Women in Technology and suchlike blah
Oh yay, Marissa Mayer is the CEO of Yahoo! now and what a victory for women in tech worldwide is that!
Actually…. I am hovering somewhere between ‘Oh!’ and ‘Meh..’ on that. Let me elaborate.
I’m a girl in computer science. The ‘girl’ part has been mostly irrelevant except when it came to how intimidated and unconfident I felt at various points, and how I was angry at myself for being unconfident when I knew way more than overconfident men (and women, but mostly men) and accepted their wrong answers as gospel truth and didn’t talk as much as I should have. But those are my personal demons for the most part. I don’t have to deal with those as much now in the industry with a really awesome boss, as much as I had to deal with those in academia where the extent of my unknowing was way larger and the people around me more intimidating.
As for the computer science bit, I’ve always wanted to deal with more and more ‘pure’ and ‘nontrivial’ bits of computer science. I don’t know why I caught on to this sort of elitism. It’s possibly from the sort of machine learning work that went on at UCI. Very mathematical, very generic and theoretical. Work that can be applied to various different applications in so many interesting ways. And try not to get the specificity of the domain the data is from in order to accomplish a certain task. I adored the wide applications of the stuff my advisor worked on, and was very impressed by the diversity of the work that cited his papers. And the diversity of the data he worked on. Way too many people apply this or that classifier to some sort of data and call it their life’s work. Nothing wrong with that; we need that as well, but the big-picture sort of work was more attractive to me.
So yeah, for me, hardcore is good, multidisciplinary isn’t as much. Application-oriented was best avoided. Of course, you apply a different standard when you are working on specific products in the industry, but till date, the sort of stuff that impresses me is the development of concepts that are used widely. Like, I’d much rather prefer tweaking the affinity propagation algorithm for natural language data than find which algorithm best classifies some random dataset and calling it machine learning.
I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s the difficulty of thinking in abstract terms that fascinates me. Maybe it’s the impact of said work. Maybe it’s more creative, while also being precise and not woolly. But I trust it’s some of my rather convoluted thinking that says these skills are more valuable because there are fewer people who do this, and there’s always going to be a high demand for people who are more adaptable, so the combination makes sure that I get good jobs, where I can have more leverage.
The problem with this ooh-look-we-have-more-ladies-in-our-office bit is, I find most women are in those areas which require less abstraction, are less ‘pure’ in the way I described before, and are more just worker-ant sort of cookie-cutter jobs. Or, they have very little to do with computer science or even coding. You’ll find more women in Testing than in Development given any software company. And all the interacting-with-people sort of jobs, like requirement-gathering or ‘product management’ *cough*Marissa Mayer*cough*.
Most female researchers turn out to be working on User Experience or Human-Computer Interaction. Fields which I find rather woolly. I find the sort of projects they take up very fascinating, and they have a real impact on the world, but the ratio of actual output/impact to time spent by each researcher is rather low, in my opinion.
Of course, my way of looking at things is not gospel, and is likely biased in a lot of ways. But why this sort of correlation, is what I wonder.
That’s why it pisses off a small part of my brain when all these women in computing are so highly hailed as examples of women in technology. By these women, I don’t mean Daphne Koller (PhD at age 22, long high-impact research/teaching career at Stanford) or Grace Hopper. I don’t get the veneration of Carol Bartz or Meg Whitman or Sheryl Sandberg or even Marissa Meyer as ‘women in technology’. They just happen to be women who work in administrative roles in the technology domain. I’m not saying that’s an easy position to attain, but it’s not exactly the same career path as Yishan Wong’s or Mark Zuckerberg’s or Sergey-and-Larry’s. In other words, where is their nerd cred?
They are not playing with the big boys there. They seem to just be the waterboy to the big boys’ league.
And why do I have a problem with that? It’s because girls like me have so few role models already, and suddenly we are asked to follow the words and career paths of these women who’ve never written a line of code in years. And why is that a problem for me? It’s because everyone from my father to my colleague expects me to go down that line because that’s the way – possibly the only way – women in technology get big. ‘Do an MBA, it is good for girls’ is something I’ve grown tired of hearing.
Whenever I’ve attended any panel discussion on ‘Women in Computer Science’, I feel such a disconnect with the panelists because they are never like me. They might be danah boyd also, but that’s not the career path I want to go down, so I don’t empathize with a lot of their concerns, and they’ve probably never wondered about mine. When Sheryl Sandberg talks about women and their career paths, her concerns seem trivial to me, and I wonder if she’s ever thought of all the concerns I have.
And what exactly are my concerns? I want to know how to keep going. How to network with nerdy guys who constantly keep getting intimidated by random things I say or do which makes me overcompensate by pulling back more than I should. How not to be intimidated. How to keep asking questions. How to become good at my work without getting discouraged. How not to be reticent. Instead, all they talk about is work-life balance. I agree that’s important, but for someone who has put ‘life’ on hold at gradschool in order to get the ‘work’ part in order, that was all totally not helpful. I don’t want to worry about how to balance my feminity with my work ethic, as if those are either-or options. And harassment is a far-off concern to me, because those sort of obstacles have concrete solutions, quite unlike wrestling with not getting results for five months straight and beating myself up about it… especially given no one anymore has the guts to try harassing anyone, and both gradschool and where I work now are as politically correct as you can get.
The problem with all these successful women is they assume every other woman is already the best at what she does, and the only problem she has is with presenting herself. Nope, not my story. If anything, the best advice I’ve received is from my totally intimidating male friends and my father who understands what being the underdog in your lab/office means. Or from my advisor who brought his infant son to a doctoral defense. These ladies don’t feel real enough to me. They don’t have any insecurities work-wise or any stories about how they dealt with the crippling uncertainty that comes with doing research. If I had a choice, I’d rather spend an hour with Yishan Wong than Sheryl Sandberg because Yishan gets my concerns better, only unlike Sheryl, there are no panels where he is asked to talk about it.
Everyone is concerned about not enough women being enrolled in computer science courses. Then suddenly a ton of them switch over from Psychology to Human-Computer Interaction and they think problem solved and don’t bother about the computer architecture lab with its lone female. No one is concerned that the guys working on graphical models assume by default that the girls they meet in gradschool work in UX research.
The question all these people working overtime to get girls to enroll in computer science should ask themselves is, what do they want these girls to do in the field? More and more girls keep getting into the same low-impact (technology-wise) and low-tech jobs, is that their ideal? They want more and more women in the higher echelons of tech management, but why do they keep showing us only one sort of career path? Every media story about Sergey-and-Larry always talk about how they still code, but does anyone talk about Marissa Mayer’s fun coding projects instead of her family life?
Maybe it’s just that the media is staffed by people who are not from traditional techie backgrounds and they just don’t get what ‘technology’ is, and are blind to real high-impact high-tech jobs and the women who hold those, because heck, you have a few tech company CEOs who are women, so that’s all you need, right? More so if these women are blonde. And if they happen to be mothers, icing on the cake. These people see the female product manager doing the media presentation and assume she’s the woman-in-tech for their story, and don’t bother looking beyond for, say, the female tech lead who actually worked on the details. It’s the same reason Jobs is a bigger deal than Woz, so we can credit the media for being consistent on that. It pisses off girls like me who wouldn’t mind a role model or two who are in the same career path as us, because soon enough we’ll have to answer to our high-expectations Asian parents about why we aren’t doing things that get girls like that Marissa fame and instead are busting our fanny doing some vague research no one hears about.
All said and done, enough of Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. Next time you want a women-in-technology quote, ask Daphne Koller, Rina Dechter, Hannah Wallach, Jennifer Vaughan, Anima Anandkumar… or so many others. They are probably more media-shy, but heck, their perspectives are also worth hearing, especially given the sort of impact their work has.