Wednesday, June 30, 2010

July Scientiae: Fantasy Institute

This month's July Scientiae is from JaneB:
"You have been selected as the Director of a newly endowed research institute. It is your job to decide where the institute will be based, its codes of conduct, its structure, and who you will hire. Dream away! Tell us what would make your institute a haven for scientists." 
Photo by Glisglis
- Based in warm climate with fantastic public transportation and great restaurants. 

- Nice, smart, and passionate about science. 

- On-site chef
- On-site, high-quality childcare with enough space for all employees
- Lots of green space (trees, shrubbery, etc), flowers, parks, benches, hiking trails, maybe a pond or two

- Researchers never have to worry about funding or making a profit.  
- Funds are always available to buy cool research toys, the caveat being that you need to make sure at least two other colleagues have played with your toy.
- Funding is always available to travel to conferences, even if you don't have a paper accepted. 

- Fantastic, friendly, helpful administrative support whom are well paid and well treated.
- When reimbursing travel/equipment, no one is allowed to make a fuss over anything less than $50. Ever. 

Work environment:
- Slacking is encouraged, in order to generate brilliant ideas. No one is allowed to feel guilty (or make others feel guilty) for sitting in the park reading a fiction novel, playing sports, going for a swim in the pond, or chatting with others. 

Our motto: Great ideas and great work come from treating people well. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

Err on the side of "Doctor"

DrugMonkey's post on academic titles reminded me of something I wanted to mention.

Photo by Cybertoad
When addressing someone in an academic context whose gender and/or academic ranking is unknown, it's generally best to err on the side of "Doctor". The worst that happens is you're wrong and they're flattered.

Recently a colleague (C1) invited another colleague (C2) to review a paper. C2 is a woman, and a postdoc. C1 is a male academic researcher. If one searches for C2's name, the first few hits clearly show that she has a PhD, and also that she appears to be a "she". But for some reason, C1 entered C2's information into the reviewing system as "Mr. C2 Lastname". C2 has spent a lot of time in a country which has a masculine culture, so she's probably not phased by this, but I find I am a bit. Why is "Mr." the default?

Another FCS and I were once in charge of allocating a small pot of money and advertised a call for applicants. Several applications we received were addressed, "Dear Sir". I just couldn't wrap my head around this. If we both didn't have photographs on our webpages (which both show us very much looking female) I could maybe excuse this error. But even still, the applicants could have written, "Dear Committee Members" or even just "Dear FCS1 and FCS2." Ah well... too bad about that funding. ;)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mobile Scholar: Part I

Image by Mike Licht
I am trying to turn my iPad into a laptop in order to lighten my load while traveling (and save my poor neck). It will never replace a proper computer from a software development perspective, but from a scholarly reading and writing perspective I am almost there.

The Chronicle had a nice post in ProfHacker regarding PDF annotation and organization, and Christopher Long has also written in greater detail about how one goes about "Closing the Digital Research Circle". For PDF annotation, syncing, and citing, I strongly suspect Mendeley is going to win the race. As much as I love the idea of Zotero, I just don't use Firefox on any of my machines or mobile devices. (I did enjoy using the open source Aigaion, but once my entire bibliography got trashed while upgrading I decided to stick with the pros). Mendeley can be buggy, but as one person said, "When it works, it works really well," and they're right.

Anyway, that's still just consumption and management of existing content, which is only half the problem. The other is creating and editing manuscripts.

In my field, everyone writes papers in LaTeX. Some journals and conferences occasionally permit the submission of Word documents, but personally I have a hard time understanding how anyone can do that without pulling their hair out. The last time I wrote an article in Word I spent several days dealing with misplaced references, unusual figure formats, caption problems, and incompatibility issues. When I write in LaTeX I can just focus on the writing and ignore everything else. (Kind of like writing a program in Java vs. C++)

But how to write LaTeX on the go? Due to a lack of multitasking in the present OS, as well as Apple forbidding any applications that compile code (e.g., no easy way to typeset your documents), what's a body to do?

I recently found LaTeX Lab, which lets you edit and typeset LaTeX Google Docs. Hooray! Almost there!

...sadly, Google Documents are not yet natively editable on the iPad.

I can, of course, remote login to my machines back at the office using virtualization software and edit LaTeX files there, but that just feels so inelegant. So we're not there just quite yet. I'm going to try a few things over the next few weeks and will report back.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"But you don't look like a computer scientist!"

Joe McCarthy has an interesting post about the Boopsie Effect, "wherin women in upper-level positions in historically male-dominated professions find that 'attractiveness suggests less competence and intellectual ability'". He discusses some female computer science researchers he knows who have felt compelled to conceal their attractiveness in order to be taken seriously by their colleagues.

This is a picture of Hedy Lammar, silver screen 
actress and wireless security pioneer.

Photo by BooBooGBs
I thought this was an interesting comment, because I've fortunately never encountered this sort of problem from my male colleagues. However, I have most certainly encountered this from the lay public.

For example, I recently bought an iPad while traveling. Because I had suitcases to carry, I accepted the Apple store employee's suggestion to open the box and register the SIM card so I could leave all the packaging at the store. After he finished I began to gather my bags and he said, "Do you need any help setting up your email?" to which I replied, "No thanks, I'm a computer scientist." He had a look of shock on his face and said, "Oh! I underestimated you!"

I'm still not entirely sure what to make of that comment. What are we computer scientists supposed to look like exactly?

Of course this comment isn't nearly as bad as one I received a long time ago. I was out with some friends, and a man came over and started talking to me. He asked me what my profession was. I told him, and he said, "But you don't look like a computer scientist!" I had to leave the room for a second, and when I came back he was gone. Perhaps he was hoping I looked more like Hedy?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cloudy with a chance of iPhones

I was ... the first full-time woman faculty member in my department.
There really was difficulty among my male colleagues in associating
with a woman as a colleague. I think they literally did not know how
to talk to me, and as a consequence often just did not talk to me.
They would ignore me. They would not invite me to have lunch with
them, which was a very ordinary experience there ... they would walk
past my office and ask the next person and never ask me. [Years
later] I asked one of my colleagues why this was so. And he said,
`You know what would happen if I asked you to lunch ... People would
talk' ([Clark et al 1986, pages 36--37,] in [Sandler 1986, pages 7--8,]).

Ellen Spertus quoted this passage in an MIT tech report she wrote in 1991 on the topic de jour in various tech circles, "Why are there so few female computer scientists?" One part of the article I liked was the section entitled, The Masculine Environment: Behavior Due to Sex-Correlated Differences. Here she discusses how difficult it can be for women to talk with men about non-academic topics as their interests often do not overlap. She also points out that many of the "team-building" activities intending to foster communication among colleagues often involve things that tend to appeal more to men than to women. (In general).
Photo by Adam Crowe

For example, in my department, some recent events purporting to build camaraderie have been: World Cup viewing + drinking beer, happy hour, visiting a bar, some video game events, and recently a long string of XTREME sporting activities. Of the very few female faculty and students in my department, I don't think any participate in these activities. Several come from religious and cultural backgrounds that strongly prohibit drinking-related activities.

While we do have a great mentoring scheme set up for women coming into the department and supporting them while they're here which includes some social events, it's not really the same thing. In fact, while I applaud the efforts, sometimes going to these women-focused events makes me feel like I'm sitting at the kid's table at Thanksgiving. By trying to help us fit in, we are further made separate. I've suggested to various people in my department that perhaps there might be other group activities more amenable to helping us intermix a bit more, so perhaps things will change in the future.

But in the meanwhile: What can a lone woman do to fit in with the men?

The answer lies within the thing that got you into this crazy field in the first place - a deep love (or hatred) of technology. Think of this topic like the weather for computer scientists. I guarantee you that most people in your department are following the latest drama regarding Apple and Flash, Facebook's latest privacy fail, or what neat things the new Kinect will do. And if you're not up on the latest, I strongly suggest subscribing to the ACM's Tech News. It's only three emails a week which you can quickly skim to get an idea of what's happening.

Talking tech is a great way to break the ice and start to develop the rapport that is essential to being accepted into (and thus feeling comfortable in) a male-dominated department.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Can I call you 'babe'?"

Recently I was chatting with some colleagues, and we were discussing a researcher joining our group. One person started to say, "And this new girl-,"  looks at me, "-Oh, or should I say, 'woman'?"

All the men in the room turned to look at me.

"Definitely 'woman'. I would only say 'girl' if I was speaking about a child."

This question actually sparked a good, productive conversation. Sometimes these situations can get awkward when one is asked to represent their entire sex, but I really appreciate it when people care enough about their language to ask.

Photo by Occhiovio
I also really appreciate when people correct me on my language usage. Lately I've been trying to not use ableist language in my speech, and am glad to be called on it. It's really difficult to deprogram yourself once you establish certain patterns, but it's worth it.

Why? Because language shapes thought. While the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is unlikely to be true in its strongest form (language determines thought), it is most certainly true in its weak form (language influences thought). Recently cultural neuroscience has been making a splash, showing things like how people raised in individualistic or collectivist cultures will respond to the same words in completely different ways. Other studies have suggested that education level affects how people differ in the way they consider concepts such as freedom and choice.  And who knows if any of the studies we've conducted over the past century have external validity outside WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) populations.

Words matter. So when talking to someone who represents a group that you are not a part of, it's not a bad idea to ask them what term they'd prefer you use when you refer to them or their group. Much better that then putting your foot in your mouth!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Communication Styles and Skin Thickness

I've started this blog, mainly, because of some recent articles in the NY Times by John Tierney regarding the reasons why their are so few women in STEM. While some of his writing contained bits of truth, mostly it was a thinly veiled opinion piece that the editors should never have put in the 'science' section.

But I have no desire to attack Tierney or the Times editorial staff beyond voicing my displeasure at both. What I want to discuss here is why women really leave STEM.

It's all about the people, and their communication styles.

Throughout my life, I have participated in many activities where there are hardly any women - CS departments, engineering companies, tinkering groups, ham radio, some sports. Aside from occasional pleasant surprises in my professional life (such as once attending Grace Hopper), I'm often the only woman in the room. But generally I haven't found this to be a problem. I am lucky in this regard, I know this can be a problem for many women, especially at first. But over time I've learned strategies that help me to not feel intimidated giving a talk in front of a room full of men, to not feel worried about speaking up in meetings, and to hold my
own arguing to the death about software design.

But the one thing that has, on occasion, made me want to leave technology entirely and open a bakery are people who come across as jerks. People who are deaf to the tone of their affect, who do not understand that their mannerisms would be considered rude by most people, who act seemingly unconcerned about how others might feel in reaction to what they say. The good news is these people are usually gender-egalitarian in their thorniness, but I think sometimes for some women, enough encounters like this make you want to leave the rose garden.

"You need to grow a thicker skin" and "Don't take it personally" are comments I heard early in my career, and still hear as advice given to young women embarking on theirs. Women are told, particularly in academic science, that if they want to be successful they need to be able to handle the beatings that can come in a manner that is unquestionably brash, rude, and humiliating. We are told to not cry in front of others, we are told to not lose face, and ultimately, we are told to act like men. (Except not too much, because then you become unlikeable, and that's also a career killer for STEM women. Surprise!)

The problem is that most women I know have much lower emotional pain thresholds when it comes to their professional lives than most men I know. And while other professions have their share of people interaction problems, they seem to be less tolerated to the degree they are in STEM. I've attended many a talk where someone in the audience interrupts the speaker, repeatedly, to nitpick. Nobody will ever pull Dr. Jones aside and say, "You had some good points, Dr. Jones, but did you really have to be so rude making them?" The problem is, Dr. Jones is not going to notice the quiet sighs and subtle eye rolls every time zie acts up during seminar. Dr. Jones does not get hints. Dr. Jones may or may not respond to directness, but by the time others in the group have worked up the gumption to say something, it's years too late. The humiliated person is long gone, from the organization and perhaps from science itself.

This is a problem that needs to be addressed on mutiple levels. Yes, wronged people need to rise from the ashes, get their game on, and fight back. But everyone else needs to stop acting so tolerant of brash behavior in science. And for people who act brashly, they need to learn, as much as they are able, some more positive interaction behaviors.

I don't think most people are jerks. I just think many of them are completely unaware of how they are coming across.