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Advancing Women in Computing

This post is written jointly by Ben Cotton and Greg Riedesel

On Thursday afternoon, five panelists discussed the state and future of women in computing. Although women are underrepresented in technical fields, they are not the only underrepresented group. As such, much of the discussion could be applied to any underrepresented or even a majority group.

The opening topic -- and a recurring theme -- was mentoring. Each of the panelists described traits of a helpful mentor. Listening may be the most important skill a mentor can have, but asking the right questions is also critical. Mentors must be groomed to understand the importance of mentoring and to develop the skills needed to be effective. Nicole Forsgren Velasquez suggested a written mentoring agreement to define how the mentoring relationship will work, especially if the mentoring agreement is in the workplace, and to help ensure that meetings occur. She also shared that she likes to have two mentors: a cheerleader to provide encouragement and a cynic to provide constructive criticism. Mentoring is not just appropriate for college students and early-career professionals, but also for high school and middle school students, according to Adele Shakal. Panel moderator Rikki Endsley also pointed out that experienced women need mentors, too.

Networking is also important for career and technical advancement. Adele suggested doing advance research by following the blogs and mailing lists of professional organizations, companies, and field leaders before jumping in. Jennifer Davis says to make full use of conferences by attending Birds-of-a-Feather sessions and stepping outside normal boundaries of interest. If hosting an event, Elizabeth Krumbach suggests asking everyone to introduce themselves in order to get those who might not otherwise speak to at least say a few words.

Job interview styles are one way employers can provide unintended suggestions that this company is not for them. Nichole pointed out that questions or activities designed to cause applicants to demonstrate how they think, generally with hard challenges, are perceived to be combative to women but merely challenging to men. Elizabeth pointed out that saying, “Oh, you’re a woman,” or, “we’ve never had a woman apply before,” is off-putting, and is actually a form of stereotype threat. Jennifer pointed out that women are more likely to say “we did” when discussing projects they lead, where men are more likely to say “I did” for projects they only participated on.

One early question was what can male (in this context, or “majority group” in general) colleagues do to foster a welcoming environment for women? Nicole pointed out that no woman represents all women: some want to be treated like “one of the guys”, and others don’t. The best thing to do for any new employee, minority group or not, is to find out how that individual wants to be treated. Josephine Zhao suggested supportive colleagues will help new hires open up and validate their technical competency, both to themselves and to others. Avoiding the obvious is important, too. Even after they’ve been hired, “Oh! You’re a woman!” is still off-putting and something they already know.

Many men in the room were interested in knowing how to recruit women to jobs and conferences without over-emphasising. Adele advised using professional networks to spread the word, and to use unconventional advertising (Her example was of a tech company that had great success by putting fliers on pizza boxes delivered after 10 P.M.). Anonymizing resumes can help, since research has shown that women with similar resumes are generally rated lower than men. Additionally, women tend to under-rate their skills, so that should be accounted for in the hiring process. The key, according to Nicole, is to focus on increasing overall diversity, not on hiring a specific underrepresented-group.

For conferences, again leaning on professional networks to distribute the call for participation is very important. Calls should provide clear, unambiguous instruction so that people who have never submitted a paper can readily understand what is required. When underrepresented groups do not submit, seek out specific people who have relevant work that may be interesting to conference attendees. Adele suggests developing a anti-harassment policy in advance -- before it is needed.

This conversation will be continued at Federated Conferences Week 2013, where the Women in Advanced Computing conference will be held again.

For further reading on this topic, Adele suggested a few keywords to search for:

  • Impostor Syndrome (one definition)
  • Feminism 101
  • Geek Feminism Wiki (the wiki)
  • Derailing
  • Gaslighting
  • Becoming an ally
  • Check your privilege