27 October 2008

Women in CS

By the definitions of many people I'm probably a very good example of racism and sexism. The thing is, for me most of this "political correctness" sounds like marketing bullshit. I don't see how avoiding certain words or not telling certain truths can make things better. My beliefs are not going to change just because I use a different vocabulary. Alas, it seems that many people are superficial enough to think that the two are the same. This is the only merit I see in political correctness.

Anyway, here's a story from ETAPS that I heard from a female researcher in compilers: "I was in charge with making sure that females are well-represented in our University. I distributed a questionnaire in which I asked (1) what is the percentage of female students? and (2) what can be done to improve the situation? The Physics Department replied to the second question by asking what do I mean by 'improve'. This is such a typical attitude, exactly what we need to change." I can't even discuss with such people. The Physics department was obviously right. If she would have said 'increase' then there is little room for interpretation. But it is not at all obvious that sex is not correlated with how much one enjoys different fields of activity. (I suspect the correlation is weaker than many think but I don't think it's zero as some people would like to force us believe without scientific evidence. Anyway, my point, as you will see later, is that this is irrelevant.)

My wife, Claudia Grigore, studied psychology. Every day when I go home, and every time we go to a walk in the park I tell her what I have been doing for work. I select only portions of what I do that she can understand. For other parts there just isn't time for me to present all the required background. It helps me a lot. First, it makes me aware what are the elementary parts and what are the parts that require a lot of background. Second, quite often it happens that I have an Aha! moment because explaining to someone else forces you to understand well what you are talking about. More importantly, I try to focus on the parts that transmit the excitement and joy of playing in computer science. (I usually say 'play' instead of 'work'.) The result? She liked so much my stories that she did an HDip in CS. (I must say I was a little worried when she said that she wants to do this: I was afraid I might have painted a too-rosy picture for her.) She finished with very good grades, she picked up a job as a research assistant doing things like this report, and now she started a PhD in CS. I am very proud of her; I wouldn't be able to switch now to a different field and do that well.

I'm quite happy how things turned out. So here is my advice: If you think a bigger percentage of women in CS is a good thing then you'd better act on it instead of criticizing what words others use. Go out and spread the excitement. Who knows, if you are a guy, that might even contribute to demolishing the myth that CS guys don't have girlfriends.


mikolas said...

I recommend excellent study on political correctness in advertisement by maddox

rgrig said...

Thanks for sharing.

Post a Comment

Note: (1) You need to have third-party cookies enabled in order to comment on Blogger. (2) Better to copy your comment before hitting publish/preview. Blogger sometimes eats comments on the first try, but the second works. Crazy Blogger.