“I’ve never experienced discrimination based on my gender.”

So said one of the panelists at a recent women in science event I attended.

Now, to be fair to this person—and this is going to sound a bit weird—I believe it was said in a misguided spirit of helpfulness. I don’t know this person personally, but based on what I know of her bio, it sounds like she’s landed in good places with good people and received good mentoring/championing/support in those places. She’s very successful, mentors and gives back, etc. So maybe she hasn’t actually experienced gender-based discrimination in science (or maybe has experienced minor discrimination and didn’t recognize it as such). If so, good for her—I’m glad to hear that such places actually exist.

But.

Hearing this phrase in any context makes me especially cranky. Certainly when it’s used to shut down and discount the experiences of women in science, online or in real-world conversations. But maybe even more so when it’s used in a “helpful” (hopeful?) way as it was here. In a way, it is more harmful when used in a “helpful” context.

Let’s consider the setting: The purpose of this particular event, as I understood it, was mentoring/networking primarily for young women scientists. These women are just starting out, still trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing, from the science itself to the culture. They’re relatively powerless in the structure at this point. Maybe they’ve already started to experience the little paper cuts, the subtle stuff—being talked over at meetings, watching male colleagues get the benefit of the doubt and/or credit for their ideas, not hearing about that cool opportunity. Maybe they’re starting to question whether there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’re just not cut out for this line of work. Maybe they’re wondering why things seem a bit harder for them and a bit easier for some of their male colleagues. So they come to this event, hoping to hear some words of wisdom from women who’ve been there before, hoping to hear something of their own experience reflected in their words.

When instead they hear “I’ve never experienced discrimination”—well, what message does that send? That just reaffirms that maybe it is them after all, that maybe their experience is unique and that there’s not something else going on. How discouraging is that?

So what could this person have done differently? Certainly I’m not suggesting that she speak to an experience she doesn’t feel she’s had. But I would have loved to hear her say instead: “I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had wonderful colleagues and mentors and champions throughout my career and that I haven’t experienced some of the challenges that other women in my position often face. Here’s what made my situation work this way….” And in fact she did end up, if memory serves, talking a bit about why her experience was so ideal—but it was divorced from the original “no discrimination” comment, so I feel the message was less powerful that way. This statement is still true to her experience while not disaffirming (is that a word?) the experience of others in the audience.

Senior women sharing their experiences with junior women can be priceless. But as senior women, we must be careful that the message we send to junior women is truly helpful and not unintentionally harmful. We can, and should, be true to our experiences without discounting theirs.

5 things I wish my undergrad self knew

advice
Tomorrow morning is Carleton’s graduation. There will be pomp and circumstance, about 1000% percent humidity, alternately cheering and teary parents (and faculty), and, of course, advice for the new graduates. Lots and lots of advice.

I won’t be giving any advice tomorrow—I’ll be too busy sweating in my heavy robes in the blazing sun. But since I just had a milestone birthday (ahem), I’ve spent some time reflecting back on my 22 year old self: graduating from a good school, headed off to grad school, full of bluster and confidence and thinking I knew everything. And reflecting on what I wish I knew then.

So if I had to give advice to my 22 year old self, what would it be?

  1. Everything will get done, but everything does not have to get done right this minute.
  2. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. You are your best, and sometimes only, advocate.
  3. Life, unfortunately, is not a meritocracy. Network, meet people above and below and at your level, and connect with them. It’s not smarmy, it’s a way to let others get to know your fabulousness! (and get to know the fabulousness of others as well)
  4. Find cheerleaders and advocates and people who believe in you—friends, peers, advisors, professors, staff. Consult with them often.
  5. Don’t be afraid to fail, or to take risks. Failure teaches you how to succeed. Become a little fearless, or at least fake it until you feel it.
Congratulations, Carleton class of 2012!

image by laughlin

Five (academic) things I’m thankful for

It’s 2:30pm the day before Thanksgiving, and about 20 minutes ago my brain decided that we were done working for the day. So before I sign off for a long weekend of low-key relaxation (and football! and running! and Christmas decorating!) with my two favorite people in the world, I wanted to reflect on five academically-related things for which I am thankful this holiday season.

  1. My students. I’ve spent the past few hours writing recommendation letters, and the exercise reminded me of just how amazing our students are. Sure, sometimes they drive you batty, but I can truly and honestly say that I love my students. They are so sharp, so smart, and so engaged (ok, maybe less so during weeks 9 and 10 of the term). It is a joy to teach them and to work with them, and I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to teach at a school like Carleton.
  2. My colleagues. I am fortunate to work in a great department. We don’t always agree, but we listen and learn from each other. We work on making each others’ lives easier; we step in and pitch in. When I had to switch my upcoming leave from Spring to Winter at the last minute (see below), my chair and the rest of my department went into overdrive to help me figure out the logistics. I can go to any of them for advice or commiseration without fear of judgement. (Having tenure helps, but still.) They make my work life fun.
  3. My research. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned her before, I am passionate about my research. I’ve worked on my current project for almost 10 years now, in various forms, and it still excites me. There are still so many questions left to answer! And I truly and honestly believe what I am doing has the potential to be life-changing (or at least paradigm-changing), which fuels my passion. I am thankful that my job gives me the space and the freedom to explore the questions that motivate me, without question and without oversight.
  4. A term’s leave. I’ve had a pretty busy year, to put it mildly. My students started working in my lab this summer the day after Spring Term ended (before I had started grading my finals!), and we went pretty much right from the summer research time into a very busy fall term (with the dyad and various other service projects on tap). So it’s been about a year since I had a proper break. I was scheduled for a leave during Spring term, but due to some things going on in my personal life (more on that in a later post), I will be on leave next term instead. I’ll still be plenty busy, but this is the right time for a break in the routine and some time away from Carleton to refresh and rejuvenate before Spring term. I’m thankful that I have a job that’s flexible enough to allow me that much-needed time away.
  5. My mentors, sponsors, and cheerleaders. My recent trip to Grace Hopper reminded me of how energizing and powerful an effective support network can be. I’m grateful for all those in my life, inside and outside of my institution, who listen without judgement, offer advice, open doors, and open my eyes. I have some great people in my network and I would definitely not be where I am today without their support, encouragement, and facilitation.

I hope all of my US readers have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

Owning my seniority

When I got the invitation a few months ago to attend the Senior Women Summit at Grace Hopper, I’ll admit that my first reaction was disbelief. Surely there was some mistake! I’ve only been officially tenured for just over a year, so how could I possibly be a senior woman in tech? And besides, doesn’t “senior” imply that I’m accomplished, that I’ve done something Really Important in my career? I’m just a lowly associate prof! I haven’t really done anything important yet!

But I was intrigued and curious, and thought “What the hell, I’ll just go and see what this is all about.”

I spent the entire first hour or so of today’s summit dealing with a serious case of impostor syndrome. I ended up sitting at a table of women who are very senior and are very much powerhouses of accomplishment. By chance I’d met all but one of them before. Oddly, even the ones I’d only briefly met in the past remembered me, which really threw me for a loop—why would these powerful women, who meet lots of people every day, remember little old me? They were all very warm and welcoming, but I was seriously fighting the urge to run out of the room screaming “I don’t belong here! There’s been a horrible mistake!”

Eventually I was able to get over my impostor syndrome enough to relax. And it was a really incredible opportunity. I had some great conversations with senior women, I identified some new mentors potential sponsors, and got to meet and converse with some of my personal heroes.

I find it interesting that I have such a hard time “owning” the fact that I am a senior woman. What I realized today is that, like it or not, I do have experience and I do make a difference and that others do see me as senior. This means that I have some power and control over things in my department, institution, and larger technical community. And that I can and should capitalize on this to make the changes and impact I want to see to my department, institution, and larger technical community. I forget sometimes that I’ve finished fighting the tenure battle—I still think of myself as “junior” and “of limited power”. It’s hard to switch that off once you get tenure. It’s hard to lean into and embrace that new role.

Today’s summit gave me permission to own my seniority and to embrace the benefits and responsibilities that come with that. My challenge will be figuring out how exactly I want to translate that into meaningful and sustainable action.

Reflecting on the life of a teacher

This morning, I learned that one of my high school teachers, Sister Marcyann Kowalczyk, lost her battle with cancer.  Sr. Marcyann taught me European History during my sophomore year of high school.

You’re probably expecting me to say at this point that Sr. Marcyann was my favorite teacher, but the fact is that at the time, I couldn’t stand her.  She not only scared the crap out of me—-she utterly terrified me.  I was one of the smartest, most confident kids in my high school, but for an entire year I lived in abject fear of being called on by her, of being called out by her, and, worst, of failing her class.  Sr. Marcyann managed to convince me that I didn’t know a single thing about European history and that, actually, I was a complete dumbass.  As a result, I probably worked harder in that class than I did in almost any other class in high school, and probably harder than I worked in some of my college classes as well.

Part of what made Sr. Marcyann so terrifying is that you never knew what to expect from her.  One day she came into class and said that we would have to give 5 minute talks, without notes, on some aspect of Gothic architecture during the next week.  Another day she assigned 30 essays, a handful of which would appear on our next exam.  She called on people at random and asked random, hard questions—and was very good at making you feel like an idiot if you didn’t know the answer.  She gave current events quizzes (sometimes with warning, sometimes without) that could cover, literally, anything in the world, from what happened in Greece yesterday to the name of the prime minister of Zimbabwe.  On one especially memorable test day, she strode into the room and announced that the test would be a “partner test”, and that we could choose our own partners.  (It was an interesting lesson in sociology/economics, as you could see some kids immediately pair with their friends and others doing the mental calculation of “who’s the smartest person in the room”.)  She didn’t sugarcoat anything—she was blunt, to the point, and had no compunction speaking her mind.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Sr. Marcyann prepared me better for college, for life, and for my current profession better than almost any other teacher I had before or since—and I’ve been fortunate to have had some truly excellent, inspirational teachers throughout my life.  She taught me to think on my feet, which as an educator is probably the most valuable skill I possess.  She taught me to think critically, to not make assumptions, to probe deeper into problems and facts to get the whole story.  She taught me that it’s important to have both broad and deep knowledge of a subject.  She was an amazing storyteller—I can still vividly remember her showing slides of Gothic architecture and weaving the incredible tales behind the building of that particular chapel, the politics and wars and personal struggles behind it, and being completely mesmerized.  I could have listened to her stories for hours.  When I travel in Europe, many years after the fact, I look at buildings and can tell what period they were built in and some of what was going on at the time, as well as pick out and name some of the architectural features—and this is without taking any European history since that class.

Of course, as soon as I got to college, I recognized that many of the things Sr. Marcyann forced us to do, kicking and screaming, were the very things that would help us succeed in college—knowing how to study a subject, how to take excellent notes, how to prepare for tests, how to identify and ask good questions, how to find and form study groups.  The first time one of my professors handed out a list of essays for an upcoming exam, I smiled a secret smile—I’d done this already and knew the drill! I realized that she was so tough and demanding precisely because she cared so much about us and about us not just succeeding, but thriving beyond high school.  And now that I’m an educator, when one of my former students sends me a note to say “I hated you when you made us do X, but now I do X every day in my job and I want to thank you”, I send a secret, silent thank-you to Sr. Marcyann for being such a great role model to me in this regard.

A few days ago, my high school posted a note on its Facebook page asking us to send cards and memories to Sr. Marcyann.  I had actually started to draft a note to her saying much of what I’ve said in this post.  I wish desperately now that I had taken the time earlier to do so, but somehow I sense that she will hear these words and know how much she meant to me, and to countless other SHA students.

RIP, Sr. Marcyann.  Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, from being such a terrifying, demanding, amazing teacher and human being.  You are one of a kind and you will truly be missed.

Summer in the lab, 2011 edition

June has been a busy, busy month so far, so I haven’t had time to note that summer here at Carleton has indeed begun.  Summer means I can finally concentrate on research for extended blocks of time—unlike during the school year, when I’m doing research every day but most of the time it’s a half hour here or, on the really decadent days, an hour there.  Summer is when I take stock of where I am, tackle some of the thornier or less well-defined aspects of my work (the places we’ve gotten stuck), start new lines of inquiry, and write write write.  It’s also when I try to do my strategic planning for the year ahead, so that I can maximize my efficiency during those small blocks of research time during the terms.

My main hope in earning tenure was that it would give me the time, space, and freedom to figure out where I wanted my research to go in the next 5-10 years.  I love the research that I’m doing, on improving computer networks to better support video.  It’s personally fulfilling, because it’s exciting to me, has so many possible applications, and attempts to answer crucially important questions (in my opinion, anyway) about how networks work.  But I’ve been working on this problem for 10 years (!!) now, and I can see that this work, in its current form, is reaching its natural end.  So the big question is, what’s next?

There are some natural ways to extend this work within my wheelhouse of expertise, and those sound interesting to me.  But tenure brings the academic freedom to explore new, possibly slow-developing, lines of inquiry, ones that aren’t necessarily going to pay off with publications or results in the short term.  And the truth is, there are some peripherally-related areas that have interested me for a while—HCI and security, specifically.  I’m not an “expert” in either.  Pre-tenure, it was too risky to branch out.  But now, I could.  The question is, how badly do I want to take that risk now?  Can I better define the problems in these areas that interest me, and perhaps find a way to bridge my current work into either or both of these areas?  I’m excited about the possibilities here, but frankly a bit terrified too about leaving the safety of my current subfields.

This summer, I’ll take some much-needed time to explore some questions, to read a lot of recent scholarship, and to see if I can define a further-looking path forward.

In the meantime, I have 3 awesome undergrads working in my lab this summer.  This is actually their third week—it was interesting trying to juggle ending the term and grading with getting them set up and working productively in the lab, but we made it happen.  One of the key differences between this summer’s group and last summer’s group is that these students have been working with me for a term now (one has worked with me for 2 terms).  We spent spring term doing the background work on the project—reading papers, learning about networks and streaming video, practicing using the tools they’d be using this summer—so that they could start doing actual research on Day 1.  As a result, I’ve had to spend less time in the lab with them up front—although this is now changing since they’re starting to hit the really thorny problems and questions.

We have three main goals this summer:

  1. Migrate some of our data collection and analysis to the web, so that we’re not tied to one particular media player and all of its headaches
  2. Actually build and test the video quality assessment system that we’ve hinted at for years now
  3. Come up with heuristics:  basically, what should networks/media servers/etc do when all signs point to future degraded quality for a stream?  what are the rules of thumb that network operators, service providers, etc. should follow in these circumstances?

I’m excited because what we’re really doing is attempting to put into practice all of the things we’ve spent the last 10 years proving conceptually.  This is what we’ve been working towards, and as a former engineer I’m excited that we can finally build this thing and see what happens!  It’s been a while since I’ve done any systems-related work, and I expect there to be many roadblocks, but it will be fun to get back to that part of my work.

Like last summer, I hope to update you on how things are going, and specifically how this group of students is progressing.  I’m sure I’ll have some new thoughts on the care and feeding of undergraduate researchers as well.

Random things of CS interest on the web

Spring term is typically the busiest for me, and this term is no exception—in fact, it’s probably the busiest term I’ve had at Carleton since my first year on the job!  This means I have about 50 blog posts that are written in my head, but 0 of them have actually made it to the blog.  Oops.

Lots of interesting stuff has popped up on the web lately, though, so in absence of any real content, I thought I’d point out some of the things that have caught my eye and my attention lately.

First, springtime at Carleton means that the sophomore class declares their majors.  This year, the CS department has 32 newly-declared majors!  (And that doesn’t even count the double-majors who have not declared CS yet.)  We are now the 7th (or 8th—looks like some of these tables have some errors) most popular major on campus.  This also means, as the linked article states, that just under half of our CS majors are in the sophomore class.  Our gender ratio has also vastly improved—we have 7 women (if memory serves) out of a class of 32 (and again, that doesn’t include double-majors).  Given that we have one woman each in our junior and senior classes, this is awesome news, and a trend we hope we can sustain.

Similarly, Harvard’s CS department seems to be doing spendidly in the gender ratio realm as well with their sophomore class. 41%!! Way to go, Harvard!

This is good news too, since NCWIT recently pointed out that the number of computer-related jobs will increase by 22% (projected) between 2008 and 2018.  Gender (and racial, and ethnic) diversity just makes good economic sense!

I love this inspiring story of a young recipient of the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship.  Natasha Nesiba, a freshman at New Mexico State University, started mentoring middle and high school girls while still in high school, and continues to do so.  When she also received a university scholarship to attend NMSU, she decided to endow a scholarship for the CS department with the Anita Borg Scholarship funds, so that the department could support talented Hispanic women in CS.  Congrats, Natasha, and way to go!

Female Computer Scientist recently posted some advice for young female computer scientists—or, really, for any of us, on self-esteem and taking the long-term view:

If you place your self-worth in the hands of another, then every time you are rejected (which will happen frequently over the course of your career), it will feel like being punched in the gut. It’s very tempting to be over-the-top excited when Dr. Famous lavishes praise on you, and Dr. Awesome invites you to serve on a program committee, and Dr. Woot cites your paper. These are all good things to be happy about, but on the other hand you don’t want to be devastated when Dr. Famous rejects your paper, Dr. Awesome gives you a scathing review, and Dr. Woot rips you to shreds in front of 2000 of your closest colleagues.  Be like a tree and all of that. Roll with the good and the bad. If you take this view, the outcome of a single event matters much less.

Right on, FCS!

Finally, ever wonder how people get their start in programming?  What inspires them to learn?  A new project is soliciting stories about just that topic.  Visit the site, read the stories (a random one is generated every time you refresh or revisit the page) and/or contribute your own.  I am so posting this in my Intro CS Moodle page!

Happy reading!

Role playing and role modeling

Yesterday, a new Barbie joined the menagerie of Barbies at our house.  (actually 2—of course I had to order one for myself!)  My 3.5 year old daughter, who loves Barbies, was excited to have a new Barbie, of course.  And I was excited to share with her that this Barbie was special, because she has the same (approximately, anyway) job as her mom and dad.

Usually, when the Barbies come out, the pretend play trends towards dance class, or school, or taking care of animals, or (my personal favorite) a mash-up involving flying, castles, Shrek, hot lava, and dragons.  But with this Barbie, the play was definitely….different.  See, Barbie went straight to work.  Where she worked, and took some phone calls, and worked some more, then went home to cook dinner and then—you guessed it—work on “her project”.

Anyone who knows me IRL, or who’s read this blog for more than 5 minutes, knows how passionate I am about diversifying the field of CS, of opening up the possibilities of CS particularly to women, so that women will start seriously seeing themselves as, and considering themselves to be, computer scientists.  And of course I extend this to my own daughter.  I want her to see computer science as something that she can do and that she’ll want to do:  a very cool, interesting, exciting, innovative field.  So far she’s very interested in computers—if she had her way, she’d play games on my iPhone all day, and we just gave her a hand-me-down laptop so she can start exploring and playing on her own.  So it pained me a bit to see how her play reflected how she sees me, and her dad, as computer scientists:  someone who works all the time.

I want my daughter to associate computer science with fun, and whimsy, and discovery, and not just long hours of work.  But of course the reality is that I, and my husband, do work long hours, and clearly she sees that and has absorbed that.  And of course she hears how excitedly we talk about our jobs, and our projects, at home, but at this age seeing is more powerful than hearing.

My wish is that I can do a better job of role modeling for her what it means to be a computer scientist.  I want to make sure she sees, and notices, the love and passion and excitement I have for my work.  I want her to recognize that I’m doing stuff that actually will make the world a tangibly better place.  I want her to see that you can be passionately involved in your work and still have time for other passions outside of work too.  And maybe next time we play Barbies, Computer Engineer Barbie will join the other Barbies on the hunt for dragons….and then they’ll all go back to the Barbie Townhouse and code to their hearts’ content!

Challengers

Last weekend, I went cross-country skiing for the first time ever.  My husband, who XC skiied a handful of times as a kid, offered to teach me the basics, so we went out together on some trails near our house.

I should mention that my husband is a talented athlete.  He’s one of those annoying people who pick up new sports and skills with ease.  He’s also somewhat fearless:  his philosophy is that you learn, and get better, by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone—sink or swim, to use another sports analogy.

Left to my own devices, I probably would have taken a few spins around the green (easy) trail, until I felt confident in my technique, and then MAYBE ventured out onto the blue (moderate) trail.  Instead, I found myself following my husband from the green trail quickly to the blue trail (seriously, I think we were on the green trail for all of 5 minutes), and onto, I discovered after the fact, the black diamond trail.  (Him:  But you were doing so well!  I knew you could handle it.)  And I actually was very proud of myself for how well I did, tackling the hills with, well ok not ease, but confidence that I could get up and get myself back down again.  Letting myself enjoy the moment and the challenge.  And now that I know that I can do a black diamond, I feel more confident about going out onto the trails again—it’s a great motivator for me.

We all need people who are willing to push us out of our comfort zone, “challengers” as I like to call them.  Sometimes being uncomfortable is the only way we’ll learn a particular lesson, or get better at some particular thing, or gain the confidence we need to tackle a bigger task.

It occurred to me, on reflecting about my ski adventure, that I currently lack a challenger in my professional life.  Sure, I do a passable enough job challenging myself, whether that’s applying for a competitive grant or sending out my work before I think it’s completely ready or trying risky things in the classroom.  Feeling uncomfortable is a great motivator for me.  But I think I need someone who will push me further.  Someone who will push me not just to submit my work, but to submit it to the highest tier conferences (which I’ve mostly avoided out of…fear?).  Someone who can get me to think more pie-in-the-sky about my research and take more risks with that.  I’m in a bit of a holding pattern, especially in my research, right now, and I need a good swift kick in the pants to get me not just out of my comfort zone, but way out of my comfort zone, to move out of this holding pattern and either fail spectacularly or make some real progress.  (actually that doesn’t have to be either-or, since some of my spectacular failures have led to great progress as well.)

So in the coming weeks, I’m going to try to identify a challenger, most likely within my existing mentoring network, but possibly a new not-yet-a-mentor contact—maybe I need some really fresh thinking as well as a kick in the pants!

Do you have a challenger?  If so, what role does s/he play in your professional life?

Summer in the lab: the homestretch

It’s week 9 of my 10 weeks with my student researchers.  Where has the summer gone?  Seriously.  Things are wrapping up in the lab—my students are busy analyzing the results from our experiments a few weeks ago and writing up their results, which will eventually (hopefully) be woven into one or more conference papers.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts on student research, one of main goals as a research advisor is to help my students become more self-sufficient, able to come up with questions and lines of inquiry on their own and follow up on them.  My students were put to the test last week in this area—I took the week off to visit family and purposely did not bring my laptop with me (and checked email minimally).  So how did they do?

Awesome!

  • I did not get a single email from them all week.  Not one.
  • I left a ridiculously long to-do list, and except for the last item (which was really pie-in-the-sky thinking), they made not just progress, but good progress on the rest of the items.
  • They had to give a talk at an undergraduate research symposium.  I saw a very rough version of the talk the Friday before I left, but that’s it.  They wrote the presentation completely on their own, and from what I’ve heard they did a great job with it!
  • I have had minimal meetings with them this week, because they are too busy/engrossed in their analyses and writeups.  On Monday, my first day back, we spent much of our meeting time having them run ideas by me about things we could do with the data—some of which I, honestly, never considered.  Together we came up with a complicated analysis to attempt—I sketched out a very rough idea of what I wanted, but they did all of the leg work in figuring out how to actually do the analysis.

So I’d say my students are pretty self-sufficient now.  I’m so proud of the work they’ve done this summer and with how far they’ve come.  I’m really looking forward to seeing their results, and their interpretation of these results.  They’ve really done a lights-out job moving the project forward this summer.  I hope they are as proud of their work as I am!  (And yes, I plan on telling them exactly that!)