Women in Theory

I’m on my way back from the 3rd Women in Theory biennial conference. I was invited to the first one, as a participant, but was unable to go due to a combination of teaching my first course, recovering from mono and generally travelling too much in the early months of my post doc. While I’m sorry to have missed that, I am very happy to have been invited this time as a speaker.

The speakers were a cross section of career stages from junior faculty through well-established researchers and covered an array of topics in TCS from algorithms through security. And though the conference was targeted at the 40 or so grad students (only three of which were near graduation), I appreciated the chance to hear survey-ish talks and advice from the panelists (on which all the speakers sat) and meet the next generation of TCS leaders. Well, at least a targeted selection thereof.

Now, I know that such gender-targeted events garner criticism. Is it discrimination to not have male speakers and participants? You probably already know my opinion, but I’ll repeat it here. The gender balance is bad. It’s gotten worse at the undergraduate level since the 80s and 90s and is only very slowly heading toward balance at the graduate and faculty level. Any proponents of the “an unbalanced ratio is possibly the ‘natural’ ratio” can look at any number of fields, (chemistry, medicine, biology) to see that what once was an unbalanced ratio is now balanced. The unbalanced ratio results in discrimination, either explicit or subtle, which causes the numbers to grow ever slowly. Targeted programs and efforts help to overcome this discrimination. The imbalance hurts our field and any field that suffers this problem*. We are missing out on an untapped resource of talent. The Eva Tardoses and Jennifer Chaves and Cynthia Dworks of our world are not anomalies.

I digress. On Monday afternoon, I spoke to a room of 50 women. I have never spoken in front of 50 women before, despite having taught classes upwards of 200 students. In my classes, when I’m feeling lazy and don’t target students to answer questions but just draw from the hands that go up, I don’t get questions or answers from female students. But in this room, many answers. Many questions. Many volunteers. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so at ease giving a lecture before.

I decided, rather than give a talk delving into the details of my own research, or giving an overview of an area, I would give a tutorial. So, I picked up some chalk and taught planar graphs, their properties and how they can be used to design algorithms, for 90 minutes. It went well! I got many blush-inducing thanks after and that made me feel really, really good. I hope others can experience that at some point.

So finally, thank you to Shubhangi Saraf, Tal Rabin, Lisa Zhang and (local organizer) Moses Charikar for making this happen. I do hope it continues to, and I wouldn’t mind at all if it was expanded to have all levels included as participants, because I’d love to go back.

* I have to say that I am very curious as to how a field, such as English, where the gender balance is essentially inverted from our own, handles any discrimination that may arise toward men.
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One thought on “Women in Theory

  1. Dave Pritchard

    I have only one potential correction, that the plural of Tardos might not be Tardoses, but Tardosok. Seriously though, this sounds like it was a great event! +1 for chalk-based communication.

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