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the imaginary conference i wish i could attend

Anil Dash has written some of the most compelling blog entries out there on why diversity at conferences (and in organizations) really matters. This week he's got two wonderful posts on the topic.

The first, entitled "The Old Boys Club is For Losers," takes aim at some of the people defending their events as completely meritocratic. What's wonderful is that they'll listen to Anil, and respond to him civilly--in a way that they might not if it was someone less inside the magic circle.

The second describes an imaginary conference with an amazing lineup of speakers--an event where, as he quite accurately notes, "nobody would even notice if the wifi went out." Alas, several comments in this one seem to come from people who completely missed the point of the earlier post.

Both are well worth reading, along with the comments that accompany them.

milken conference: sally ride on engaging girls in science

There are disappointingly few people in this room, but the panel is a great lineup:

  • Ronald Packard, Chairman and Founder, K12 Inc.
  • Stephanie Rafanelli, Science Teacher, Menlo School
  • Sally Ride, Former NASA Astronaut; President and CEO, Sally Ride Science
  • Jane Swift, Former Governor of Massachusetts; Managing Partner, WNP Consulting LLC

It's wonderful to hear these accomplished, articulate women speak.

Ride and Swift both do an overview of the depressing statistics on the underrepresentation of women in STEM education and careers.

Swift points out that our educational offerings are failing to engage girls (and boys) in science. She says that dramatic reform typically doesn't come (from government) unless there's a cataclysmic failure, a train wreck. The problem they're talking about here is a quiet disaster, and hasn't galvanized a response. She criticizes the assumption that if we focus on the needs of girls, and create separate learning spaces for them, that we shortchange boys. The point is to create complementary environments that are designed for learning needs, not to create an either/or dichotomy.

Packard talks about key approaches. You need to make science interesting through hands-on activities. Very few primary education teachers have science or math degrees, so their comfort level is low for teaching this material. His company has been developing materials to support teachers and increase their confidence in teaching science and math. He points out the problem with the lack of visible role models for women and minorities. They've been working in Philadelphia to highlight real people in scientific jobs to help change the perceptions of kids.

Last speaker is a high school science teacher who's quite engaging. She's taught at an all-girls' school, but now teaches at a co-ed school. She asks her students every year to draw a picture of a scientist. Even in the girls' school, these 7-9 graders almost always draw men with stereotypical 'mad scientist' characteristics. She's never had more than 22% of her students in a given year draw pictures of women. Cultural perceptions aren't changing. Even her school, which is highly supportive of her work and speaking, has only now (after 11 years) thought to have her speak to her colleagues about these issues.

She makes an important point about the extent to which the girls she teaches perceive their math and science skills as being weak. They'll say they're not good at math, when their grades contradict that. But once they've convinced themselves that "math is hard," they start opting out of science and math classes.

An audience member--Paula Stern--asks what opportunities are out there inciting girls to involve themselves in math. She also plugs NCWIT's upcoming town hall meeting.

Rafanelli makes a great point about kits and toys for teaching science--to attract girls, they need to be social. Girls want to do things with their friends, and if the kit is designed for one person it won't be as attractive. Ride points out that science itself is collaborative and communicative, and the teaching tools need to reflect that.

Packard talks about the importance of contextualizing science education so that girls see the relevance to things that they care about.

Packard also says his experience is that if you don't test something, it doesn't get taught. If you're going to test, you have to test everything--not just literacy and math. Rafanelli says that very few primary teachers do "real science" in their classrooms, because they're having to teach to the tests, and the tests don't include science. (They're not arguing for the value of testing--they're saying that if you're going to have testing, you can't have it focused so narrowly and still have broad education.)

itwf 06: tuesday afternoon panel

This afternoon is a series of presentations by selected past grantees--including yours truly, so I can't blog much. It's worth calling attention, however, to the Girl Scout Girls are IT web site, which is really well done. I can't find (right now) information online about their "big purple bus," a technology-outfitted super-cool bus that they bring to various venues as part of their outreach. Great stuff!

itwf 06: dissemination to and priorities of industry

This panel starts with Juan Gilbert from Auburn, whom I wrote about yesterday. He's editing a new IEEE computer society "Broadening Participation in Computing" series. The inaugural issue will be in March 2006. This helps to bridge the "real research" gap. (The article announcing the series, linked above, is excellent.)

He also recommends a number of other publications, starting Communications of the ACM (ITWF PI Roli Varma has an article in the February 2006 issue on making computer science minority friendly). Other journals he mentions are Jorunal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, ASEE Journal of Engineering Education, International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering, Int'l Journal of Eng Ed, IEEE Transactions on Education. Most journals ask for suggested reviewers--and he strongly suggests that we use other people from this research cohort.

How do you make your research "count" for promotion and tenure? Funding helps enormously. (Amen.) As a faculty member, you have to do research, service, and teaching. Leverage your graduate students. ("Am I overworking my graduate students? No! I'm introducing them to reality!" :D )

Shows a Flash-based game he built to teach algebra with rap, hip-hop. The game is absolutely fabulous. I want this for my kids!!

Next up is Margaret Ashida from IBM, talking about increasing diversity in industry. Discusses an article by David Thomas on "Diversity as Strategy" in the September 2004 Harvard Business Review. It costs $6 to buy the reprint from HBR, or you can read the free interview with Thomas on the IBM web site.

Last speaker is Revi Sterling, whom I first met at MSR. She left Redmond for Boulder last summer, though, to become a PhD student at UC, and it's great to see (and hear) her again. She talks about some of Microsoft's initiatives, both internal and external. Getting businesses to look beyond the ROI-driven, quarterly mindset to longer-term intiatives with slow payoffs is a challenge. Focusing on concepts like "infrastructure" and "end-to-end solutions" gets more positive response from technology organizations. It's about contextualizing properly. She encourages more creative thinking and bolder partnerships. (She's amazingly articulate and poised, even in the face of often inaccurate criticism of "industry" generally. Makes me sad that she left Microsoft before we had a chance to work together more closely...)

itwf 06: afternoon presentations by 2004 grant recipients

I'm not blogging most of this, but I'm super-impressed by what's happening with Auburn University's Scholars of the Future program. Going beyond understanding why to fixing the problem is refreshing to see. And I really enjoyed the presentation by the PI, Juan Gilbert (despite his obviously inaccurate assertion that Auburn is the "flagship" institution of the state. ;).

One important takeaway was the value of supporting students' attendance at Tapia, a conference on minority involvement in computing that alternates years with the Grace Hopper Conference on women in computing. (I'm going to Grace Hopper this year, and will be looking for ways to take as many RIT students as I can...)

itwf 06: "disseminating your good results"

The first panel here is focused on disseminating research, and includes Andrew Bernat, the executive director of the Computing Research Association, Kathryn Bartol of UMCP, Bobby Schnabel of the National Center for Women & IT at UC Boulder, Eileen Trauth of Penn State, and Catherine Weinberger of UC Santa Barbara.

Bernat talks about "what goes wrong?" with getting women involved with computing research. He points out that finding a woman or minority takes more time (because they're scarce resources), and faculty are often under the gun on producing research results. What do we do? "Make it easy." Need to find the people who want to make a difference, and provide them with support--facilities, workshops, reinforcers. And if none of that works, bribe them. (Depressing note: He talks about a program where they did this, and it was really successful, but...only about half of the people participating got tenure. Ouch. What does that say about institutional commitment to these kinds of efforts to broaden participation?!)

Bartol discusses management-related publications and conferences where researchers can disseminate their work, the idea being that the ideas need to get out to business and management faculty who consult with industry. (Why not go straight to the trade press so people industry will see it themselves, though? Probably because there's no reward in academia for publishing that way...)

(I think I'm going to come down with a serious case of powerpoint poisoning before this workshop is over...)

Trauth differentiates between direct interventions (contributing to practice), and indirect interventions (contribution to future research). When we publish in academic channels, we're doing indirect interventions, helping to foster research by others that can build on what we've done. When we work directly with schools and businesses to implement the kinds of changes that our research results suggest would be useful, that's a direct intervention. She tosses out a great line--"What good is power if you can't use it?" So, for example, when asked to chair the SIGMIS conference in 2003, she did so under the condition that the topic be diversity. She also discusses ways she contributes to practice--teaching a human diversity course, giving lectures and presentations. For the lectures, she's not always asked to speak about gender issues, but she brings those issues in by using her gender research as a case study in her discussions of qualitative research methods, etc.

Weinberger shares a striking factoid: women with college degrees in computer science earn 30-50% more than women with degrees in other fields, regardless of age. (Wow. She says her article will be in Eileen Trauth's upcoming Encyclopedia of Gender and IT--would really like to see how that figure was generated. And yes, the encyclopedia is outrageously priced. :P On the one hand, I'd like to say you should ask your local library to consider buying it. On the other, I'm appalled by the price, even for a library, and wonder why this work couldn't have been done as an open online publication...) Another interesting factoid from her article--women are more likely to see themselves as unable to complete CS work than any other field (including medicine).

She offers the suggestion that dissemination should start with teaching undergraduates, and also with teaching faculty. And she suggests that we put together a short guide to the research we've been doing in this field, geared towards busy faculty who don't have the time or inclination to read through this body of work. A short, focused publication that could be easily and inexpensively disseminated. (What a great idea!) She asks "what if new NSF grant recipients were required to spend time online learning about our most compelling research results?"

Last up is Schnabel, talking about "Effective Practices and Dissemination." One of the key areas of focus for NCWIT is "creating a national community of practitioners with a sustaining infrastructure," which has involved creating alliances with academic institutions, K-12 schools, and industry/workforce. They're still trying to learn how to make this an effective organization for social change. Becoming a partner in the alliance carries with it a responsibility to do more than just attend meetings and be "part of the club." It looks like they're doing some interesting things, and they've definitely got some great people working with them.

They're doing a weird thing with questions--people have to write them down on index cards and pass them up, where they'll be read by the moderator. There are fewer than 75 people in the room, so I'm not sure why they aren't letting people voice their own questions.

(I stepped out to get some coffee, and apparently a heated discussion about how research proposals are evaluated, and how faculty are evaluated on research...trying to pick up the pieces of the conversational thread to see if I can figure out what's going on.)

Ah...apparently one of the panel members (who shall remain nameless, as I didn't hear the whole context and don't want to implicate improperly) implied that research into underrepresentation isn't "really research," and that this kind of research doesn't get faculty "fame and fortune" the way other kinds of research do. There's clearly a cultural divide here between the technologists and social scientists. For the social scientists, obviously this is the "real research." For computer scientists, it's harder to make the case for this focus.

This issue has troubled me since my first interactions with the ITWF research community. So much of the research comes from the "outside"--people studying computer science/computer scientists without being a part of that world. I'm often struck by how non-conversant in basic CS concepts and terminology many of the social scientists studying underrepresentation are. But I think it's true that it's very hard for those of us in technology to justify taking time away from our applied research to focus on this topic. In many research universities, it's far more important for junior faculty in technology fields to be doing research in their areas of specialty. The model at CMU, where Margolis and Fisher worked together, is one I'd like to see more often. (In that case, the CS representative was someone with sufficient seniority that they didn't need to worry about things like tenure and promotion--but if that model becomes more widespread, it may become easier for less senior faculty to do similar work.)

There's an interesting side discussion about the CS/IT divide, and the extent to which a faction of CS doesn't see a value in IT. But when CRA goes to the hill, they talk about IT, not CS, because that's where the money goes.

...and that's a wrap. break time. back later. (today's keynote on the "net gen" looks interesting, and I'll definitely blog it)

nsf principal investigators' meeting - it workforce

For the next two days, I'll be listening to (and participating in) a series of discussions on research into women's participation in computing. The ITWF program, which funded my grant research into gendered attrition in IT, has funded a number of really interesting research and implementation programs, and many of the researchers will be talking today and tomorrow about their work.

Two years ago, I attended a similar meeting and didn't blog it, because people seemed quite edgy about preliminary results being reported out. This year, however, I intend to blog the interesting things I hear--this is, after all, government-funded research, and the proceedings I received have no disclaimers limiting my ability to share the information. I promise to clearly indicate where results are tentative or preliminary, and to point you to the people you need to contact if you want more information.

Posts related to this workshop will have itwf 06 in the title, so you (and I) can keep track of them.

(It's odd--I'm surrounded by a bunch of really talented, intelligent, accomplished researchers, but I keep getting this feeling that "this is not my tribe." Very different from attending events more focused on social and collaborative computing. Nobody I've talked to here seems to have any idea what I'm talking about when I say "social bookmarking systems," for instance--I keep wishing I'd brought a giant stack of this week's Newsweek cover story so I could just hand it to them and say "I study this stuff.")

microsoft research talk: robin hunicke

This afternoon I'm at another MSR talk, this one by Robin Hunicke, who's a really interesting woman. Her talk is on increasing diversity and creativity in CS. Here's the formal description:

ABSTRACT: Decreased enrollment in Computer Science has led many universities, businesses and government institutions to take a closer look at the field and how it is perceived. As computers become increasingly essential for education and commerce, how can we shape their image within the popular culture? Is it possible to re-invent CS, and to attract new students with diverse backgrounds, goals and talents?

In this talk I will present a post-mortem of my (non-standard, but incredibly fulfilling) education in CS, AI and video games. I will describe my experiences with art and computer science education, standardized and self-guided curriculums (undergraduate and graduate alike). I will discuss my dissertation research and explain how working closely with the game development community has inspired my research and informed my practice as a student and educator.

Finally, I will explore my work with the IGDA's Education Committee, and show how games are transforming CS programs across the globe. By describing this work in the context of my own experiences, I hope to shed some light on the issues raised above. In particular, how games and CS can work together today, to attract the designers, programmers and leaders of tomorrow.

Robin Hunicke is finishing her PhD in Computer Science at Northwestern University; her dissertation work is on AI for Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment in video games. In addition to her studies, Robin works with the International Game Developer Association (focusing on Education and Diversity efforts), participates annually in the Indie Game Jam, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and the Game Design Workshop at the annual Game Developers Conference. Through these efforts, she strives to build bridges between academics and developers, to promote independent, student and women developers, and to evangelize concrete, directed analysis of games and game design. For more information, see her web site.

research tidbit

I've been reviewing information about the students my colleague and I interviewed last year, and have found some interesting things. Keep in mind that we were working with a small sample--there were only ten women in the entering IT class last year, and eleven CS women. That makes it hard to generalize from our findings, but does give us some interesting avenues to pursue in terms of our larger survey project this spring.

Of the ten IT women interviewed, three changed programs during the first year. One transferred to Travel and Tourism, one into a transitional decision-making program and then into International Business, and one into CS. The student who transferred to CS has not enrolled for any classes since completing her freshman year.

Of the eleven CS women interviewed, four changed programs--two into IT, one into Biotechnology, and one into Sign Language Interpreting. In addition, one woman has not enrolled at RIT since completing her freshman year, and another changed from the CS BS degree program to the CS AS degree program during her sophomore year.

By comparison, none of the ten (randomly selected from a pool of 200) IT men we interviewed changed programs during their first two years. However, two of them took leaves of absence at the beginning of their sophomore years, and another was suspended and has not returned to classes.

first trip to the middle east!

It looks like I'm going to be taking my first trip to the Middle East next year. In early March, I'll be traveling to Dubai to speak at the 7th Woibex Women in Business Conference.

I've waited to say anything about this until I was relatively sure it was going to happen; now that they've put my photo and bio up on the site, however, I think it's safe.

The conference is being held at the spectacular Burj Al Arab hotel--I haven't gotten details yet, but I'm hoping that's where they'll be putting me up while I'm there.

When I was first contacted by the organizers, I was a little concerned about traveling to the Middle East, but from what I've read since then about Dubai, it's a remarkably progressive and technologically forward-looking country. Wired Magazine did a feature article on Dubai in July, and it really piqued my interest in the country--not just in its commitment to technology and business development, but also in the status of women there:

Dubai also stands in contrast to the Saudi kingdom in another Arab-world indicator, the role of women. Where Saudi women are still waiting for the right to drive, Dubai women play a pivotal role in society. "My success means success for other women here," says Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, the CEO of Tejari, an Internet business-to-business procurement firm, noting that women form 65 percent of Internet City's workforce.

The fact that they're running a conference on women in business is a pretty strong indication of the importance and value of women in their culture and economy, and I'm looking forward to having an opportunity to talk with from the area about their experiences and their uses of technology.

women and tech pointers

I suppose I should post these over at misbehaving...and I probably will, in a few days. Right now, I'm trying to let my less-academic co-authors over there have center stage for a while. :)

I gave a presentation to women in our college today on the research I'm currently working on; you can find the presentation on our project web site.

And I've proposed a BoF session for women in emerging tech at the upcoming Emerging Tech conference. If you're a woman who's going to be at the conference, and would like to meet and talk with other women who'll be there, please add a vote for the session on the wiki page.

we're misbehavin'

I'm delighted to announce the debut of a new weblog on the topic of gender and technology:

We've got a really amazing group of women participating on this site:

  • danah boyd
  • Caterina Fake
  • Meg Hourihan
  • me (Liz Lawley)
  • Dorothea Salo
  • Halley Suitt
  • Gina Trapani
  • Jill Walker

We all believe it's important to begin changing the public perception of women in the context of technology, and that one of the best ways to do that is to make women's accomplishments, writings, and contributions more public and visible.

I hope you'll add the new site to your blogroll and/or aggregator list!

designing for "the other"

As I work on my proposal for ETCon, I find myself thinking about the seemingly obvious--and yet often ignored--idea that it's very hard to design something to appeal to a foreign mindset (foreign as in "the other" as opposed to national boundaries).

That reminded me of Tim Burke's recent post "Software Industry Needs More Greedy Capitalists, Part XVIII," which is a great riff on the problems with games intended for kids, particularly girls:

One of the other places where this strange aversion to profit emerges is attempts to design games aimed at other target demographics besides 18-34 year old middle-class males. It shows with games for girls, which make a Barbie dressed in a pink ballet costume look like the epitome of a cross-over toy. You could take nine-tenths of the games designed explicitly for girls and put a splash-screen disclaimer at the initial load: "CAUTION: This game has been designed by men who are not entirely certain what a 'girl' is. They were furnished with blueprints that suggested that certain colors and themes are useful, and several pictures of actual 'girls'. Care should be taken in the playing of this game by actual girls: this game may or may not have anything to do with their ideas about what would be fun to do in a computer game".

the unbearable impermanence of blogging

My biggest frustration with blogging is definitely the way that ideas and issues raised in blogs seem to disappear from everyone's radar within days. Blogs encourage a "topic du jour" approach to the world. Once the discussion scrolls off the main page, it might as well never have happened. The swarm of readers is off in search of the newest idea high.

I've noticed this in myself--blogs are great for people like me with short attention spans, people who like starting things more than they like finishing them. Read, write, move on. There's too much to see, too much to think about, to stay focused on one thread for too long.

What got me thinking about this was my attempt this weekend to sit down and brainstorm a social software presentation for ETCon '04. And while I know it's probably not the right direction to go in terms of (a) getting something accepted, or (b) capturing the hearts and minds of the hard-core geek audience, I keep wanting to write something about the "female problem."

Last year's ETCon was an amazing example of how little input from women there is in the development of emerging technologies--even in the area where you might think that input would be particularly helpful, namely "social software." And I wrote about that. Here, and here In fact, the second one was one of most-commented-on posts I've written. Everyone was interested, everyone was concerned. For about a week. Then, so far as I could tell, it pretty much went back to business as usual.

In fact, when I started to write this post, I was originally going to call it "women and social software - why should we care?" Then I realized I'd already written a post called "why should we care?," back when I was talking about the book Unlocking the Clubhouse. Which is what made me wonder if there was any point at all in writing about this again.

Eroded Rock PhotoIn the end, despite the impermanence and apparent difficulty of effecting change through this medium, I decided there was a point. Kevin Werbach, for example, invited me to speak at SuperNova, in part because of those posts. I need to remember that even little waves lapping at the rock can effect change over time. So consider this one more in a series of attempts to erode existing gender imbalances. Eventually, the message may get through to the architects of new social software environments that systems developed only by hard-core geeks aren't likely to appeal to an audience much wider than those same geeks.

why should we care?

When I've written in the past about women and technology, or spoken with people about the small number of women in computing programs and professions, the response is often "so what?" So what if women aren't in the programs--if they're not interested, they're not interested. As one person wrote sarcastically in my comments, "Clearly [...] we must start forcing more women to become engineers! (Beware the use of a single statistic as an indicator of a complex system. Be-more-ware the tendency to take action based on such a statistic.)"

Margolis and Fisher must have faced similar questions, because they devote a large section of the introduction to this topic. They go beyond the obvious potential benefits to the women of the wider range of job options available to someone conversant with a range of information technologies. Here's the passage I found compelling:

In the long run, the greatest impact may be on the health of computing as a discipline and its impact on society. The near absence of women's voices at the drawing board has pervasive effects. Workplace systems are build around male cultural models, and entertainment software fulfills primarily male desires.

They provide several examples to illustrate this problem--voice recognition systems that were calibrated to men's voices so that women literally went unheard. Automotive airbags designed for male bodies, which resulted in avoidable deaths of women and children. Artificial heart valves sized to the male heart. They continue:

Along with technology's power come responsibilities to determine what computing is used for and how it is used. These concerns may not be on the mind of adolescent boys who get turned on to computing at an early age and go on to become the world's computer wizards. But these concerns must be part of a computer scientist's line of work. The conversation among computer scientists shold not be isolated to all-boy clubhouses; women's voices and perspectives should be part of this conversation. For this to happen, women must know more than how to use technology; they must know how to design and create it.

Theoretically, IT is more focused on these aspects of computing than traditional CS, which is one reason we'd expected that our program would be more attractive women. Thus far, it seems we were wrong. What remains to be seen is whether it's a function of the program itself, or a problem with the pipeline leading to it. I suspect both, but that's the point of our research. (New and far more detailed web site underway for that...stay tuned.)

(This is one in a series of entries from <a href="<$MTBlogURL$>">mamamusings related to the book Unlocking the Clubhouse, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. For the whole series, go to the "unlocking the clubhouse" category page.)

book blogging

Loren Webster blogged his reading of Catch-22 this month, providing excerpts and commentary as he worked his way through the book. I really enjoyed that--being able to see a book through someone else's eyes, read his thoughts and analysis along with Heller's original text.

So today, as I started re-reading Unlocking the Clubhouse, I decided to try to blog the book as I work my way through it.

I'm doing this for several reasons. First, because it will help me read the book more actively, and integrate it with my own thoughts through the process of writing about it. Second, because I'll have easy, searchable access to my notes once I'm done. And third, because I think it's worth sharing parts of this book with those who haven't read it. It's not unlike real-time conference blogging, really. Except that anyone who wants a copy of the book can get one.

I'm of two minds on comments. I'm doing this primarily for myself, and to share some information--I'm not particularly interested in getting into arguments on every point. On the other hand, hearing alternative perspectives could be interesting. So I'm going to start with comments open on these posts...but I may change my mind and close them if they turn into flamewars. I'll aggregate the posts under an "Unlocking the Clubhouse" category, linked at the bottom of each post.)

Written by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, the book chronicles Carnegie-Mellon University's efforts to (a) understand and (b) address the issue of underrpresentation of women in their CS department. When they began their study, women made up 7% of their entering freshman class. (Sounds depressingly familiar.) Five years later, the percentage had risen to 42%. During that same five year period, it should be noted, the overall national percentage of women in CS programs had dropped steadily.

Here's a key passage from the introduction:

The study of computer science can be seen as a microcosm of how a realm of power can be claimed by one group of people, relegating others to outsiders. While not ruling out the possibilities of gender differences in cognitive preferences, we challenge the assumption that computer science is "just boring for girls and women" by showing the weighty influences that steal women's interest in computer science away from them. Our book tells the story of women students who were once enthusiastic about studying computer science and what happens to them in school.s. We describe what teacher sand parents need to do to engage and protect girls' interests and change computer science into a field that is engaging and interesting for a much larger and more diverse group of students. The goal is not to fit women into computer science as it is currently taught and conceived. Rather, a cultural and curricular revolution is required to change computer science so that the valuable contributions and perspectives of women are respected within the discipline.

a radical process

I'm back from Toronto, and about to retrospectively blog some of the best sessions. But before I do, as a followup to my "women's voices" post (which, as I predicted, has far more men's voices than women's), I'd like to thank xian for pointing me to Dan Spalding's "An open letter to other men in the movement: Shut the Fuck Up (or, How to act better in meetings)."

This essay is about how men act in meetings. Mostly it's about how we act badly, but it includes suggestions on how we can do better. Men in the movement reproduce patriarchy within the movement and benefit from it. By patriarchy I mean a system of values, behaviors, and relationships that keeps men in power. It relies on domination, claiming authority, and belligerence.


What's to be done? I've come up with a little idea I like to call, "Shut the fuck up." It goes as follows: Every time someone...

  • Says something you think is irrelevant,
  • Asks a (seemingly) obvious question,
  • Criticizes your proposal or makes a contradictory observation,
  • Makes a proposal
  • Asks a question, or
  • Asks for more input because there's a brief lull in the discussion. . .
Shut the fuck up. It's a radical process, but I think you'll like it.

Along those lines, I'd like to thank all the men who didn't post a response to "women's voices"--including those who sent me private notes of support. :) You guys rock. Thanks for listening.

women's voices

Yesterday before I left for ALA in Toronto, I went to the awards ceremony at my kids' elementary school. I stood in the "cafetorium" (the combined cafeteria and auditorium) watching smiling kids go up to collect their reading certificates, safety patrols standing to be recognized, and my son Lane receiving a prize for his "honorable mention" in the Toshiba Exploravision contest.

As I looked around the room at the happy children, proud parents, and last-day-of-school-relaxed teachers, I blinked back tears of gratitude. I take the safe, comfortable world that my family and I live in so much for granted on a day-to-day basis. It's seldom that I can step outside of that world and see it as the privilege and gift that it is.

That's true for all of us, I think. There are certain privileges that most of the people reading this post have grown up with, and over time we become blind to how lucky we are. Often when we encounter people who don't have what we have (intelligence, education, enough money to survive on) it makes us uncomfortable or angry. "It must be your own fault," we think, "because if I could do it, you could do it. You just need to try harder."

But what the privileged often don't understand is how much the deck is stacked in their favor. Money, is an obvious example. Sure, a kid with limited financial resources can go to college. But s/he has to work a lot harder to get there--just the application process alone for financial aid is a daunting process. And once they're there, they're the ones holding down two or more part-time jobs, constantly doing calculations in their head as to whether they can afford that book--or that beer. It change the entire experience by adding a layer of stress that financially well-off students never have to deal with.

Beyond the obvious factors like money, however, are the more insidious privileges. For example, the privilege of being in the majority. Of never feeling like you're being expected to speak "for your group," of never feeling as though everything you do is being scrutinized more carefully because you stand out, you're different. To be able to be anonymous, or to know--without having to analyze it--that you're accepted in a community.

Every time someone like Shelley, or me, posts about our frustrations with trying to participate in white-male-dominated technical contexts, a whole bunch of white males immediately point out to us that of course it's not about gender. Of course women are treated exactly the same as men in this brave new gender-blind internet world. And if they aren't, it's clearly their own fault. They aren't trying hard enough to get along, they're not "team players," they don't "play well with others."

Along those lines, I fully expect that 90% of the comments I get to this post will come from white men, most of whom will want to tell me just how hard they had it, how their dominant status never bought them anything, how women and men face the same challenges, the same problems, yada yada yada. I'm not accusing those men of lies or hypocrisy. I believe that many of them are genuinely committed to gender equality, and that they believe that they're "gender blind" in their interactions with others. But like me taking my safe, suburban school for granted, they're taking their male-dominated work environments for granted.

Don't agree? Before you argue with me, I highly recommend reading Peggy McIntosh's essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." Here's an excerpt:

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to be now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist. It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

I spend a lot of time watching the conversations that are taking place these days in weblogging, social software, and other technology contexts. Yes, there are a few women involved in the conferences and meetings. But their voices aren't the ones we usually hear about from the men. To be heard--to really be heard--a woman has to break the rules. She has to be outrageous. Halley does it by throwing in a little sex. Shelley does it by throwing in a little ass-kicking. Only when they do this do people stop and really pay attention.

Yes, sometimes Halley's heavy emphasis on sexuality makes me uncomfortable. Yes, sometimes Shelley can be prickly and difficult. But I cannot overstate my admiration for both of these women...for their willingness to break rules, to take big chances, to shout out loud enough to be heard. That's exhausting work. Risky, too...because, as Shelley in particular has found on numerous occasions, when you break the rules, you make people feel uncomfortable. And when they feel uncomfortable, most of them will push you away and/or shut you out.

So what's a woman to do? Play by the rules, and hope that she'll stumble into a place at the table with the guys? Make some noise to get noticed, and hope that she won't be blacklisted in the process?

I'm particularly interested in hearing from women with strong voices out there in the technology landscape. I know there are a few of you out there. (Not nearly enough of you, but a few.) What worked for you? What do you wish you'd known earlier? What do you think women should be doing to start getting their voices heard more clearly in technical discussions?

writing on/by women

Halley on women and weblogging:

Although the three women on the cover of Time Magazine were not bloggers, the women using blogging tools are doing a variation on daily whistle-blowing as they blog. They are using weblogs to tell their truth. Much of their truth has been silenced and not allowed to appear in main stream press which is dominated by men. I honestly don't believe this is any conspiracy by men, but rather a shocking disconnect from the reality men live in and the reality women live in. Weblogs are not controlled or controllable by any one group. Weblogs are a no-barriers-to-entry publishing phenomenon. Weblogs are giving women a publishing platform unparalleled in history. Women are not self-editing their voices out of existence. With weblogs, women are telling their truth without even noticing. Weblogs are creating a level-playing field for women.

Read the whole thing.

Will post more thoughts on this (and on Shelley's frustration with the level of discourse on technical mailing lists, and Janet's comment on my "women and social software" post, and recent social software gatherings, and more) after I get to Toronto tomorrow.

where the boys are...

...isn't where I want to be these days.

Shelley convinced me to join the blogunlimited list, after the blogrollers list went south with divisive and defensive interactions. So I did. And I've been reading it for a little while, but not participating.

Here's how the story goes, so far as I can see:

a) Shelley posts an interesting query about the semantic web
b) A discussion begins, with posts from a number of people with interesting ideas
c) Shelley responds with questions and ideas, at the same time that predictable people begin posting predictable rants about predictable topics (RSS, for example. OPML. what constitutes an ad hominem attack. yada, yada, yada.)
d) Shelley's points are essentially ignored in favor of the same-old-same-old peacocking and posturing among the boys.
e) Shelley gets mad.
f) Shelley gets noticed only because she got mad.
g) People like me unsubscribe because the signal-to-noise ratio is getting worse by the second, and they'd rather read blogs than wade through cross-posts and arguments.

Am I being sexist? I'm sure I'll be accused of it. But it gets easier all the time for me to understand why there are so few women on the technical lists, at the technical conferences, doing the technical work. Who needs all this bickering? Personally, I get enough of that from my kids. And my co-workers.

Maybe it's the perceived impermanence of the e-mail (as opposed to the blog entries) that encourages the pettiness, and that allows interesting ideas to get lost in the swell of mutiply-quoted messages. Or maybe it's the fact that because reading blogs is a pull rather than push technology, it's easier for me to detach when the discussions head in a non-productive (for me) direction. Regardless of the reason, I'm finding myself increasingly disenchanted with mailing lists, and correspondingly appreciative of blogs.

Now I'm going to go re-read Jeneane's post about Halley's blog. Chicken soup for the blogger's soul, don't you think?

For the first time since I created this blog, I'm closing the comments on an entry. I'm simply not interested in a debate about this post. It was me venting, on my blog. Don't agree with me? Your prerogative. Post about your difference of opinion on your own blog.

women and social software

I was mostly kidding when I posted about playing the gender card to get on some conference programs. Mostly.

But the more I've thought about it this weekend, the more troubled I've become.

Here's some background. The grant that it looks like I'll be working on for the next two years is part of NSF's Information Technology Workforce (ITWF) solicitation. In the fall, when I was putting the grant proposal together, I gathered some pretty depressing statistics about women and computing. I also gave a talk about it as part of SUNY Buffalo's Gender Week series. The talk was entitled "What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?: Women in IT Education."

What did I say?

I started with these slides, to illustrate the scope of the problem (yes, I know they're hard to read at this size; you can view the full-size presentation on the web, or download the original Powerpoint if you prefer):

Gender Breakdown for CS Grads, 1998-2001 Gender Breakdown for IT Workers with College Degrees, 1990-2001

What does this tell us? First, it tells us that while the raw number of women graduating with CS degrees is rising, it is rising more slowly than the total number of graduates...meaning the (already low) percentage is shrinking. Second, it tells us that within the population of IT workers with college degrees (of any kind), the percentage of women has been dropping over the past ten years--at the same time that the industry has seen staggering growth.

Why do I think this is such a bad thing? Well, if for no other reason than that if we want to develop products that serve the needs of a diverse population, it helps a lot to have diversity in the groups developing those products. Russ Beattie had an interesting post on this not too long ago. One of the commenters on the post said:
The problem is that because men don't understand women, any attempt to market specifically to women by men tends to go laughably wrong: in the same way as kids can spot from a mile off when adults are trying to "connect with youth culture", even (or perhaps especially) when the whole thing has been carefully prepared with focus groups.

In his response to my post yesterday, Anil suggested that perhaps the reason blogging has caught on so quickly among both men and women is the significant role that women (like Meg Hourihan and Mena Trott) have played in developing and deploying the technology. Sounds plausible to me.

But when I look at the industry conferences related to social software, I see a distressingly small number of female faces. This month's O'Reilly ETCON sports 58 speakers, of whom 6 are women. Just over 10%. And the much-hyped SuperNova 2003 lists 2 women among the 15 confirmed speakers. I suspect that SXSW Interactive was better, but there's not a comprehensive speaker list to make it easy to determine that (there is a PDF program grid, and a quick glance shows what looks like a slightly higher percentage of women).

I know, I know--these conferences have open calls for presentations, and if women didn't apply...well, shame on us. (And yes, I've now shamed myself into at least submitting a proposal for Supernova, though I won't hold my breath.) But I suspect that many of the speakers on the list didn't come knocking--they were invited. And I also think that it's in the best interest of this burgeoning field if those in positions to affect the direction of future development do make the extra effort to broaden the range of participants in their programs.

This topic has come up for discussion on blogs before, with a lot of the debate occurring on Shelley Powers' blog, in response to Clay Shirky's "social software summit". There were active threads here, and here, and here.

The threads included plenty of rhetorical finger-pointing, including the predictable "gender/race/etc is irrelevant, this is a meritocracy," and, of course, "stop picking on the poor white men." <sigh> I was particularly disheartened by Tim O'Reilly's comment:
I also find the fundamental premise of this thread, that "social software" has to be written and thought about by a socially diverse group, rather parochial. The diversity Clay was trying to encourage was between people working on different types of social software - blogging software, massive multiplayer games, cell phones, enterprise collaboration. Not to mention the dripping irony that, with three women out of twenty-odd participants, this group was more sexually diverse than the typical computer geek gathering, and had participants from five different countries.

It's hard for me to understand how the premise that we should seek and value diversity in the development of social software could be considered "parochial." And I'm not sure Tim was aware of the irony in his own post--that a gathering with a 15% female rate of participation was significantly more diverse than the typical gathering.

But I was encouraged by Clay's response in the same thread:
Gender balance was more complicated. I talked about this with some of the other folks I was asking for advice on attendees, and we made a concerted effort to invite more women than is the norm at these events. However, a higher percentage of women than men couldn't attend (perhaps because a higher proportion of women were in academic careers, and couldn't travel during the semester, though with such a small N, its hard to identify root causes.)

While Clay had perhaps the most reason to be defensive about the thread's point, he was in fact one of the most receptive respondents to the main point Shelley was raising--and I was really, really encouraged by that.

Before the greek chorus makes its way from Shelley's blog to mine, let me say as clearly as possible that this isn't about bashing the power structure, or denigrating the men in it. Hey, I like men, really. Even white men. I'm married to one, I'm the mother to two, and I'm the teacher to literally hundreds of them every year.

What this is about is my wish that more women wanted to be a part of this process, and that's a chicken-and-egg issue. If we want young women to become a part of this new world of tool development and deployment, we need visible role models. They need to see that there are real women in real jobs with real lives doing these things. The stereotypes of the industry are incredibly damaging in this regard.

What do we do? Well, I do what I can every day. I teach, I speak, I write, I try to create an environment that encourages other women to follow my lead. And every now and then, I do something like this, where I publicly ask my male colleagues to think about how they can be proactive in changing the mix.

note to self...

...must become widely-sought-after speaker RSN, so as to garner invitations (read: waived registration fees) to events like ETCON, SuperNova, and Pop!Tech.

An assistant professor's salary doesn't cover these kinds of events, alas.

Our department has been wonderfully generous on travel, which is how I've managed to get to Pop!Tech for the past two years. But budgets are shrinking--not just at home, but also at work--and I suspect the glory days where we could send seven faculty members to Camden are already over.

Do you suppose I could play the gender card to get myself in some of these doors? (She said, reading through yet another description of an all-male panel at a cool conference...) Nah, probably not. Meg's on enough of the marquees to negate that approach. :-)

Damn. Guess I'll have to keep using real-time conference blogs for vicarious attendance.

girls and computers

Dave Winer pointed to a NY Times article from Sunday entitled "Where the Girls Aren't," and chose the opening line as his quote:

Anyone who has ever tried to pry a girl offline knows that girls like computers. They just don't understand how they work.

Ack! Okay, I'm as aware as anyone of the shortage of women in the profession, especially after years of fewer than 10% women in my classes, and writing a grant proposal this year to try to understand and address the problem. But still--that quote sticks in my craw.

So I read the rest of the article, and felt better. For example, they talked to a woman who's been teaching math in high schools for 30 years:

''When I started in 1972,'' she said, ''there were three girls in calculus out of a senior class of about 50. Now there are three sections of Advanced Placement calculus, in a class about the same size -- in other words, about 75 percent of the senior class. This would not have happened if we had bought into the reigning mantra of the time, which was, 'Boys are naturally interested in mathematics; let them do it. Girls are more talented in literature and history; why ask them to change?' ''

I remember taking AP Calculus in 1979. I had been in advanced math classes every year in high school, and since at the time the school systems wouldn't let you take calculus 'til senior year, during junior year I took the two half-year courses offered to advanced students--Abstract Algebra in the fall, and Matrix Algebra in the spring. They were both taught by a teacher who managed to systematically weed out most of the girls in the class by the end of the year. He would humiliate girls in the class, ridicule them when they answered questions wrong, ignore them when they were right, and regularly tell us that we really weren't cut out for studying math. (Years later, I heard that same teacher was fired after his affairs with male students were discovered. No big surprise there--plenty of us had seen him taking students on "dates" to hockey games. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)

I stuck it out through junior year, and enrolled in his AP Calculus class senior year. I lasted half the year. When I got my early acceptance letter from Michigan, I realized that I could live with the automatic "F" I'd get from withdrawing from the class more easily than I could live with the class. So I quit. It was only the second time my parents had to go to the school on my behalf (the first time is worth another blog entry at another time).

That wasn't really the end of it, though. The experience left me thoroughly convinced that I wasn't good at math. And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy--I barely made it through the required calc class in college, and avoided anything that looked like math or science. (This from someone who in her junior year of high school was convinced she was going to be an industrial engineer.) It wasn't until after my master's program, when I started thinking about a PhD, that I finally faced up to my math fears and conquered them. Turns out I'm pretty good at math after all. But it took fifteen years to undo the damage that one teacher caused.

So how much damage is done every time we assume that "girls aren't interested" in how computers work? How much of that comes from the early conditioning, the toys we give our children, the activities we encourage them to get involved in? Cub scouts build pinewood derby cars to race, learning physics and geometry in the process. (My kids are racing theirs on Saturday.) But do Brownies? Probably not.

Uh-oh. I'm starting to rant. Time to sleep.


So a few days ago, Halley posts this piece on "girlism." And all h*ll breaks out in the blogging circles in in which she "lives" (not sure which ones I live in yet, but I've been spending some time checking out the houses on her street...).

The thread has been picked up and nearly beaten to death on a number of blogs, from Shelley's to Dorothea's to Mike's to Doc's to...(well, if you're interested, you can follow the links and trackbacks). And I do mean to death, complete with "collateral damage." Perhaps the least harmful of the responses came from AKMA, who I was rather hoping would weigh in. :-)

I've participated up 'til now in an e-mail discussion on this topic, and haven't blogged about it. For a couple of reasons, really. It's interesting...e-mail still feels ephemeral to me, even though I know it's far from private (particularly when sent to a list of people, as these were), and can be archived indefinitely. Still, I feel more comfortable speaking off-the-cuff in e-mail than I do here in my blog--particularly on issues that have such emotional heft.

When it comes to feminism and gender issues, I'm particularly cautious about writing publicly, because I know that as a female professor in a technology field I'm a role model--whether I want to be or not. I know my students read this blog--as do my parents, my friends, and my colleagues. So speaking here is very much "on the record." Nevertheless, I'm going to chance this mine-field of a topic.

I spoke up in defense of Halley's original post, and I stand by that. I consider myself a feminist. Unlike Halley, I don't think feminism is dead. And I definitely don't agree with her assessment that it only encompassed lesbian sexuality to begin with. But one of the reasons that I--and, I think, many other women--have become frustrated with feminism is its renouncement of...well...femininity.

In Shelley's blog, she reposts and comments on comments by Suzanne, in which she expresses concerns with "girlism" because it's limited to those with the physical attributes to use it. But all strengths, all power, is unbalanced. Some women aren't beautiful, true. (Though far more are than realize it.) But some women aren't smart. Some women aren't hard-working. Some women aren't charismatic. Life's just not fair.

What perplexes me about all of this discussion is the massive generalization. Why does feminism have to be dead in order for girlism to exist? Why does girlism have to be for everyone or for no one? Why can't we each tap into our own sources of power, and trust each other to use those powers for good and not for evil?

Jeneane wants to know more about where Halley's ideas on girlism really come from. I know where mine do, and I'm guessing (in part based on her past posts about exercise) that hers may come from a similar place. In the past two years, I've made a conscious decision to change the way I live, and to pay more attention and respect to my body. That meant going to the gym regularly, and changing the way I eat. It was hard work. Still is. But the payoff was a newfound sense of living in my own skin, and appreciation for my body. I didn't want to hide that under shapeless sweats--I wanted to show it off. Wearing shapely clothes, sexy underwear, CFM boots...that all made me feel good. And a side benefit to that was the "jiu-jitsu" effect that AKMA talks about. The men who tended to view me as an object were flummoxed. And I was okay with that. More than okay--delighted. I loved watching people who had no problem ignoring me (or worse) when I felt like a shlump caught so suddenly off guard.

On the other hand, the men who saw me as an intelligent, collegial co-worker were appreciative but not signficantly affected. I was equally okay with that. (And, I might add, that included the vast majority of the men I know and work with.)

That's why I find this particular sort of "power" so entertaining. It only works against those who are already in a mental place that doesn't have anything to do with the ways I'd like to be valued in the workplace.

There's more to say on all of this, but at least I got a few words out. Now it's time to duck-and-cover, since posting on this seems guaranteed to bring out the fangs in in all and sundry.

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