Glencora Borradaile

         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

October 23, 2010

Women are not at an advantage in our field

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 11:54 am
Tags: ,

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.

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  1.   Tom — October 23, 2010 @ 12:53 pm    

    In Theory at least, there does not seem to be any shortage of prominent women at the top of the field. In no particular order:

    Eva Tardos
    Ronitt Rubinfeld
    Shaffi Goldwasser
    Joan Feigenbaum
    Lenore Blum
    Cynthia Dwork
    Tal’s (Rabin and Malkin)
    Anna Karlin
    Lisa Fleischer
    Shuchi Chawla

    Now that I write down the list, I notice that most of them are in either game theory or cryptography. I guess in these two fields women have a substantial presence.

  2.   x — October 23, 2010 @ 1:44 pm    

    Some names not on previous list

    Julia Chuzhoy
    Irit Dinur
    Dana Randall
    Sandy Irani
    Vijaya Ramachandra

  3.   O — October 23, 2010 @ 2:14 pm    

    Some more:

    Yael Kalai
    Nina Balcan
    Nancy Lynch
    Nicole Immorlica
    Bonnie Berger
    Jennifer Rexford
    Dana Ron

  4.   more — October 23, 2010 @ 2:28 pm    

    Toni Pitassi
    Claire Mathieu
    Katrina Ligett
    Anna Lysyanskaya
    Sofya Raskhodnikova
    Mor Harchol-Balter
    Dana Moshkovitz
    Dorit Aharonov

  5.   JeffE — October 23, 2010 @ 2:37 pm    

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that women have an easier time in theoretical computer science than in other branches of computer science. For example: the program committee for FOCS 2010 (going on now) has 6 women out of 22 members; the SODA 2011 program committee has 8 women out of 30 members, including the chair and our gracious host; the SOCG 2010 committee had 5 women out of 16 members. Compare that with a few other randomly chosen non-theory conferences: SIGGRAPH 2010 (3/45), SIGMOD 2010 (20/96), CVPR 2010 (5/45), or SOSP 2011 (3/28). This is anecdata; take it with a heap of salt.

    Obviously this doesn’t imply that women in theoretical computer science have an advantage over men. Far from it; 25% representation is still embarrassing.

  6.   anon — October 23, 2010 @ 7:46 pm    

    ““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. ”

    What exactly do you mean by “misperception” here? Regardless of affirmative action’s “intent” (as you perceive it), clearly CS departments make an effort to hire women in a way that they don’t make an effort to hire men. This isn’t to say that they want to hire non-competitive women (whatever that means) but that they’ll be way more interested in a great cv labeled with a female name than one with a male one, and will given the chance hire the one rather than the other. Let’s assume there are reasons for such policies.

    Your view is that this preference for women only counts as an advantage so long as we don’t notice/acknowledge it, though? That’s an odd requirement. This is like saying the rich don’t *really* have an advantage in life as long as class envy exists.

    I don’t think you’re serious in your denial here, which is why you rely so heavily on weasel words like “personal belief”.

  7.   even more — October 24, 2010 @ 8:37 am    

    Jennifer Chayes
    Dana Angluin
    Sally Goldman
    Linda Sellie
    Jenn Wortman
    Cynthia Rudin
    Mona Singh

  8.   A. — October 24, 2010 @ 11:09 am    

    Anecdotal evidence may also merely be suggesting that women are more interested in theory than in other areas of CS, not that the environment is friendlier.

    I’m sad that all of the comments here are ignoring the entirely valid and problematic issues mentioned in the post.

    Like that the existence of affirmative action doesn’t mean that less visible problems suddenly stop existing, and poisons every hire with doubt. And the awkwardness of being hit on at conferences.

  9.   Dave Pritchard — October 24, 2010 @ 11:11 am    

    I read the comments on the Fortnow-Gasarch link. At least now I’m not so concerned about people being attacked due to their gender, since I am equally concerned about race. I think it’s quite a challenge to find a permanent position in TCS regardless of your genome!

    There are obvious disadvantages for women in highly asymmetrically-populated fields like CS: e.g. lack of role models, imbalanced work-based social groups (and aside, other issues pervade all fields, even balanced ones). Are there specific examples of what affirmative action should look like in practice… is the point to somehow “cancel out” the drawbacks and benefits amongst the various genders? One could imagine it as such, with the main goal being to make sure everyone has an equal chance of joining/leading the field, which entails that the field should itself be not hugely asymmetric. But I have a complete lack of knowledge of how it works (or is supposed to work) in practice, and of its goals.

  10.   anony — October 24, 2010 @ 11:29 pm    


    Where do you get 25%? Look at the stoc 2011 pc. Sure, sometimes the PC has a high proportion of women, but often, that is not the case.

    Also, probably the women on the PCs get asked to serve more often than men.

    WRT to disadvantages: I get really sick of people talking about “women’s issues”. Real issue is simply collaboration. If you are a woman, you are simply less likely to immediately be “friends” with your collaborators. Being “friends” enables spontaneous and comfortable collaboration. Your collaborations are more likely to be more formal and less comfortable at least in the initial stages.

  11.   anon — October 25, 2010 @ 9:29 am    


    It would be interesting to see the exact percentage, but 25% does not seem unreasonable. Anons above listed 38 female theorists, almost exclusively employed by top 15 CS departments. How many theorists would you say are employed in total by the top 15 departments? If we let each department in the top 15 have 10 theorists (huge overestimate), then the 38 women represent a 38/150 = 25.33% fraction.

  12.   anony — October 25, 2010 @ 9:40 am    

    Those names span about 25 different departments …

  13.   Irit — October 27, 2010 @ 7:54 am    

    Discrimination is at its most effective when arguing that it does *not* exist is the dissident stand. The title of your post (stating the obvious as if it’s news) is a sign of how deep in the shit we are.

  14.   Glencora — October 27, 2010 @ 3:53 pm    

    Looking around the FOCS attendees, 10% is a gross overestimate of the proportion of women in CS. 5%? 3%? I don’t know the exact number, but it was low. So, it must be that women are overrepresented among the theory PCs. Is this a service? It gives women exposure and experience (at the junior level). Or is a disservice? It must mean a higher service load for women (a common complaint) and more conferences where they are not submitting (for those conferences that do not allow submissions from PC members).

    As for affirmative action, I wish I knew how it could be implemented well. I’ve seen it done REALLY badly – one school (bonus points if you guess it) that requires extensive paperwork be filled out in defence of not hiring a woman who was interviewed but not offered a job. A recipe for not interviewing women in the first place, no?

  15.   x — October 27, 2010 @ 9:16 pm    

    Women are free to refuse to serve on a PC.
    The women I know in theory are pretty strong and independent people who can make good decisions about such things.

  16.   x — October 29, 2010 @ 1:19 pm    

    About being hit on at conferences, how is it any different from being hit on by your coworkers in any other profession?

  17.   Dave — October 31, 2010 @ 6:40 am    

    Cora: It certainly seems like a dumb and arbitrary rule to me, since it means they should already be confident about the woman’s hirability *before* interviewing them. Sounds scary (BTW, certainly more scary than Hallowe’en here in Lausanne – although they have a marathon today which does frighten the lazy out of me)

    x: Sure, relaistically, attraction is human nature and happens to some extent in any workplace, but if one gender is outnumbered 10:1, wouldn’t it stand to reason the frequency of hits on the :1 may be annoyingly high?

  18.   Dana Randall — November 2, 2010 @ 7:24 am    

    Thanks to Cora for bringing up this sensitive topic. Achieving gender balance, or fair representation, on PCs is not easy. By far the most challenging part of chairing a program committee is choosing the right committee. For SODA 2011, I pored over lists of names to balance gender, nationality, theory discipline, universities, seniority, academia vs. industry, etc. Each time someone said no, especially toward the end of the process, I faced the challenge of finding another fat, green, early career, Martian with three heads. I did work hard to make sure I had reasonable representation of women on the committee, but I also worked hard to find a learning theorist since they have lots of conferences and tend to sit on many more committees. (And as for fewer women on STOC 2011, it wasn’t for lack of effort — at least two of us on the SODA PC said no for the obvious sleepless reasons and I have no doubt that many more were asked!)

    The point of “affirmative action” in hiring and service is that whenever we are looking for a small number of representatives from a large group, we have a tendency to gravitate toward the “average” or the “familiar.” What does a “typical” theorist look like? Look around you. AA is a check. Did we exclude appropriate candidates because of this tendency toward maintaining the norm — and note that this includes subject matter, disabilities, and other forms of bias as well. While some of the PCs that Jeff mentions seem to be counterexamples, the bigger the committee, the easier it is to achieve balance. When there is only one faculty position to fill, however, there can be less effort toward recognizing outliers, and AA (done right) tries to address this.

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