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It’s Ada Lovelace Day

March 23, 2010

This is my contribution to Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace is, perhaps, the world’s first programmer of an actual computer. Others wrote about algorithms much earlier—think Euclid and the famous GCD algorithm—but she wrote a program for a specific computing machine. The machine was Charles Babbage’s Analytic Engine, and her notes look like a program to most.

Today I plan on joining over a million other bloggers in discussing women in science, and more specifically computing. The event is named after Ada Lovelace, and is happening all over the web.

Okay, I exaggerated about the number of bloggers, it is closer to 100,000 than a million—actually it is closer to 1,700. The number is not important; what is important is: we need more women administrators, educators, and researchers in all areas of computing. Further, more women who already have done great work in computing need to be recognized and given the awards and accolades they deserve. This has not always happened.

I am honored to be a tiny part of this special day, and I hope I can help in some way to make the event a success.

What To Do?

I am honestly unsure what I should do. For starters I am not a woman, and cannot really understand their issues. But, I have been in the computing field for over thirty years and perhaps I can add some small insights. I will try.

When I was first at Princeton we worked very hard to hire Andrea LaPaugh from MIT, where she got her Ph.D. We were successful, and for quite a while she was the only woman in all of engineering at Princeton. Later, she been the first tenured woman in engineering at Princeton. The balance is not perfect now, but I am happy to say today she is not the only tenured professor in engineering.

One day I was talking with a colleague from another engineering department. He asked me, “How many women did we have in Computer Science?” I immediately answered one—Andrea. Then, I asked the obvious question, “How many do you have in your department?” My colleague thought a long time—I guessed he must be adding up women faculty. Finally he said, “None.”

I am telling this story to show how subtle the issues can be concerning women in science. I gave him a very hard time: I said, you can take a long time to add up the cardinality of a big set, but you cannot take any time to figure out the cardinality of the empty-set. What was he thinking?

The Two Rule

One rule is the two rule. I learned this rule from my wife, Judith Norback, who is a Ph.D in psychology from Princeton. Often in an attempt to create balance—especially in academia—one woman will be placed on each committee. A woman. One. It is good to have women on committees, but putting one on does not usually work well.

The difficulty is a lone person on any committee is hard pressed to speak out and really make a difference. A lone person of any minority—the principle is the same for other minorities—is not in general the right choice. There are exceptions to this rule, but studies show one person, from a minority, is not nearly as effective as two. This is the rule of two. If possible always place two women on a group or a committee. They will be immensely more effective, if there are two.

Of course in order to make this happen the academic organization needs to have at least two women—another argument for more diversity. I do not claim to completely understand the reason the “two rule” works, but it does. Try it.

The Out Rule

Another rule is the out rule. This I learned from long experience watching fellow computer scientists operate—especially in academia. In the old days when wagon trains were attacked, they were taught to “circle the wagons.” In computer science we still do this, as do most other areas of science and academia.

However, in computer science the joke—unfortunately all too true—is we shoot the wrong way. We shoot in, not out. Hence, the rule of out: when attacked remember to shoot out, not in toward each other.

With all due respect, I have long noticed women on various committees often ignore this simple rule. They shoot in toward their fellow women. I have been on many committees of all kinds—award, hiring, program, and other types—and have noticed the women on the committee are often the hardest on women candidates. I have often argued for a women candidate for something, and noticed the other faculty were generally supportive. However, the women faculty in the room would frequently agree with me on the big points, yet attack the candidate on some minor points. Do not shoot in, shoot out.

I am not arguing for a decrease in standards. Never. I am arguing for both male and female faculty to be sure they are as objective as possible. I certainly am far from perfect, but I do think more attention should be paid to being aware of the out rule.

The Zero Rule

I am trying to be constructive and not writing a “moral with a tale,” but one last rule is critical in my mind. The zero rule is just this: there must be zero—no—tolerance for any jokes, comments, stories, of any kind that put down women. I have heard many of them over the years, and have always immediately complained about them. I believe such statements cause many women to go into other areas of science. We must be intolerant of any comments of this kind.

Ada As The First Programmer

It seems to me clear Lady Lovelace was more than the first programmer: she had great insight into what a computing device could or could not do. Here is a direct quote from her—it could have been written the other day. It would be interesting to see what she would think about computing today—she wrote this in 1842.

It is desirable to guard against the possibility of exaggerated ideas that might arise as to the powers of the Analytical Engine. In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case, when we do discover that our notions have surpassed those that were really tenable.

\displaystyle \dots

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we are already acquainted with. This it is calculated to effect primarily and chiefly of course, through its executive faculties; but it is likely to exert an indirect and reciprocal influence on science itself in another manner. For, in so distributing and combining the truths and the formula of analysis, that they may become most easily and rapidly amenable to the mechanical combinations of the engine, the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated. This is a decidedly indirect, and a somewhat speculative, consequence of such an invention. It is however pretty evident, on general principles, that in devising for mathematical truths a new form in which to record and throw themselves out for actual use, views are likely to be induced, which should again react on the more theoretical phase of the subject. There are in all extensions of human power, or additions to human knowledge, various collateral influences, besides the main and primary object attained.

To really appreciate her brilliant mind, read all her comments here. This is the front piece to the document:

Open Problems

The main open problem is continue to try and increase the number of women in all aspects of science, especially computing. I think there are already many good ideas on how to do this—perhaps what we need is to execute the best of these ideas. In any event have a happy Ada Lovelace Day. It would have been a great privilege to have met her.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeremy H permalink
    March 23, 2010 6:29 pm

    Regarding “shoot out”:
    A study out of Princeton found exactly that phenomenon in the theater industry:
    Link to the paper:
    Pop News writeup:

    Overall, men judged the scripts the same, regardless of the author’s gender, while women rated the scripts purportedly by women lower than the scripts labeled with a man’s name.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    March 23, 2010 7:31 pm

    I do not know if it is appropriate to make this comment here. However, I am kind of saddened that sometimes the (rightful) intention of making sure that the best person for the job gets it irrespective of gender, race, religion, ends up giving a job to a person just because that person happens to belong to some kind of minority. Isn’t this kind of an action hurting the very idea of being equal? I am an opponent of any kind of affirmative action because I believe that ultimately deserving women (in this case) & men suffer because of this. I am open to being convinced otherwise.

  3. Hagit permalink
    March 24, 2010 5:19 am

    Thanks a lot for a very thoughtful post, with many excellent rules (I like the zero rule in particular).

    As for the out rule: I know this is often considered to be caused by the “queen bee” syndrom, but perhaps women do this in order not to be preceived as biased or preferential?

  4. March 24, 2010 7:43 am

    Thanks for this post. I’m particularly happy to see your unequivocal advocacy of the zero rule.

  5. March 24, 2010 10:01 am

    One of the most wonderful aspects of the American medical profession (in my experience) is its outstanding progress in accommodating the (always-awkward) triad of gender equity, professionalism, and opportunity for young people.

    For mathematics and/or science and/or engineering to make similar progress, the following elements are (arguably) necessary, and sufficient too: (1) commitment to gender equity, professionalism, and opportunity for young people, (2) plenty of work to do, and plenty of family-supporting jobs available doing that work, (3) training by immersive apprenticeship, in which senior and junior practitioners—in gender-mixed and age-mixed groups—work side-by-side solving real-world problems.

    At present, the academic math/engineering/science community has a super-abundance of (1), but not nearly enough of (2) and (3).

    A major challenge (obviously) is that (2) and (3) cannot be implemented by committee action … indeed, we have to embrace a thorough-going and visionary optimism, in order to conceive that (2) and (3) might be achieved at all, in any kind of near-term time frame.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    March 24, 2010 10:08 am

    Woman here.

    I appreciate the sentiment behind your rules, but I’m a bit troubled by a couple things.

    One is the implicit expectation that women will be spokespeople for their gender, and that this is the reason to hire them and put them on committees and such. As your “shoot out” rule shows, women vary greatly in how interested they are in the problems of other women, and one can argue that it is completely within their right to choose any position. The argument that a particular person should be conscious of the situation of women in computer science is not “but you’re a woman” but in fact the same argument one would give a man, that fixing the underlying factors that promote gender inequality helps both genders. It is a bit like meta discrimination to expect all women to be cheerleaders for all other women.

    The other is that I think that many people don’t really understand why having a skewed gender balance is a problem. But now, political correctness dictates that of course everyone is supposed to express their support for women, so it’s hard to tell. This results in departments paying lip service to the cause of increasing gender diversity by funding organizations for women or sending some students to Grace Hopper (these are good things, don’t get me wrong) without actually solving the hard part, which is to address the social and sometimes institutional factors.

    The underlying issue here is that we are all inclined toward people who are like us (for some sense of “like us”) and it’s difficult to correct for this, particularly in academia. Communicating our ideas is hard enough without moving further outside our comfort zone. Training students is a lot of work, and one might be disinclined to gamble on a student who might need to be taught things that others just take for granted. (In the case of women, it’s often their own self-worth.) If you’re on an admissions committee, look at the “different” applications, the women, the minorities, the ones (if there are any) from non-upper-middle-class backgrounds, anyone who diverged from the standard path, and compare to the accepted pile, and verify that none of the unusual ones deserve a second look, keeping in mind that success is dependent upon things like advisor support and dedication. (I’ve heard anecdotally about some departments having someone who takes it upon themselves to do this.) Then think about your environment. Is it competitive? Is it welcoming? What kind of person is that good for?

    Just some thoughts.

    And thank you for your wonderful blog.

    • March 25, 2010 12:36 am

      The underlying issue here is that we are all inclined toward people who are like us (for some sense of “like us”) and it’s difficult to correct for this,

      Yes, but who said that it must be “corrected”? (actually suppressed)
      This instead should just be managed like all other conundrums of life.
      Political correctness will bring disasters, the very opposite results of what it aims for.
      Having one’s action bringing doom on oneself is the hallmark of stupidity!

  7. beki70 permalink
    March 24, 2010 11:12 am

    Great post, thanks Dick! As a woman in computing myself, I share some of the thoughts of the last anonymous poster.

    I’ll also add that in the academy one of those systematic institutional forces is frequently levels of service. A careful look at the service workloads of men versus women, and non-minorities versus minorities shows imbalanced loads. That’s one area that really needs addressing.

    A recent study, A.N. Link et al (2008) “A time allocation study of university faculty” in the Economics of Education Review 27, page 363-374

    “Focusing specifically on untenured faculty, we find that male assistant professors work slightly less, on average, than female assistant professors, but these same males spend almost three more hours a week on research than their female counterparts. If this average difference is maintained for 50 weeks each year, after 6 years as an assistant professor, the average male will have spent 900 more hours on research than the average female. This difference may have an appreciable effect on the likelihood of receiving tenure.”

  8. Another woman permalink
    March 24, 2010 11:44 am

    “It is a bit like meta discrimination to expect all women to be cheerleaders for all other women.”

    No one is saying that you should be a cheerleader for other women. The problem is when you say negative things about other women that you would not say about men. Possibly because you feel more comfortable judging them. For whatever the reason, Dick is pointing out that he sees women, not just not being cheerleaders for other women, but not treating other women as they would other men.

    I am really surprised that Dick mentioned the “out rule”, because I have noticed it over and over again. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that women are often much more harsh to other women in interviews, etc. I just never thought that men noticed it. In fact, that is why women think they can get away with it without damaging their reputations.

    Women are much more competitive with other women. It’s something we need to stop.


  9. Paul Beame permalink
    March 24, 2010 2:13 pm

    We have made a lot of progress from the days when CS could lead the way with one woman faculty member but CS is now doing much worse than many other engineering fields like chemical engineering where the gender balance is much closer to parity. Women earn nearly half of all mathematics bachelors degrees, too. Women are now a much higher percentage of overall student populations (55% now) than they were in the 1970’s but only 11.3% of bachelors CS degrees went to women last year according to this year’s
    Taulbee survey released today. This percentage is lower than it was in the early 1980’s even with the greater participation of women in university. The proportions are much better at the Masters and PhD level at roughly 20% each, which has at least held steady since the 1980’s.

    Do you get the feeling that we are doing something wrong?

    • March 26, 2010 7:39 am

      Paul Beame asks: Do you get the feeling that we are doing something wrong?

      Paul, that is IMHO a fine question, which becomes even more powerful when it is phrased in a positive sense What are other professions doing right, that we in math, science, and engineering might do too?

      Medicine, law, history, and literature are all disciplines that in recent decades have seen major improvements in gender equity … and it seems clear that a big part of the reason these professions have “done right” with respect to gender equity, is that these professions have “done right” in many other dimensions too.

      These “doing right” professions have: (1) re-conceived the moral and economic foundations of their profession, (2) transformed the teaching of the profession to be less solitary and more social, (3) increased the number and span of jobs for which students quality, and (4) vigorously publicized a professional commitment to the preceding three changes.

      In medicine in particular these transformational changes are thoroughly documented; see Michael Bliss’ William Osler: a Life in Medicine, for example.

      AFAICT (but perhaps other folks have different opinions) neither mathematics nor engineering have found their Osler yet. Such a person would articulate new answers to the questions: “What are mathematics and engineering? How are these professions best taught? How do we create family-supporting jobs, in abundance, for young professionals ?”

      And then—crucially—this person would “walk the walk” of showing that these answers can be lived.

      With an eye to history, we have to regret that von Neumann died relatively young, and that Grothendieck has chosen a life of isolation … because people having the vision, talent, energy, and commitment to catalyze this kind of change are very uncommon—and very valuable—in any profession.

  10. PiterJankovich permalink
    March 29, 2010 8:36 am

    My name is Piter Jankovich. oOnly want to tell, that your blog is really cool
    And want to ask you: is this blog your hobby?
    P.S. Sorry for my bad english

    • rjlipton permalink*
      March 29, 2010 2:03 pm

      Thank you for your kind comment.

  11. Micha permalink
    April 25, 2010 4:00 pm

    Well, let’s lighten up this thread with a silly remark, then!

    rjlipton said I said, you can take a long time to add up the cardinality of a big set, but you cannot take any time to figure out the cardinality of the empty-set.

    Untrue! Say the set G is the empty set if P=NP and a “big set” otherwise. Even if G is the empty-set, trying to figure out its cardinality could take some time 🙂


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