I was asked a question a few months ago:
Do women have an advantage in our field?
There was a time when I would have chirped ‘NO!’ and stormed off. That time might not have been too long ago. But it is an interesting question, perhaps because it is so ill-defined. What does advantage mean? Which women? Undergrads, grad students, faculty? What is our field? Computer science in academia, research labs, industry; theoretical computer science?
The arguments I have heard for ‘yes’ are all closely related. Because you are a minority, you stick out and garner more attention. Because we have all been told that we have to do something about the gender inequality, we go out of our way to make sure you are taken care of. Because the higher-ups tell us that we need to improve our 10% rate, we have affirmative action policies so that we hire you. I wish I’d done a better job over the years of keeping track of the various studies pointing to increased attrition rates for women at every stage of educational and professional advancement, women being judged based on their accomplishments and men on their potential, women needing to perform at a much higher level to reach the equivalent level as their male counterparts. But I haven’t kept the links around; they can’t be that hard to track down, but I’m on a shuttle at the moment. Instead I’ll give you my personal view. The view I usually give when I am asked this question in person.
First, not all attention is good attention. I do believe that when I meet someone at a conference that they are more likely to remember my name than I am to remember theirs. Women do stick out when they are only a tenth of the population. But often enough I have had the experience that I am not sought out for research conversation but because I am a woman. Not because I am a computer scientist.* Even though this may have only happened a handful of times in countless interactions, it makes me question whether all the truly professional interactions have really been so. It makes me wonder: does this person even respect me as a computer scientist? When/if it comes time for tenure letters, do I have to blacklist people who I feel see me first as a woman and then as a computer scientist?
At Waterloo, an undergrad told me that she was tired of all this “women in math” stuff she was expected to do. She just wanted to study math. So yes, sometimes the extra effort isn’t always positive. At the training level, this extra effort can be viewed as unfair and undeserved attention that puts women at an advantage over men. This perception itself lessens the advantage.
And then there is affirmative action. A comment from a fellow grad student at Brown: “Well, you don’t have to worry, women have a much easier time getting jobs in our field [because of affirmative action]”. Again, the misperception. The intent of affirmative action is to overcome the (possibly subconscious) gender biases that are known to occur in the hiring process. It is/should not the preferential hiring of candidates who are not competitive. So long as we still hear comments like “she only got the job because she was a woman”, woman are not at an advantage. And if you think this doesn’t happen, you just need to read the comment thread on the who got jobs where post over at Computational Complexity.
So, it’s my personal belief that woman are not at an advantage while training or working in academia. I can’t speak for industry, but I can’t imagine it is much different.
* Yes, I realize that this is a two-way street, but I would argue that the gender inequality causes it to happen more often to women than men.