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.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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12 Responses to Women in Technology and suchlike blah

  1. swati says:

    Good Post. Controversial…..(we can debate at leisure later)… but good!! I would take gladly take the other side of the battle.. i.e strong regard to these so called “on your face” media friendly women and the administrative jobs they do which you have conveniently termed as ” low impact” ones in contrast to those who are in the confines of some lab out there writing code….. 🙂

    • wanderlust says:

      i’m not saying disregard them. it’s just that they aren’t the only people making a difference like the media loves to portray. there are many other paths to greatness in tech, and the media doesn’t highlight all of them, especially when it comes to women.

  2. S says:

    Great post. I admire you for posting such thoughts frankly.

    One way to look at it is that it’s still progress: from “stop studying; it’s bad for girls” to “Do an MBA, it is good for girls”. Yes it’s still not equal like it should be, but it’s a matter of time.

    Of course that doesn’t help with the fact that things still suck right now. As you say in the last paragraph, you just have to find different role models — and there are enough if you look.

    About your concerns/anxieties etc., I recently saw this via G+: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/12/156664337/stereotype-threat-why-women-quit-science-jobs
    Apparently many women constantly worry when interacting with male colleagues about whether they are seen as competent etc., and I have even heard that some are extra careful in what they say because they think that saying something stupid will reflect on all women as a whole. If true, this is very sad. 😦 No one can function well with so much worry and such a huge imagined burden of responsibility, I think. I don’t know what the solution is though, because “don’t worry, don’t get intimidated” etc. doesn’t really help.

    • wanderlust says:

      see the ‘stop studying it’s bad for girls’ to ‘do an mba it’s good for girls’ progress isn’t really a thing where i (or you) come from. there’s never a question of ‘stop studying’… one superconservative man told me he wants his daughters to get good software jobs because it makes you a ‘valuable commodity in the marriage market’.

      the problem is, there isn’t enough visibility for girls in my career path. part of it is how the field and reporting on it is. some HCI stuff makes for awesome media fodder, because it impacts people directly, but some painstaking incremental development in graph theory doesn’t get enough press. it doesn’t really matter much in the larger picture because once i’ve already done an MS, i don’t rely on seeing Claire Cardie or Jennifer Vaughan in the news to keep me going, because I have other (not necessarily female) role models whose work i closely follow. just… don’t expect me to hail Sheryl Sandberg as a techie lady, because she’s a suit, a mgmt person, the sort who stereotypically doesn’t ‘get’ what techies want to say or do. product release probably matters more to marissa mayer than deciding whether to run the servers on python or asp. they are different from me, and don’t say we’re both the same because we work in the same general field and we both are women. further, when i ask for more resources on how to cope with the stress of my job, dont stop at a sheryl sandberg TED talk.

    • wanderlust says:

      and of course there are enough role models. how do i look for them? where’s the video of daphne koller talking about how she ‘juggles it all’ which gets a zillion shares on facebook? they dont ask these women the ‘juggles it all’ and ‘having it all’ questions,… and in all probability they wouldn’t even have thought much of it because they have other higher priorities, like getting this grad student to write that paper else threaten with fund stoppage.

      On Thu, Jul 19, 2012 at 10:47 AM, priya venkateshan wrote:

      > see the ‘stop studying it’s bad for girls’ to ‘do an mba it’s good for > girls’ progress isn’t really a thing where i (or you) come from. there’s > never a question of ‘stop studying’… one superconservative man told me he > wants his daughters to get good software jobs because it makes you a > ‘valuable commodity in the marriage market’. > > the problem is, there isn’t enough visibility for girls in my career path. > part of it is how the field and reporting on it is. some HCI stuff makes > for awesome media fodder, because it impacts people directly, but some > painstaking incremental development in graph theory doesn’t get enough > press. it doesn’t really matter much in the larger picture because once > i’ve already done an MS, i don’t rely on seeing Claire Cardie or Jennifer > Vaughan in the news to keep me going, because I have other (not necessarily > female) role models whose work i closely follow. > just… don’t expect me to hail Sheryl Sandberg as a techie lady, because > she’s a suit, a mgmt person, the sort who stereotypically doesn’t ‘get’ > what techies want to say or do. product release probably matters more to > marissa mayer than deciding whether to run the servers on python or asp. > they are different from me, and don’t say we’re both the same because we > work in the same general field and we both are women. further, when i ask > for more resources on how to cope with the stress of my job, dont stop at a > sheryl sandberg TED talk. > >

  3. Neel says:

    Excellent post! 🙂

    On why your concerns aren’t discussed on any panel discussion on ‘Women in Computer Science’ – I’d hazard a guess that it’s because your concerns are rather universal, and I imagine that they plague the boys as much as us girls – even if there might be differences in how quickly we come around admitting them! And for some reason, panelists discussing women in CS likely feel obliged to discuss matters that supposedly exclusively bother women.

    • wanderlust says:

      right. but i’d prefer an answer from ‘someone like me’ more than everyone else when it comes to not being intimidated. or dealing with stereotype threat.

      • Neel says:

        I’ve started soaking up whatever answers I can find, as long as they either resonate with my instincts or give them a healthy challenge. Given that I haven’t had all that much luck finding someone like me (although that may have something to do with the fact that I haven’t quite pinned down what I am like for myself, LOL).

        • wanderlust says:

          🙂 i ask people those questions. much easier, seriously. i doubt there’s any mythical person who is ‘like me’, and try to think im not some special snowflake who’s the first person to face all these problems. as for work-life balance, i’ve come to the conclusion it is all chumma overhype. my great-aunt could, so it can’t be insurmountable, can it?

          • Neel says:

            Not the first person – you bet! I’ve lately been amused, almost disappointed, at just how non-unique my problems are. So not only am I not being able to stand out at work, I am not even able to stand out at what’s not working – sighs 😀

            Work-life balance – I can see why the (over)hype, it is easy enough to mess up. And the scariest part for me has been that you are not the only victim of your miscalculations… but yeah, it’s not unsurmountable either. I suppose it takes a bit of planning and the ability to say no, even to the things you want to do – http://www.danpink.com/archives/2012/02/how-to-say-no-especially-to-things-you-want-to-do

            And I do think your great-aunt is someone special 🙂

          • wanderlust says:

            i know right! not even able to stand out in what’s not working! can’t even say ‘im being discriminated against coz im brown/female’… it sucks to come to terms with the fact that you’re simply not that good yet and need to keep working on it. i want to not be so hard on myself when it comes to messing up. because that prevents me from viewing each problem as a challenge, and i just give up. most sensible people dont take that approach, and it’s hard for me not to take it as well.

  4. Suhas says:

    Anima Anandakumar…I’ll get her brother Amod to read this post

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