Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Should Science Be Title IX'd?

The NYTimes has an article on Title IX impacting the sciences today (thanks to the commenter who pointed me to it!). As is often the case with short articles on subjects I already know and think a lot about, I don't think this is a great article. Still, it raises some interesting points that I'm going to get to. But first, as evidence of my problems with the article, I present its last paragraph (emphasis mine):

Whether or not quotas are ever imposed, some of the most productive science and engineering departments in America are busy filling out new federal paperwork. The agencies that have been cutting financing for Fermilab and the Spirit rover on Mars are paying for investigations of a problem that may not even exist. How is this good for scientists of either sex?

Apparently my problems in the field, and those of thousands of other women, are figments of our hysterical female imaginations. The numerous studies showing that women must be better to have the same success as men (here's a better NYTimes article) must be flawed. Instead, the article argues, what's really going on is that women are just happier elsewhere. And it dismisses the idea that this is because of the discrimination in the field.

The basic premise is that women enjoy interacting with people in higher percentages than men, who enjoy interacting with machines in higher percentages than women. This may be true, but it should have nothing to do with women in the sciences. In fact, computer science for example, is a highly interactive field. We work with each other, test subjects, students, etc. We go to conferences. (We even comment on blogs.) Ultimately, the portrayal of computer science desperately needs to change (I believe the NSF is working on an initiative to do this... but I can't find the link right now). But really, that's not what this article was about. In fact, the author could have taken a look at the field originally heavily regulated by Title IX - sports. When Title IX first began, I'm sure people made the argument that women just weren't as interested in sports as men. And yet the participation of women in sports has increased dramatically.

So the question is, should science be regulated by Title IX? I think that, as with other regulations, this all depends on how the oversight is implemented and what the outcome means in terms of paperwork and restrictions. But trying to think about it abstractly, my answer is yes. This does not mean that I believe in quotas, which I think might cause enough resentment so that they wouldn't be worth it. Instead, I believe that something drastic needs to be done to encourage (um, force) departments to take this issue seriously. As a grad student, I should not be a major advocate for women within my department - I should be a drop in the bucket. And yet I find myself frequently explaining why the department should care if there are women admitted, retained, etc. And frequently finding ways to help those goals along. And this is not to say that my department is not responsive to these issues when I bring them up - just that it is not a priority. Doing research is the priority. As it should be. Which is why I think departments need help.

One of the frequent oversights which increases the disparity between the percentages of women and men in the field (and is common to other minority groups as well) is the extent to which the majority make qualitative decisions based on their own familiarity with people like them. I served on my department's admissions committee this past year. I believe that we ultimately did a fair job, but in the discussions about candidates there were often comments like "I just have a feeling that she wouldn't make it here." We are scientists and should know better than to make such wildly unsubstantiated claims. Yet these are comments that appear at every level. They should not be allowed to impact the decision making process, but without some sort of regulation over the closed-door decisions these comments keep women who are only as good as the men out of the sciences. Perhaps Title IX could help.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Moving While Reading Papers

I moved yesterday. The new house is probably less than a mile from the old apartment, but I still needed to pack everything and lift everything. I'm incredibly sore. And while the geometric part of me actually enjoys packing (how can I fit all these differently shaped objects into boxes in the most space efficient way?), there were some other geometric problems that I would have preferred to be looking at.

I'm currently working on three projects on three different topics with three different people. This is too many. But I'm interested in all of them and want to see them through. So I am forever juggling these projects. And I think I've figured out how to make that work for me (it involves days with no meetings and lots of time in coffee shops). But when a fourth non-work project comes up (pack! move!) it throws the whole system off. So today, while waiting for the cable guy to show up at the new place so that my CS woman roommate and I can work, I'll be reading a paper for a meeting later today and unpacking. I'm a big multi-tasker (I'm currently drinking tea and eating breakfast while writing this post), but this is a little much.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Another of the interesting topics at the women in theory workshop was the issue that women are less likely than men to negotiate (for pay raises, for work opportunities, for exactly what they want at a restaurant, for everything). Sara Laschever, one of the authors of Women Don't Ask, gave a very entertaining and convincing talk on this issue. I say convincing, because one of her main goals seemed to be to convince all of us that it's worth the momentary awkwardness in order to improve your pay and career down the line. The main idea here, of course, is that if you don't negotiate for a higher salary at the beginning of your career, then over time this small amount difference between what you settled for and what you could have negotiated will grow to a significant amount due to percent increase raises, etc. In addition, not negotiating for career opportunities will set you back in terms of experience as well. I was definitely convinced. And despite the studies that have shown that women face a social cost when negotiating (Sara's co-author, Linda Babcock, is referenced frequently), Sara argued that negotiating is still a net benefit. She also argued that everything is negotiable.

It's this last point that I've been thinking about lately. Sara suggested that women should go to the "negotiation gym." Get a "gym" buddy and trade stories of little negotiation triumphs in everyday life. For example, I could negotiate with the kids who swim in the pool I like to go to so that I could have a portion of the pool to do laps in and they would try to stay on their side while playing Marco Polo. I must admit that I'm one of the (apparently few?) women who really enjoy haggling in marketplaces (no, not in the US), so viewing "scary" negotiation like this has a certain appeal. But I also wonder, is everything really negotiable?

Consider grad school. You apply, you (hopefully) get in, and you get your offer(s). These are (sort of) negotiable, especially if you have multiple offers. But what about once you're there? You receive a semesterly/ yearly update to your offer - often you find out what it is when you go to sign it. This seems non-negotiable. But is it? (Note: this is actually a moot point for me since I'm on a wonderful fellowship, but sadly this will run out someday and anyway I'm curious.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Not Running Towards Obama

I'm one of those Hillary Clinton supporters that the media keeps reporting is threatening to vote for McCain. Now, there's not a chance that I'm going to vote for McCain because I'm intelligent enough to see that Obama supports more of my beliefs than McCain does (and in fact, I think most Hillary supporters are smart enough to do that calculation). So I think that the real question becomes if we Hillary supporters are going to do everything we can to get Obama elected, or whether we're going to just apathetically show up on election day and vote for him.

Once upon a time a long long time ago, when this election season started, I was very excited about Obama. I was more excited about Hillary, so after some consideration I decided to back her. But for me, it was a win/win and either way I expected to fully support the nominee - money, door knocking, phone banking, etc. Since then, I've moved into the Hillary camp... hoping that I could come back out easily, happily continuing to help if the vote went against my hopes. Well, he's making it hard.

Now, I don't usually like to get into discussions about abortion because I think it's one of those things that people are unlikely to change their minds about and are likely to care deeply about. But I'm staunchly pro-choice. And while Obama's pro-choice... he's been making statements which begin to chip away at that position by defining situations in which it's ok for the government to decide for women if they're allowed to get an abortion or not.

My first worry was based on comments he made which support parental consent and/or notification laws. Or rather, he says “I would oppose any legislation that does not include a bypass provision for minors who have been victims of, or have reason to fear, physical or sexual abuse." Well yes, I would oppose that too. But this implies that he would support the laws as long as these provisions were in place. Just a guess, but I imagine that if a minor is in that situation, it's likely that they won't have the adult resources to know how to go about getting a bypass to a judge. (Politico article)

Now he's moved on to limiting which women are allowed to get third trimester abortions. He says he opposes late-term abortion in cases of "mental distress." This is another common way to slowly whittle away women's rights (and my interest and advocacy for his candidacy). (AP article, original article in Relevant magazine, Obama "clarification")

It's true that all politicians make compromises. And maybe I'm holding him to a higher standard since he preaches a different kind of politics. But then, isn't it only fair to judge him by his own standards? In which case he either falls short or he actually believes in limiting abortion. Either way, while he'll have my vote, he might not have my help.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Student Only Conference Events?

Some of the comments from a previous post raise the question of why career advice panels and other non-technical topics aren't included in conferences like FOCS, STOC, and SODA. This reminded me of an issue that we discussed when planning SoCG - should we hold a separate event for students? The thought was that there would be grad students who came without advisors (or whose advisors weren't going out to eat with them for some reason, they're on the PC, etc.) and might not know other people at the conference. Or just might want to meet more people. It seemed like a good idea to me at the time, and still does, though it didn't end up happening (too much to do? not enough interest?). I think it would help with networking among students and make conferences seem more welcoming. And (despite our inaction) it seems like something that should be easy to organize - just set up a specific restaurant location and time and anyone interested can show up. What do you think?

And now, I'm off to a 50% chance of watching it thunderstorm on the Capital fireworks...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

When the Rivers Run Dry

I decided that the plane ride to the wedding this past weekend was the perfect time to start a book I've been wanting to read: When the Rivers Run Dry: Water - The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century. I haven't finished it yet, but it's already given me a lot to think about, and I highly recommend it. It discusses the sources of water, the ways in which many of these sources are being over tapped, and the consequences when that happens. As the author points out, these consequences effect the climate, agriculture, the success of civilizations, the likelihood of war. It was especially interesting to read on my way to Duluth, Minnesota - a city which sits on the edge of Lake Superior, the largest fresh water lake in the world (by surface area).

Duluth is a beautiful city built on the steep hills overlooking the lake, and the lake looks more like an ocean - it has tides, waves, and ship wrecks. But while Phoenix, Arizona is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, Duluth's population was about 105,000 in the 1960s and is now down to about 85,000. Yet Arizona's water resources can't naturally support its population (Phoenix now has a population of about 1.5 million). By classical standards, this pattern of growth is incredibly stupid. Of course, modern strategies allow water to be moved, which is why the Great Lakes states are legislating to ensure the water stays in the region. When the Rivers Run Dry discusses how Arizona is helping the Colorado river to run dry, so while Lake Superior still looks like an ocean, I'm glad the lake states are taking action.

Closer to home, I received the 2007 Drinking Water Quality Report from the DC Water and Sewer Authority today. The water here comes from the Potomac river, which I can walk to. As suspected from the smell of the water in the shower, the water is sometimes over the EPA limit for chlorine. Significantly over. After all, I can smell it. And I wonder - if the water I receive in my posh, white, NW neighborhood is this chlorinated, what's it like in neighborhoods where the residents don't have water filters in their fridges?

Still, the arsenic levels are well under EPA regulations, which is more than can be said for much of the water in India and Bangladesh where millions of people are being slowly poisoned by the water they drink.