Sunday, June 27, 2010

Women in Theory

The workshop for women in theoretical computer science was first held in the summer of 2008 and was held for the second time last week. That makes it this blog's two year anniversary.

One of the things that makes Women in Theory different from most of the other conferences for women in computer science is its emphasis on technical talks. (This is one of the differences that I heard mentioned at the workshop as critical to many of the participants wanting to come.) In fact, all but three of the talks were 1 1/2 hour technical survey talks, designed to give enough background to understand some of the research in a particular area. They were uniformly excellent. (In fact, if you're interested in doing research in one of the areas surveyed, I highly recommend you watch the video of the talk for that area, which should at some point appear on the workshop webpage.) Were the talks excellent because women are naturally good at giving talks? It seems more likely to me that these women had two important things going for them - some serious skill in their field and the desire to give a good talk.

Even though the workshop was predominantly filled with technical talks, I'm going to misrepresent it here by mostly talking about the "women talks." The first was by Jesse Ellison from Newsweek about the state of women in the workplace. It was based mostly on this article and you should also look out for the video of that appearing on the workshop website.

As in the last workshop, there was a work/life balance panel including all the technical talk givers who were still there. I've now been to many such panels, and as usual there were these two unanswerable questions from the audience, "When is the best time for me to get pregnant?" and "How do I get self-esteem?" The answer to both is essentially "Whenever you're ready." But there was some excellent advice offered: be willing to spend money. That was mostly in response to how to deal with working while having a small child (good child care is a great thing). I would extend it generally to all of grad school (and likely beyond, I'll let you know once I get there). I spend most of my time working in a local cafe with my coffee and lunch. Yes, it costs more than working at home would, but I'm more productive at the cafe. For me, writing a paper intro is worth the cost of lunch.

The president of Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, also spoke. She gave a concise and focused talk describing the four reasons that we should all care about the number of women in the sciences:

  1. Leaving out half of the world's work force isn't the best strategy for good scientific progress.
  2. Science and technology will start to look left behind and out-of-date (as more and more women enter the workforce worldwide) and no-one will want to join our fields.
  3. By including women, you increase the number and type of problems considered. What intrigues women is different (though we don't do the science differently). (Tilghman acknowledged that this point is controversial and gave the example of Liz Blackburn, Nobel Prize winner, who discovered the structure at the ends of chromosomes by working with an organism, pond scum, that no one else was working with. Despite skepticism, Blackburn believed her approach was correct and continued to work on it independently.)
  4. It's unfair/ unethical to create exciting/interesting fields and then structure them so that they have barriers to women and underrepresented minorities. Universities, especially, shouldn't accept cultural norms that work against women. (For Tilghman's response to questions about what specific structures she's referring to, see the video of the talk.)

I highly recommend going to the next workshop (hopefully in 2012), if you can. Much thanks to the organizers, Tal Rabin, Boaz Barak, and Moses Charikar!


Anonymous said...

What cafe? Pray tell, is there a good one near the College Park campus?

sorelle said...

I don't live near campus, but the College Perk is excellent... if it's still open. I haven't been there in a few years...

Anonymous said...

College Perk has been closed for a couple of years (I believe they had a fire?)

GASARCH said...

How is attendence at WOMEN IN THEORY handled- is it by invite only?
Women only? If I (a guy) wanted to go, could I? If the Tech talks look interesting and/or I am curious about issues affecting women even though I am not one, I can see wanting to go.

Were there many men at the WOMEN IN THEORY workshop?

sorelle said...

Attendance at Women in Theory is by application. I have no idea how they'd handle it if a guy applied. I do, however, think that it's important/ useful that it be mostly women.

The only men around were from the Princeton dept., and they only joined us for food. (:

Josh said...

I don't know the history, but I'm not sure I buy the Blackburn example as an example of how "what intrigues women is different." I'm sure there are plenty of examples of both men and women scientists who have stuck with an idea despite wideheld skepticism, only to finally prove their idea correct/useful. (Unfortunately no examples come to mind at the moment...)

On the other hand, I do agree with the general idea that "what intrigues women is different," and that having that alternative viewpoint in science is a Good Thing.

sorelle said...

I'm actually unsure that I believe in general that "what intrigues women is different" - perhaps I just have trouble believing something without seeing the data. (;

As to Blackburn, I think the discipline specific knowledge about usual species to examine is important to the context here about whether or not this falls under the "what intrigues women is different" category, and I just don't have that discipline "cultural" background to have an informed opinion.