Terrifying, Escalating Sexism

(by fcs) Mar 22 2013

I'd like to bring your attention to the terrifying escalation of sexism and racism surrounding the Adria Richards story. I've posted in my other blog a timeline of events as well as some initial thoughts, and I invite your comments in the discussion. Here is the link.

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Land War in Asia (aka, CS undergraduate education)

(by fcs) Jun 20 2011

I really didn't want to get involved in the debate going on over at Matt Welsh's blog, but I would like to offer a slightly different perspective.

The debate on Matt's blog is a classic one in CS undergraduate education. That question is: how much should we teach "real world" skills? And usually the answer I've heard is, "This is Computer Science, not a vocational program.", or, "This is Computer Science, not Engineering." etc.

Having spent a long time in industry, I can tell you the single most important thing a industrial Computer Scientist needs to know is: What the hell is this and how do I fix it.

That's it.

Now, how do you get to that? How do you feel comfortable diving into deep hardware and software problems? Tinkering. Practice. Persistence. Being comfortable with failure. Knowing how to ask questions, read manuals, and type complex, arcane search queries into google.

You need to understand and appreciate not just how computers work, but how other computer scientists think. To do this you need to understand geek culture to some extent - why we always take shortcuts across the grass, why we hate Windows, why we sometimes describe programs as beautiful.

This all takes time, patience, and practice. And an incredible amount of stubbornness and persistence. The challenge to us as Computer Science educators is how to best cultivate this sense of duty toward solving problems.

Now some might argue the beauty of mathematics is enough to slog through Discrete Math. The burning desire to know the soul of a machine is enough to endure hours a night hunched over a soldering iron followed by eight hours of doing it again.

I think for some students this is true. But for many students this is not enough to stay the course, as it were.

We need to teach Computing that has purpose and meaning. Students need to understand why all this stuff matters. The "eat your Theory vegetables because it teaches you how to think" argument doesn't really hold here, but nor does a vocational PHP course.

Undergraduate CS Education needs a story - with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Students need to learn not just how to make and stack the building blocks, but to see how they fit into the context of the play room.

Give students that, and they will eat their theory vegetables gladly. Retention rates will soar. Instead of saying, "So what?", underrepresented minorities will say, "So that's what!"

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2010 ACM Awards - A Glance at Gender

(by fcs) Jun 06 2011

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), our main professional organization in Computer Science next to the IEEE, has announced their award winners for 2010. This includes the Turing Award, which is basically our version of the Nobel Prize.

I thought I'd do a quick check to see what the gender balance of awardees was for this year. Just curious.

Turing Award - M
ACM-Infosys Foundation Award - M
Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award - M
Software System Award (Group of 12) - All M
ACM/AAAI Allen Newell Award - M
Grace Murray Hopper Award - M
Karl V. Karlstom Outstanding Educator Award - 1 F, 1 M
Doctoral Dissertation Award - M
Distinguished Service Award - M
Outstanding Contribution to ACM Award - M

So by my quick tally looks one woman received an award - for being an educator - which she shared with a man.


For new 2010 ACM Fellows, things look a little bit better. Looks like 8 out of 41 were women, so about 20%.

I don't have time at the moment, but if anyone is feeling energized it would be interesting to look at the data for previous years, as well as from IEEE. It takes a bit of work - you often have to visit people's websites to figure out gender, since names are not always clear.

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What it feels like to be me

(by fcs) May 23 2011

Picture this:

You are wearing a green shirt.
You have eight people around you wearing purple shirts.
You are sharing a meal.

"blah blah blah blah... Computers.... Weather....blah blah blah"
"Yeah, weather, blah blah blah"

The conversation stops. Cutlery clanks on plates. Heads whip around to look at you, awaiting your reaction.

You think several thoughts at once, including noble ones like:

"Quiet green-shirt-wearers rarely make history"

"Be the change you want to see in the world"

Less noble ones, like:

"Not again. I was just sitting here, having lunch, thinking about clever things to say about the weather."

"Do we have to talk about my shirt color at Every. Single. Meal?"

Then nerve-wracking ones, like:

"Because I wear a green shirt, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, 'She doesn't have what it takes'; They will say, 'Green shirts don't have what it takes'"

Your response today, right now, matters, because they all do. Whether you want to or not, you must represent all green shirt wearers in a sea of purple. You're probably wearing the only green shirt they've ever seen, and at this rate, probably the last.

Picture it.

This is what it feels like to be me.

Of course, being me, deeply lacking in verbal acumen, things usually go something like this:

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Hey, where did all the women go?

(by fcs) May 16 2011

New Scientist had an article several weeks ago, "Where are all the women scientists?" which ACM seems to have just picked up on in their thrice weekly Tech News. It caught my eye because the article begins by quoting fellow FCS and blogger Amy Dalal (her blog is called "This is What a Computer Scientist Looks Like").

After feeling simultaneously disgusted and terrified reading that Amy received harassing phone calls due to being the first FCS faculty member in her department, I found the rest of the first part of the article a bit ho-hum. It was the typical work-life balance stuff.

But then I saw this:

None of the above

But maybe it's not the babies. A study of more than 3,700 female engineers carried out by Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee revealed that only a quarter left engineering because of family reasons (bit.ly/gA79xQ). The remaining three-quarters quit their jobs or left the field entirely because they did not like the workplace culture, or were unhappy with other aspects of the job.
While blatant gender discrimination in the workplace is rare, the subtle, everyday instances of bias that women experience create a snowball effect that, over time, can be overwhelmingly off-putting.
More than half of female scientists have experienced gender bias, according to a 2010 survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for L'Oréal. Examples include being ignored in meetings, students calling you Mrs. instead of Dr. or Professor, receiving unwanted comments on your appearance, and hearing that you were hired not on merit, but because you're a woman.

Yes! Exactly! Thank you! I've been saying this for years, and many, many times since I started blogging. Babies are rarely the reason women leave. It's culture. Culture, culture, culture.

Sadly after these three great paragraphs the article seems to have suffered from an overzealous editor, because it suddenly became, "But don't worry, look at this one positive example we have!" and talked about how at the US Geological Survey half of the top positions are held by women. I think that's great, but I would have rather seen the space used for talking about broader initiatives to attract and retain women across all the sciences and engineering, as well as across government, industry, and academia.

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Discrimination in an inverted hierarchy

(by fcs) May 11 2011

At most institutions, we have systems in place to cope with people being sexist/racist/ableist when in a position of power over us. For example, if the offender is a professor and the offendee is a student, or if the offender is a director and the offendee is a department head.

But what about the other way around? When we talk about a "harassment free" workplace, what does that mean in terms of people "lower" than us in hierarchical stature being sexist/racist/ableist to us?

Kaija's comment on FSP's recent post about student -> professor sexism said, "Would it be ok if Mr. A$$hat had said the same things about black scientists, handicapped scientists, or any other particular group of people?" This was very interesting to me. At many places, it is unequivocally Not Okay for a white student to be overtly racist to a black professor, but it is ok for a male student to be overtly sexist toward a female professor. There are dozens of articles out there about how female professors tend to get the brunt of student incivility, yet where are the institutional policies addressing this?

It's bad for institutions to accept inverted hierarchical discrimination. Attitudes like, "Oh, don't make a fuss, you only have to teach him for the rest of the semester." or, "It's not like she'll be writing your annual review, don't worry about it." are not helpful to anyone involved - they are just sweeping the problem under the rug.

I would like to see more prophylactic measures taken by institutions to ensure all incoming people regardless of rank (interns up to CEOs) receive some sort of indoctrination training. "These are the best ways to talk to people of other races / genders / abilities than you." This is especially important for multi-cultural workplaces, where employees may come from a culture where sexist/racist/ableist comments are commonplace and socially accepted.

I also really encourage institutions to take a stronger stance on how they discuss inclusion with their employees. I'd like to see policies and practices that not only offer support from a legal perspective, but also state unequivocally that intolerant behaviors will not be tolerated, and have some serious consequences beyond wrist slapping.

7 responses so far

Finding Your Way In (Computer) Science: Self-Esteem

(by fcs) Apr 25 2011

A long time ago, someone I really dislike recommended a book to me called, "Finding Your Way in Science." For a long time I avoided reading it, because I decided if my arch-nemesis liked the book it couldn't possibly be good.

But it nagged at me, so I gave in and bought it. And actually, so far it's not bad. Good job, arch-nemesis!

The book does read like a self-help book for scientists, and it's definitely biased toward the life sciences, but to its credit it does have some outstanding nuggets.

There's one nugget in particular that I recently found myself dispensing to a young FCS who was struggling with issues relating to her self-worth as a researcher. Given the prevalence of self-esteem issues greatly affecting women in technology, it seemed like I should repost it here:

Never place your sense of self-worth in the hands of another person.

And the corollary is:

A wise person is unmoved by either scorn or praise.

These are both important bits of advice. If you place your self-worth in the hands of another, then every time you are rejected (which will happen frequently over the course of your career), it will feel like being punched in the gut. It's very tempting to be over-the-top excited when Dr. Famous lavishes praise on you, and Dr. Awesome invites you to serve on a program committee, and Dr. Woot cites your paper. These are all good things to be happy about, but on the other hand you don't want to be devastated when Dr. Famous rejects your paper, Dr. Awesome gives you a scathing review, and Dr. Woot rips you to shreds in front of 2000 of your closest colleagues.

Be like a tree and all of that. Roll with the good and the bad. If you take this view, the outcome of a single event matters much less.

I've found it helps to take a career-level view instead of an event-level view. John Regehr writes about this - don't get too attached to a single paper, proposal, or job. Don't tie up your entire self-worth in the outcome of a single event. Everyone gets rejected!

Image description: Book cover parody of "Everyone Poops"
by Taro Gomi. This text reads: "Everyone Gets Rejected
By Female Computer Scientist". It has pictures (by Gomi) of an angry
looking person, a horse's behind, a goose, and an apple.

11 responses so far

Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day

(by fcs) Apr 12 2011

What is equal pay day?

Today, April 12, 2011, is Equal Pay Day. This date symbolizes how far into 2011 women need to work to catch up to a comparable man's salary. As recent as 2008, the gap between men and women was 77 cents per dollar.

This gap is even more stark for women of color - "Latinas earn 58 cents and African American 68 cents for every dollar men earn." (National Committee on Pay Equity).

Doesn't more education help?

Some people say, "But look at all these women in college and graduate school! Getting more education will help, surely."

Not so, I am sorry to report. In fact, at the highest level of education the pay gap is the largest:

Credit: Professor Hilary Lips, Northwestern Univ. [source]


Median weekly earnings, women

Median weekly earnings, men
















High school graduate, no college




Isn't a woman's choice to get paid less than men?

Then people say, "Well, what about all those women choosing to [rear children, go into professions that don't pay well, etc.]". Professor Lips writes as much as the media loves to say it's a woman's "choice", there are far more factors at play:

Women’s choices are not the problem.

Individual women can sometimes evade the effects of the gender pay gap by making certain kinds of choices, such as selecting male-dominated occupations, working more hours, avoiding parenthood. However, these choices occur in an environment suffused with subtle sexism and discrimination: there are more barriers for women than for men to making certain choices, and the consequences of some choices are starkly different for women and men.

Moreover, these individual solutions are not effective on a societal level; they work only if the women enacting them remain in a minority. For example, if most women moved into jobs that are now male-dominated, signs are that the salaries associated with those jobs would likely drop. But, by making it difficult to go against the tide, the forces of discrimination ensure that most women don’t move into such jobs. And as long as a few women get past the barriers, the illusion persists that any woman could do it if she wanted to—it’s a matter of free choice. However, women’s choices will not be free until their abilities and their work are valued equally with men’s, and until women and men reap equivalent consequences for their choices in the realm of work and family. [source]

This comic sums up the 'choices' argument best:

Credit: Amerstand at Alas, a blog. [link]

This post is depressing. Can you please give me some good news, FCS?

I am happy to report the news isn't all bad. Asian-American women, you're doing the best of all of us, making 91 cents on the dollar to men. And my fellow Engineering women, we're looking at 96.7 cents at least for the first three years of our careers. [source]

What can I (a woman) do to close the gap for myself?

Ask! Ask for a raise. Ask for a promotion. Apply to tons of jobs and get employers into a bidding war over you. Negotiate that starting salary.

Just don't be a wallflower, waiting around for people to recognize your brilliance. Fellow FCS Valerie Aurora has some great negotiation tips on her website. Remember - don't be afraid of people getting mad at you!

What can I (man or woman) do to close the gap for others?

If you're in a position of power over people's salaries (manager, department head, dean, etc.), go through your employees' salary data and crunch the numbers. Check for statistically significant differences between your male and female employees of comparable experience level to ensure salaries are fair.

Also, be sure when you assess employees for raises/tenure/etc you are using equal objective criteria. When you give an employee a merit raise, make sure you use the same criteria for John as for Jane.

Finally, remember to laud the ladies! Talk up the professional accomplishments of your female colleagues to anyone who will listen. Be a sponsor.

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Jean Jennings Bartik (12/27/24 – 3/23/2011)

(by fcs) Mar 28 2011

Jean Bartik, the last of the six "female computers" I blogged about last month, passed away last week.

CNN wrote a nice obituary. I liked this part a lot:

"Jean is probably one of the most significant pioneers in computing," Rickman said. "Jean worked hard and, as a woman in a man's world at that time, especially in the business world, it's amazing what she was able to accomplish."

Bartik graduated from Northwest Missouri State Teachers College in 1945 as the school's one math major. She recalled living on her parents' farm, refusing the teaching jobs her father suggested and avoiding all talk of marrying a farmer and having babies. Instead, she took a train to Philadelphia to work for the military.

Forget babies! I'm going to go program computers.

I love that. It was such a revolutionary thing to do in the 1940s. Hard to imagine in today's world how revolutionary that was.

The article ends with a quote from Jean:

In February, Bartik said women hadn't gotten far enough in technology, but she saw a promising future.

"Women are busily working on it," she said. "I have high hopes for them."

My thoughts go out to her family and friends. I hope they can take comfort in the fact that hundreds of women all over the world have been inspired by Jean, including this one.

PS - In case you were wondering, the banner at the top of my FCS blog features two other "female computers" who were Jean's contemporaries, Ester Gerston and Gloria Ruth Gorden. Here's a picture of Jean programming the ENIAC.

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Gasp. Did a *girl* hack HB Gary?

(by fcs) Mar 21 2011

A 16 year-old girl?

But that's impossible! Girls don't even know what computers are, let alone how to do something as complex as launching a SQL injection attack*.

Clearly this must be a ploy by Anonymous. It's all men in Anonymous. There are no girls on the internet!

This trope is a common one that the media does little to dispell. In addition to perpetuating the belief that the only thing  women could possibly ever do on a computer is use Facebook, they also seem to imply women could never possibly do something as Dark and Dangerous as hacking.


I of course do not condone black hat hacking - but - I think everyone assuming Kayla must be a guy is sexist.


(*) Actually, what I find the most entertaining in the media is that most of these attacks to not require much cleverness. They are just exploiting human engineering error (poorly written code) or human social error (social engineering). Given most software looks like Swiss cheese as far as security is concerned, and given most people have no training on how to spot a social engineering ploy, the success of these attacks is hardly surprising.

16 responses so far

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