Tag Archives: computer science

From comments: this is what a computer scientist looks like

From comments on Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive!, Lindsey has started a Flickr group for “This is what a computer scientist looks like”. The group itself has this description:

This group collects photos of computer scientists, with a particular focus on women (may change later to include other underrepresented groups in CS).

If you are a woman in computer science, feel free to contribute a photo of yourself. If you’re contributing a photo of someone else, please make sure it’s a public photo that you have permission to share, preferably one taken at a public event such as a professional conference or workshop.

In the spirit of Photos of Mathematicians, we’re looking for modern, candid photos of currently active, not-necessarily-famous computer scientists. We’re not looking for historical photos.

So far, I am the only computer scientist. Fear me or displace me at the front of the queue!

Wednesday Geek Woman: Gertrude Blanch, algorithm design pioneer

This is a guest post by Beth. Beth is a C++ programmer outside of Boston, MA.

A pioneer in algorithm design for both human and mechanical computers, Gertrude Blanch (February 2, 1897–January 1, 1996) ran the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City and continued to work on algorithm optimizations for mathematical questions until her death in 1996.

An early pioneer in numerical analysis and computation, she received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in algebraic geometry in 1935. She published over thirty papers on functional approximation, numerical analysis and Mathieu functions and became a pivotal figure during the transition from human computers to mechanical, digital computers.

Having run a team of 450 human computers at Mathematical Tables Project in New York City she was in an excellent position to discuss the construction of algorithms during the early days of punch-card machines. In her interview with the Smithsonian she discusses constructing parallel processing algorithms such that the non-mathematicians employed as computers could calculate the tables without understanding the complex math involved, and the use of smoothing function to produce checksums that allowed manuscripts to be proofread for typing errors. Later on she continued with mathematical research, finding ways to make up for mathematical deficiencies in computers designed for industry and quantifying practical considerations when investigating theoretical mathematics on computing machines. She was one of the three women to attend the 1948 customer conference of IBM computer customers. Essentially she stood at the intersection between theory and practicality at a tipping point in the history of mathematics.

She was at one point denied a security clearance after World War II due to suspicions that she might be a communist. In addition to her sister being a member of the Communist party, evidence offered against her included that she had never married or had children. When a hearing was called, her name was cleared and she later became a mathematician and instructor at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in California. She was elected a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1962 and was given the Federal Woman’s Award from President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Wikipedia: Gertrude Blanch
If you have access to IEEE Annels of History, you can read more about here in a piece they did: Gertrude Blanch of the Mathematical Tables Project.
Her papers are available at the Charles Babbage Institute.
You can read the Smithsonian oral history interview with her.

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Wednesday Geek Woman: Karen Spärck Jones, leading computational linguistics researcher

Wednesday Geek Woman submissions are open for one more day.

Portrait of Karen Spärck Jones, 2002

Portrait of Karen Spärck Jones, 2002, (CC BY, University of Cambridge)

This post originated in two Ada Lovelace Day posts in 2009: Ada Lovelace Day profile: Karen Spärck Jones and Ada Lovelace Day wrap 2: Karen Spärck Jones elsewhere

I first heard about Karen Spärck Jones, who was a senior scientist in my field of computational linguistics, in 2007 as part of my paying job, which was as the editorial assistant for Computational Linguistics. Just before she died, Spärck Jones wrote Computational Linguistics: What About the Linguistics? which we published posthumously as the Last Words column for Vol. 33, No. 3. (Spärck Jones was aware both that she was dying and that her column was going to appear under the heading ‘Last Words’.) I was never able to correspond with her directly: she died before we even had the camera ready copies done.

Spärck Jones’s academic career began in 1957, and was funded entirely by grant money until 1994: most academics will recognise this as a hard way, requiring researchers to fund their own positions with grant money awarded in cycles.

Spärck Jones was the originator of the Inverse Document Frequency measure in information retrieval (1972, “A statistical interpretation of term specificity and its application in retrieval.”, Journal of Documentation, 28:11–21) which is nearly ubiquitously used as part of the measure of the importance of various words contained in documents when searching for information. (The word ‘the’, for example, is very unimportant, as it occurs in essentially all documents, thus having high document frequency and low inverse document frequency.) She had a long history in experimental investigations of human language (most computational linguists are now in this business). She was also at one time president of the Association for Computation Linguistics.

Awards Spärck Jones won in her lifetime include Fellowships of the American and European Artificial Intelligence societies, Fellowship of the British Academy, the ACL Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lovelace Medal of the British Computer Society.

Spärck Jones was a popular subject for Ada Lovelace Day profiles in 2009, here are some of the others:

Martin Belam wrote a long profile quoting extensively from Spärck Jones’s interviews and speeches and focussing on both her own career progression: she worked with Margaret Masterman at the Cambridge Language Research Unit. “You have no conception of how narrow the career options were [for women],” is one of Belam’s quotes. Here is Spärck Jones:

We were trying to get at girls in schools [to take up computing] and we knew we had to get to the teachers first. We found that the spread of computing in the administrative and secretarial world has completely devalued it. When one of the teachers suggested to the parents of one girl that perhaps she should go into computing the parents said: ‘Oh we don’t want Samantha just to be a secretary’. That’s nothing to do with nerdiness, but the fact that it’s such a routine thing.

Bill Thompson was a student of Spärck Jones’s, and wrote about her influence on him as a fellow philosopher turned computer scientist. He also wrote her obituary for The Times (and, in 2003, that of her husband, fellow computer scientist Roger Needham).

IT journalist Brian Runciman remembers Spärck Jones as the most interesting woman he’s ever interviewed in Computing’s too important to be left to men. (“I think it’s very important to get more women into computing. My slogan is: Computing is too important to be left to men.” seems to be Spärck Jones’s best known quote.) In the interview with him, she talked about how her ideas permeate modern search engine implementations.

Wikipedia: Karen Spärck Jones
Obituary in Computational Linguistics.

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Re-post: How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn’t.

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, we’re reposting some older writing for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on Oct 17, 2009.

It comes up a lot in discussions of women in computer science, women who write code, women in open source. Eventually, someone brings up the fact that women score slightly lower on math tests. Clearly, they claim, this biological inferiority must explain why there are fewer women in math heavy fields.

It sounds like a compelling reason, and it gets a lot of play. Except, you know what? It’s a lie.

I’m a mathematician. I’ve looked at those numbers, I’ve read some papers. The research into biologically-linked ability is fascinating, but it simply isn’t significant enough to explain the huge gender gap we see in the real world. I used to do this presentation on the back of a napkin for people who tried to spout this misconception to my face, and I finally put it online:

Love it? Hate it? Learn something? Catch the Mathnet reference? Let me know.

Re-posting notes: one of the most common complaints about this slideshow was that the graphs aren’t perfect. You may wish to read this comment about the design choices I made when preparing this slide show. I periodically toy with the idea of putting together a follow-up presentation including some more recent research ideas regarding what causes the gap (e.g. recent research into stereotype threat) so if you have recent links to neat ideas, please pass them along!

Social problems in Computer Science

This is a guest post by Jessica Hamrick. Jessica Hamrick is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a bent towards artificial intelligence. She is is the current Chair of MIT’s computer club (SIPB), and when she is not busy managing that, enjoys hacking/coding, photography, knitting, and blogging at Artificial Awareness

This entry is cross-posted with some edits.

This morning, I read a blog post about women in computer science which was quite compelling. It reminded me, of course, of another article about women in CS, and I began thinking about about what my own opinion is on the subject. Sexism in CS and similarly technical fields is certainly a problem. But why? And how have I encountered it?

It struck me that I am incredibly lucky to be a student at MIT, where I have never actually encountered blatant sexism. No one has ever groped me, or told me I was incompetent because I was a woman (nor have I ever felt that was the case). I was elected SIPB Chair, but it was not that people thought I was sexy or that I slept with anyone, but that I was the right person for the job. When I ask more experienced hackers technical questions, they don’t try to gloss over the details or tell me that I won’t understand–they explain it the same way they would to anyone else. Really, I couldn’t ask for a better environment.

However, it still didn’t feel quite like sexism (or something like it) it was entirely absent. After thinking a while longer, I realized what the problem was:

The tech environment walks a fine line between being elitist and being a meritocracy, and often manages to slip back into elitism.

It’s not so much a problem of sexism as it is a problem of general attitude. Becoming good at dealing with computers takes a lot of hands-on experience. There aren’t any classes that will teach you how to debug NetworkManager or how to reconfigure your X configuration so that gdm doesn’t fail. So those of us who like figuring out the answers to such problems have only a handful of options: 1) learn everything using Google, 2) learn everything by asking an expert, 3) both 1 and 2, or 4) give up. Sometimes, if the problem is specialized enough, 2 and 4 are really the only options. Unfortunately, it is often the case when asking an experienced hacker that they will give a harsh, unhelpful, and/or elitist response. Here’s an example.

Person A: I need to reinstall this computer with Debian, but I don’t have a CD or DVD burner or any flash media. I’m not sure if I have any other options. Could you help me?

Person B: I don’t have time. Just use PXE.

A (thinking): PXE, what’s that? I guess I’ll Google it. Hmm, well, Wikipedia says it’s a way of booting your computer over the network. I guess sort of like a livecd, except over the network? That’s kind of cool. How do I do it? This site seems to give some links. Looks like the Debian link is broken, so I’ll use the Red Hat link and see if I can just change the relevant things.

[an hour passes]

A (frustrated): This isn’t working. How am I supposed to install my computer over the internet if I have to install stuff to the computer to begin with? I don’t understand how this works!
B: … what the hell are you doing? You just choose the “netboot” option in your BIOS, like you would choose to boot from CD-ROM or hard drive, etc.

Do you see what Person B did wrong, here? Person A was asking for help, and clearly does not know about netbooting (or they wouldn’t have asked). Person B assumes they know what PXE is and that they know how to use it, or at least that they can figure it out for themselves. Unfortunately, the documentation on PXE is unhelpful and misleading and never mentions needing to change a setting in your BIOS. Person A tried to figure it out themselves using the vague information given to them by Person B, but only managed to waste an hour and become even more confused! Furthermore, when Person A comes back for more help, Person B acts like they are incapable of learning for being ignorant and confused, and treats them with disdain. It would have been so much nicer, faster, and easier for Person B to simply say in the first place “try using the netboot option in your BIOS to boot into the installer over the internet”.

In my experience, the sort of attitude taken by Person B, either intentionally or unintentionally, is the most formidable obstacle facing new tech-oriented people. In particular, I have noticed that men tend to be better at muscling their way through this “barrier of newbie shame”. Many studies have shown that women tend to be less confident and less assertive than men, and when the environment is such that you have to be assertive and confident in order to get anywhere, it is no wonder that many choose to give up and choose a different path. Being ignorant of a topic does not mean you are incapable of learning it, but many people in CS act like it does.

There is no reason why the tech environment should be so elitist. I heartily agree that it must retain a degree of meritocracy: you need to earn your respect as a hacker. However, everyone has to start somewhere; no one is born with awesome hacking abilities, and not everybody is as able to figure out how things work without a few pointers. Wouldn’t it be so much better to have more skilled people in computer science, to fix even more bugs and create even more brilliant pieces of software? I believe that if we could tone down the elitism, such a world would become a reality.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just recognizing what the problem is. Being elitist is not always a conscious or deliberate action (most people are not so much of an ass to say “I won’t be helpful because I am better than you”) — it is usually just the easy way out. Becoming a hacker in an elitist environment makes it all too simple to just assume that that is the correct way of doing things. It is easy to fall into the mindset of “I had to deal with and stand up to that sort of bullshit when I was new, so why shouldn’t everyone else?”. It is easy to find yourself too busy to really help, so you just brush them off with a short, unhelpful answer or tell them to RTFM. It is easy to forget that you were once the confused, ignorant newbie who didn’t have the background that you now do.

In addition, I think that many people become rough and abrasive because they are all too often asked to fix things themselves as opposed to giving advice. Every tech person is all too familiar with friends, relatives, and acquaintances asking them to fix computers or install software, and most tech people I know hate it. It is especially frustrating when people who are nominally technically competent ask you to do things for them. The urge to say “no, go figure it out yourself!” is extremely strong, and it is easy to lump favor-seekers into the same category as advice-seekers. But it is important to make the distinction, and to actually be helpful when someone asks for advice.

So, how can we fix this problem? Recognizing that it is a problem is a first step, but it is not enough. Changing things will not be quick or easy, either. But, there are a few things we can try:

  1. If you are too busy to help, politely say so and apologize that you don’t have the time. Don’t give vague or cryptic answers.
  2. Don’t assume that they have the same background of knowledge that you do, because they probably don’t. Try to explain things at their level. That doesn’t mean &#8220skip the details”, but &#8220make sure to explain the details and include relevant pieces of knowledge that you have but they don’t”.;.
  3. Point them towards documentation which you know is helpful, instead of just throwing terminology around.
  4. Be polite, even if they are asking what seems like an unintelligent question or asking you to do something for them You can say “no, that’s not my job” or “no, I don’t have time right now” without being rude and abrasive.

From now on, I will try to point out this phenomenon of elitism to people I know in CS, and encourage them to be more conscientious of their interactions with aspiring hackers. I hope that you will, too! I’d also love to hear any other opinions on this matter. Have you encountered this elitist environment elsewhere? How have you dealt with it?

Restore meritocracy in CS using an obscure functional language.

Students who did not have the privilege of hacking since they were young are at a disadvantage in Computer Science (CS). However, CS departments can teach introductory programming using an obscure functional programming language to limit the young hackers’ advantage. Most students with prior coding experience learned a procedural programming paradigm, so forcing all students to struggle with learning a new, functional language helps restore meritocracy.

In the blog comments, Kite recounts hir experience with an intro CS course:

While I think my course was pretty sucky, one good thing it did was to knock the wind out of the sails of those guys who’d been programming for ages – by starting us on an obscure functional programming language called Miranda (oh did it ever raise a whole lotta grumbles from the boasters). Only after that did we do procedural stuff like C, and then onto C++. Mind you, the whole course seemed determined to be as academic and un-real-world as possible, so C++ was probably the most career-relevant thing we got out of it! [...]

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If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Often, computer geeks who started programming at a young age brag about it, as it is a source of geeky prestige. However, most computer geeks are oblivious to the fact that your parents being able to afford a computer back in the 1980s is a product of class privilege, not your innate geekiness. Additionally, the child’s gender affects how much the parents are willing to financially invest in the child’s computer education. If parents in the 1980s think that it is unlikely their eight-year-old daughter will have a career in technology, then purchasing a computer may seem like a frivolous expense.

Because of systemic racism, class differences correlate with racial demographics. In the Racialicious post Gaming Masculinity, Latoya quotes a researcher’s exchange with an African American male computer science (CS) undergraduate:

“Me and some of my black friends were talking about the other guys in CS. Some of them have been programming since they were eight. We can’t compete with that. Now, the only thing that I have been doing since I was eight is playing basketball. I would own them on the court. I mean it wouldn’t be fair, they would just stand there and I would dominate. It is sort of like that in CS.”
— Undergraduate CS Major

Those “other guys” in CS are those white, male geeks who brag in CS newsgroups about hacking away at their Commodore 64s as young children, where successive posters reveal younger and younger ages in order to trump the previous poster. This disgusting flaunting of privilege completely demoralizes those of us who gained computer access only recently. However, CS departments—which tend to be dominated by even more privileged computer geeks of an earlier era when computers were even rarer—also assume that early computer adoption is a meritocratic measure of innate interest and ability.

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Death by a thousand links (20th April, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Macho, macho ‘spam, I want to be a macho ‘spam (8th April, 2010)

  • jesstess at Stemming wants to motivate programming for a twelve year old girl. Head on over and give her ideas.
  • There’s discussion following on from Cath Elliott’s admiration of The Lord of the Rings in The Guardian (linkspammed here):
    • Tolkien’s Ladies: Is Geek Culture Female-Friendly? Anna N doesn’t think feminists need an “excuse” to like things, but also doesn’t think Eowyn alone makes LOTR especially feminist.
    • Feminism vs geek culture?: liliacsigil notes that Anna N is talking about commercially produced geek media, and that geek culture is not monolithic and has many women and feminists, and returns to the issue of “strong women characters” in geek media.
  • Study: Pay, Promotion Limits Lead Women to Exit Engineering: ‘What’s for sure is that “it’s not about math or getting your hands dirty,” says Hunt. “It’s not because these women mistakenly wandered into engineering.’”. (Also, WTF at ad inserted into the article: “See iPhone apps for new moms.”)
  • Girls abandon dolls for Web-based toys: an anecdote-driven story about possible new play styles among girls.
  • Being Inclusive vs Not Being Exclusive: ‘A group of people put on some creative project, and someone notices that there’s a lack of representation of X Minority for whatever reason, sometimes noting that they themselves are in the minority. The people organising the project get defensive and say “But we’re not excluding anyone! We are open to everybody! They just need to sign on!†There is a huge difference between not being exclusive and being inclusive.’ (Via FWD.)
  • Five+ Ways Being Transgender in Fandom Really Sucks, and Why I Stick With It Anyway: iambic writes about his experiences as a trans fan.
  • Research Conversations: Munmun De Choudhury writes about her computer science research on homophily in social networks, that is, similar people forming connections.
  • In Australia the Victorian Department of Transport is offering $10 000 Women in Transport Scholarships to female, full-time or part-time students starting or completing postgraduate studies in transport-related fields.
  • Carnivals: Feminist Blog Carnival No. 16 and 23rd Down Under Feminist Carnival

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Geek culture stereotypes and women’s responses

Links to Lisa Grossman’s Of Geeks and Girls have been turning up everywhere. She’s recounting work by Sapna Cheryan asking women about their interest in computing, in their case rooms that are decorated such that “Star Wars posters adorned the walls, discarded computer parts and cans of Coke clustered on a table” and showing that they are much less likely to agree that they have any interest in computer science. (Grossman does not report how men responded: surely Cheryan’s work used male subjects as well?)

The article goes on to caution though that while geek culture stereotypes seem to alienate women to some degree, dismantling the whole culture is not the solution:

But what about the women who do think like computer scientists? What of the girl geeks?

Cheryan has given talks where the audience doubted the existence of girl geeks. She’s also given talks to girl geeks. There, she has received responses such as, “I’m a female engineer, and I like Star Trek! What are you trying to say?†She explains that her studies aren’t supposed to give a picture of what computer scientists are actually like. The geek room is a caricature. “We couldn’t have found a room in the CS building that really looked like that,†she says. But the perception it captures is real.

It’s a fairly frequent response to geek feminism to argue that it’s an attempt to destroy geek culture, or at best that it’s a zero sum game: the number of women who would join a more feminist geek culture would be equalled by the number of men who would leave; occasionally this argument essentially boils down to “I’m here to get the hell away from women” but more commonly it’s along the lines of “I’m here to get the hell away from mainstream social norms, I like the social norms in geekdom, you’re trying to turn them into mainstream social norms, ew.” This reminds me of that response, but from women. We’re here for the geekdom. We talk about what we want to change; we should also talk about what we want to keep.

You’re welcome to discuss Cheryan’s work and Grossman’s take on it in general in comments here (worth remembering though that we generally don’t have perfect insight into our prejudices, so you may or may not be more turned off by discarded computer parts than you think), but I specifically wanted to ask women who see themselves as part of geek culture, or a geek culture, what are the parts of it that you enjoy and that you’re hoping to open up to more women?