natural thing in the world. If you are a bystander, you must call out bad behavior. Is this uncomfortable? You bet. But don't let that stop you; instead think about how uncomfortable it is for the person who is the target. And if someone comes to you and says, "Make it stop," do so -- if you're the manager, then manage. If you're not the manager, then either deal with it yourself, go to a manager, go to HR, or do something. In any case, see it through -- don't wash your hands of it the minute you've handed it off, because too many people will just let it drop.
  2. Understand your own biases. I don't care if you are a member of an underrepresented group or not, you are biased. Being biased does not make us bad people; it makes us human. However, failing to acknowledge our biases and taking steps to try to mitigate them, that's where we step into "bad person territory." True confession: I test biased against women in science. Yup, me. The woman in science who regularly sends readings to my colleagues on topics like this. So, what do I do? I grade blindly. I remind myself every time I meet with a student about my biases and how I need to be vigilant in not letting them cloud my judgement. I take an implicit bias test at least once a year. I ask my teaching staff to do the same. I look hard at my students who don't fit my image of "computer scientist," and say to myself, "This is an incredibly smart and competent computer scientist." I constantly question how I assess situations where identifies are unblinded. Am I perfect?  No. Do I constantly push myself to become better?  Yes.
  3. When someone is courageous enough to tell you that you did something that was hurtful, denigrating, or discriminatory, do three things.
    1. Understand that this is an act of courage and trust; we are telling you, because we believe that you care enough to want to do better in the future.
    2. Listen. Listen hard. Parrot back what you heard, "OK, let me make sure I understand how my action harmed you. I did xxx, and you felt yyy, because zzz."
    3. Respond:
      • Good response: I'm sorry.
      • Better response: I'm sorry and I will try to do better in the future.
      • Best response: I'm sorry; I will try to do better in the future; in the meantime, is there anything I can do for you now?
  4. Learn what to do in public when colleagues or students say in appropriate things. For example, let's say that you're a professor and a student says, "Startups are like fraternities."
    • Use facts: Actually fraternities are all-male organizations. Data suggests that more gender-balanced companies perform better.
    • Ask the person to rephrase the sentiment in a way that is more inclusive: "Hmmm, fraternities are all male. Can you think of  way to convey the sentiment you're trying to express that is more inclusive?"
    • Help the person understand why the statement was somewhat misguided, "Are you sure they aren't more like sororities?  How would you know?"
    • Bottom line: you don't have to be a jerk, but you can open a dialogue about how we sometimes send messages we might not mean to send.
  5. Learn what it feels like. I regularly attend conferences where roughly 90% of the attendees are male. If you are not in an underrepresented group, when is the last time you spent time in an environment where you were not part of the majority?
    • If you are male, attend Grace Hopper.
    • If you are white, attend the Tapia Conference.
    • If you are straight, attend pride (if my LBGTQ friends have other suggestions, please comment).
    • If you are non-disabled, volunteer with some differently abled people. There is nothing like a morning spent at Children's Hospital to make you aware of how fortunate you are and the effort and courage it takes for some to just get through the day.
  6. Please banish the following responses.
    • I'm sure s/he didn't mean that.
    • Oh, but we know s/he means well.
    • That's a different group/department, we can't do anything.
    • Ah yes, we know so and so is a problem, but will retire soon.
    • You shouldn't be so sensitive.
    • Just avoid him/her.
    • Oh everyone knows that so-and-so is just like that.
These things will not solve our challenges overnight, but they will certainly get us headed in the right direction.

8 comments:

  1. Attending Pride is good, but going to a gay or trans event like a PFLAG meeting might be even better, because Pride is by its nature partly about outreach and being welcoming.

    Volunteering at a centre for the homeless can be eye-opening too.

    You're spot on with your article.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. +1 to volunteering in a shelter. And bring your kid(s).

      Delete
  2. Hey, great post! I just wanted to note that most disabled people aren't a fan of "differently abled" as a term - it's okay to just say disabled people - and instead of s/he or she/he, you can just say they. It's more inclusive of nonbinary people!

    Thanks very much for writing this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I actually did a bunch of research to figure out the best term to use and everything I found pointed against disabled -- would love to figure out the "best" term, but it seems to vary widely across individuals. In terms of s/he vs they -- I can't get over my old-school matching of number (they is still plural in my book). I would go with "ze" but not everyone uses that either. I think I'll end up eventually being able to get over the "but they is plural" reaction (I can deal with it in speaking, but not writing where the grammarian in me takes over), but I'm not there yet.

      Delete
    2. Differently abled is euphemistic -- and a pretense. See Dave Hingsburger's blog (and also the comments section) on this. Yes, opinions do vary -- but I think a lot of people with actual disabilities aren't keen on the euphemisms, or the squirrely "person first" language. https://davehingsburger.blogspot.com/2014/02/lets-get-something-straight.html
      -- Patricia Hawkins (phawkins@connact.com)

      Delete
  3. Some women-only events actively discourage the participation of men. One example is the IAS Program on Women and Mathematics. This might make it harder to follow your fifth suggestion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Respectfully, there are good reasons why some meetings discourage attendance by men. And there are plenty of events where one can be easily outnumbered as a man where men are not discouraged as part of the group's charter. Many parent association meetings in my kids' schools have fewer men than women. A number of ballroom dance classes I've taken have had fewer men than women.

      --Cliff Young

      Delete
  4. Excellent article and very well written. I especially appreciate the 'examine one's own bias' as this had not occurred to me as a problem for myself. I still remember Mrs. Hillias in the 3rd grade telling us the boys could become doctors and the girls could become nurses. While obviously much evidence in my life since then has pointed to the contrary, it's without a doubt that some preconceptions get hard wired into us before we are able to refuse them intellectually. And when we do have the education to refuse the bias, we still have the emotional harm it's already done, to overcome. Our psychology is formed early, and because of that, not despite that, we need to commit to active learning the rest of our lives. Thanks for including the implicit bias test, I didn't even know that was out there. Well done!

    ReplyDelete