Monday, June 30, 2008

When is the best time to have a baby?

One of the questions that's almost always asked at Work/Life Balance panels is "when is the best time to have a baby?" This is, of course, one of those questions that's impossible to answer for someone else. And usually, the panelists rightly don't touch the answer. But perhaps the askers still want to know - is it better to have kids during or after grad school?

I was at a wedding this weekend and saw a family friend who's a sociologist. We were talking about some of these issues and she mentioned that this question has actually been studied (I must admit that I find it strange to think about people studying us). So here's a link to the study: The Best Time to Have a Baby: Institutional Resources and Family Strategies Among Early Career Sociologists. It is, as the title suggests, not really studying us if us means women in computer science, but it still seems relevant. The study was done by the American Sociological Association and the short version of the summary is:
Those women who give birth or adopt during graduate school have significantly lower odds of obtaining what we have defined as early career success right out of graduate school, even if they obtain institutional resources and use them in career strategies. Their chances improve several years later if they change jobs, when other positive factors are present. Those women who have children after graduate school decrease their odds of obtaining a tenure-track position at a research or doctoral university if they did not obtain this kind of position right after the PhD. Women who continue to delay childbirth do better at obtaining success early in their careers, and, as we have seen, significantly more of them delay childbirth than do their male colleagues.

My short version answer to this question stays the same as before I read the summary (I admit - that's all I've read so far): Have kids when you're ready. That was the advice of someone at the work/life balance panel, and it seemed like good advice to me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Work / Life Balance

The Women in Theory workshop had a panel on Work/Life Balance. I've now been to a couple of similar panels, and they usually make me leave fuming and incoherently trying to explain why what I just saw was a train wreck. WiT did a much better job at this and instead left me thinking about what usually goes wrong. It's the assumptions often made by the people on the panel when they generalize from their own experiences. Here are some of the common ones:

  1. It is important to maintain work/life balance. Who says that life and work should be in balance? This implies that work is not a part of life, but just something we have to do with some of our time. The idea of having a life outside of 9-5. But that's not academia - it's not even what I want academia to be. In other words, the premise of the panel itself is faulty (as nicely pointed out at the WiT panel). Also, it seems that this is another of those "women's issues" - work/life balance is seen as something that men don't need to worry about, probably because of the following assumptions...
  2. "Life" means having a family and taking care of it. Really? Because I also like to be outside and hang out with friends and...
  3. We all want husbands. This should be obvious, but just because we're all women, doesn't mean we're all the same. Some of us are American, some are black, and yes, some are gay. Plus some might just be happier single.
  4. We all want children.
  5. We all want to bear children. No, this and the previous assumption are not the same.
  6. Our children would be better off if we stayed home with them. In fact, having been raised by two professors, I believe exactly the opposite...
  7. We will feel guilty about going to work instead of staying home with our kids. ... and so no, I'm not going to feel any guilt about doing work.

I'm not saying that it's a problem if the women on a panel talk about any of these things. Please do - it's all part of your experience and that's why you're up there. But when they start assuming about the audience ("when you want to have kids...") or when the panel presents a uniform view without explicitly acknowledging that they have bizarrely all had the same experience, then it just serves to marginalize the "unusual" in an already marginalized group of women (aka - it makes me fume).

Monday, June 23, 2008

Women In Theory workshop

I went to a workshop for women in theoretical computer science this past week.  It's actually what spurred me to finally make this blog.  One of the workshop organizers asked if anyone wanted to blog the conference... and I realized that none of the main theory blogs are written by women.  She asked if we wanted to guest post for Bill and Lance. I'm sure we have enough to say so that we shouldn't just be guest blogging - I know I do.

The workshop itself was incredible. For years I've been wishing that I knew more women in theory. More is, of course, a relative term, but should have been easily achievable since I only knew a handful (five?). There were about 40 students and 10 speakers (from academia and research labs) at the workshop - that's definitely more than a handful! And it was a wonderful environment to be in - incredibly smart women talking about theoretical computer science. Anyone doubting that the women in this field are brilliant would be corrected quickly - how could they not be with speakers like Cynthia Dwork, Eva Tardos, and Shafi Goldwasser (recent ACM Athena lecturer winner!). These are of course just a selection of the women there, and the students (from all the top ranking CS universities - MIT, CMU, Berkeley, Cornell, ...) were also brilliant. It was all-around inspiring and motiving (at times, all I wanted more than to be listening to the current speaker was time to do my own research).

WiT included both technical talks and "women's issues" (it's really not the right phrase for them, but I'm at a loss for a better one) talks, in just the right balance. At past women in computer science events that I've been to, the women's talks start to become overwhelming and obvious, and while I get a lot out of those conferences and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to go to them, there end up being some sessions which I don't find helpful. WiT on the other hand had only three of these sessions (work/life balance, how to give a presentation, and how to negotiate), and they were each useful and well-presented. I'll talk more about these in a later post.

The technical talks made up the bulk of the conference, and these provided a nice overview of the field, but not just an overview as each speaker also spoke about their current research. Sadly, there were no talks in computational geometry, but this did mean that much of each talk was new to me. Joan Feigenbaum gave a nice talk including an overview of onion routing (also seen on the episode of Numb3rs aired the following Friday - Killer Chat). Tal Malkin gave an intro to crypto, which was especially exciting since I've never had a crypto class. In fact, many of the talks were crypto or privacy based and a similar definition of privacy/secure encryption/etc was given in a number of talks: The algorithm is secure/private/etc. if an adversary observing the state before the algorithm doesn't learn too much by observing the state after the algorithm. Cynthia pointed out some problems with this definition... but I'm afraid I don't remember the details of her objections. In fact, though I won't discuss them all here, all but one of the talks were excellent. Without naming names, I'll say that that one was presented very well, but undershot the audience - I'm sure we all already knew what a correlation is. To be fair, she's in industry and this is likely a standard talk she gives to prospective undergrads.

The other thing that was great about the technical talks was that each speaker attended talks other than her own. Which meant that we got to hear them ask questions too. It was wonderful to see a model of how to ask questions politely and sensitively without apologizing or dumbing yourself down. This is something I think many men could use practice on as well, but I think is especially important for women who often err on the side of apologizing and seeming stupid in order to not offend. It should be obvious that in a professional setting this is not a good strategy for us, but it's a very hard line to walk.

The conference as a whole was absolutely inspiring. And a breathe of fresh air that I needed without knowing it. I do hope it continues in future years.


I'm currently a PhD student in Computer Science, specifically Theoretical Computer Science, specifically Computational Geometry.  I'm also female.  I also like music - making it and listening to it.  And swimming.  And hanging out with friends.  And teaching.  And reading.  And many other things that have nothing to do with computer science.  There are many other multi-dimensional people in computer science... something that I think grad school obscures.  And this will be a multi-dimensional blog.