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Micro Barriers To Diversity

October 30, 2018


And perhaps how to remove them

Cropped from Monash interview src

Elizabeth Croft is Dean of Engineering at Monash University in Australia. She was previously at the University of British Columbia in Canada and was the BC and Yukon Chair for Women in Science and Engineering.

Today Ken and I want to discuss barriers to gender equity in computer science.

Our central thesis is: One of the problems that makes it hard to attract women researchers is an environment of countless micro barriers. This is also the position in an article that Croft wrote earlier this year for the Sydney Morning Herald. The article is titled, “Masculine culture and micro barriers still major issues for women.” It argues that fundamental improvements in equity for STEM areas will come only after a change in culture.

Croft’s article includes several specific recommendations for universities and related institutions—we abbreviate those after the first:

  1. Start by increasing female representation in the STEM workforce and in university science and engineering departments, creating relatable role models for young women. If they see it, they’ll know they can “be” it.

  2. Check implicit bias. Everyone harbours implicit biases, but [employers must be] aware of how [biases] can affect their decision making.

  3. Collect data on salary, recruitment, promotion, retention and leadership.

  4. Support and implement people-friendly policies.

  5. Raise awareness among young women about STEM-related fields and careers.

All these are laudable, and articles like this show some progress, but there’s a distinction. Items 3, 4, and to a large extent 2 can be handled by “macro” measures: employment policies; pay equity standards; provision of personal leave and child care; family-friendly scheduling; bias-awareness training. Item 5, however, is “micro” and so really is 1.

Micro Barriers 1

The micro-barrier thesis has two further implications. One is known but insidious; the other we feel is often missed. Both are effects of the culture referenced above but on the widest of scales.

To show the first effect, we searched “tech startups” without quotes on Google Images. Many hits are icons of companies or diagrams but some are photos of real people. Here is a collage of the first hits seen with people, not counting two advertisements with a man on a ladder and several showing hands that are clearly male:



To be fair, in the next five hits is a photo from an article on women-led tech startups in Africa. Now here are the top results for “computer science graduates”:



The middle item in the top row is a stock image. Again to be fair, hits 11–30 showed more balance—as did searches on “computer science students” and “computer science graduate students.”

The broadcast reality remains that of a heavily male field. The reasons given here for “why aren’t more women involved in CS?” trace the dropoff to the advent of micro PCs as ‘boy toys’ in the 1980s. We agree with that origin. What we have now, unfortunately, adds a layer of self-perpetuation from the images that young people see.

The same degree of male pervasion shows up in language too. Is there a fix that doesn’t feel like trying to contain the sea?

Micro Barriers 2

The second effect is how the culture plays into male expectations in ways invisible to many, even to those who are champions of diversity. We feel we can best express this with a few examples from women’s groups themselves. Then it is clear that no harm was intended. We don’t mean to criticize, just raise some more awareness. We offer questions without having ideas for even half the answers.


A Picture

Let’s look at a site for diversity in computer architecture. The site starts with the following picture:



Then it adds: “In part one of our series on gender diversity within the subdiscipline of computer architecture, we present some data that provides signal on where our community stands today with respect to gender diversity.” So the purpose following the picture is clear, but here are our questions:

  1. The woman in the picture is a beautiful model in high heels. What does appearance have to do with research? Does this help to advance diversity?

  2. She is lifting a curtain on a microchip and holding a megaphone. Is this meant to symbolize proclaiming a new career opportunity for those who would otherwise go into business or modeling?

  3. It is a stock artwork with many variations. Here in Germany it advertises a five-point plan for taking a business digital; here in Brazil it advertises an online intro course in computer architecture. Is it just that the picture is universally recognized as an emblem of computer architecture as a field?

  4. Is the glamour and cleanness simply a net positive? Does it induce male readers who see the page to read the text below? Or, not?


A Quote

We all like to add quotes to enhance our web sites—we do that all the time here at GLL. The TCS Women site is for advancing diversity in theoretical computer science. The front page starts with their mission statement and immediately transitions to an infamous sexist quote in mathematics:

The quotation is known from the book A Mathematician’s Miscellany by John Littlewood, who thought nothing of appending the parenthetical explanation “(She was very plain).” Again we have some questions:

  1. Is it clear to readers that this is meant to call out sexism—in a way that can’t be confused with the gender-free ideal of the previous sentence? (Nothing follows it except a meeting announcement.)

  2. Is this the right context to make a point that Noether’s appearance had nothing to do with her brilliant research?

  3. Is the quote meant to do all these things and also provoke amusement?

My reaction was confusion on the first and second point both. Ken’s is that he finds both the quotation and its juxtaposition funny—but in a way that may be “manfunny.” In either case we fear it is giving too quick shrift to male preoccupations when great female achievements could be hailed in that place instead.


A Word

The term “badass” has recently emerged as a goal-word for women in tech. The original pejorative male-rooted meaning has turned around to describe women as strong, assertive, formidable, no-nonsense. An example of its embrace is the 2016 book My Badass Book of Saints: Courageous Women Who Showed Me How to Live. For many female achievers this is great, and we applaud them, but we have questions:

  1. Might there be many more women for whom the appellation is a turn-off?

  2. Is it holding women up to a male referent? To underscore this point, the word “badass” was used in the NY Times Sunday Oct. 21 crossword puzzle with the clue “total baller.”

The whole situation calls to mind Pogo Possum’s famous saying: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Plural Culture

There are of course other aspects of the culture that are more overt. There are micro-aggressions exemplified by back-handed compliments (“you code well for a girl”) and widening criticism of a female colleague to the whole gender. Three female computer science students at MIT in 2014 discovered a self-perpetuating aspect of the culture, in that the audience for their “ask me anything” forum behaved in a way that exceeded what Croft terms a “locker room” in the Monash interview linked under her photo at top. So we are brought back to the main question:

What can be done to change the culture?

The one suggestion we’ve come up with is to recognize this as really the problem of achieving a plural culture in a smaller community. The meaning of diversity should refer not just to the community’s composition but to the recognition of diverse ways to be effective and succeed.

This is of course hard. In academia a computer science department is smaller and more uniform than the university as a whole. On the scale of a university, diversity of ways translates most readily to diversity of majors—and starting from a computer science context, that means away from CS. So the challenge is to create a diversity of norms for success without cutting away from the common course structure and grading standards.

As for how to achieve this, at this point we have only analogies. One comes from Ken’s take on the movie Ocean’s Eight, which is that the director Gary Ross and his co-writer Olivia Milch diverged from a straight emulation of the all-male “Rat Pack” in the previous “Ocean’s” movies. They were interviewed in an article that uses “badass” in its title but the qualities that emerge are described at the end as “relatable.” On Ken’s viewing, the eight women succeed more through their own culture than by adopting male culture.

Open Problems

Ken and I could go on with further examples of such micro barriers. Many focus on appearance, some on other issues. All are small issues. They are not extreme statements like: women should be {\dots}

But I do wonder whether the barriers accumulate. Do they accumulate and tip the scales toward having fewer women in computer science. What do you think?

By the way we at GLL are well aware that most of our readers are male. I wish we could change that but oh well.

[added “locker room” reference]

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2018 10:31 am

    See my proof of P = NP in

    https://www.academia.edu/37469408/P_versus_NP

    Thanks in advance…

  2. November 2, 2018 8:10 am

    I am able to pay by PayPal 100 dollars to the first one who find a flaw that could not be fixed in my P = NP proof. Would you dare?

    https://www.academia.edu/37469408/P_versus_NP

  3. November 3, 2018 1:46 pm

    Forget about it. I will not bet 100 dollars

  4. Erica Kane permalink
    November 9, 2018 7:17 pm

    Not *all* of your readers are male.

  5. Peter Gerdes permalink
    November 11, 2018 5:12 pm

    I’m somewhat disturbed by this approach because it seems to present a real danger of losing contact with the facts and becoming meaningless bitching and complaining that not only trades off against more grounded efforts but hurts women in stem by giving diversity efforts a bad name.

    It’s not that something along these lines couldn’t be true but you can’t just go assert that micro-barriers (or micro aggresdions) are a major reason it is hard to attract women without explicating what micro barrier means, what is a major barrier and then waiting for strong statistical backing. What we have instead is a situation where all these terms are sufficentlly flexible it makes the social science concepts at issue in the replication crisis look rigorous.

    I mean consider that image of the girl holding the chip. Could the things you mentioned be issues? Perhaps. BUT GIVEN ANY IMAGE OF A WOMAN HOLDING A CHIP I COULD RAISE EQUALLY PLAUSIBLE CONCERNS AS WELL AS FOR THE LACK OF SUCH A PICTURE. If the woman in the pic was just a normal looking girl who had some relation to designing the chip might that not send the message that girls in CS are seen as less sexy and glamorous (the need girls aren’t feminine stereotype). Also we use pictures of hot stock men to promote things all the time why are we sending the message that women don’t deserve as much hype. Of course no picture at all might make women in our field even less visible and suggest they don’t warrant the same attention.

    I could continue but the point is rather than advance some plausiblr scientific hypo supported by evidence we’ve just raised our level of suspison so we can point to anything at all and use it to justify our preconception or wage ideogicsl war.

    Worse all careers are filled with a great deal of unfairness and arbitrariness. Did the interviewer click with you, did you get a sympathetic reviewer etc. This now encourages people to see serious problems in every random fluctuation whether or not it was truly about gender.

    Not to mention the a priori unlikeliness of these micro-barriers being so effective in stem when much worse barriers couldn’t stop women from gaining a majority of law school slots and the troublesome fact that stem becomes more heavily male as societies become more gendef equal.

    If this was all bullshit and women in stem didn’t face some real serious problems it wouldn’t matter but there are still good old-fashioned macro-barriers and sexists about and this risks undermining that fight.

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