Thursday, October 27, 2005

Diversity is hard

When thinking about diversity within the techie fields, I tend to put technical people into one of two categories: part of the solution or part of the problem. Bill Gates? Part of the problem (in the sense that the models of computing success we hold up are overwhelmingly white, male, and "socially challenged"; not in the "Microsoft is bad and evil!" sense). Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher? Part of the solution ("we saw a problem with gender diversity at Carnegie Mellon and we worked really hard to fix it. Here's what worked for us."). I also tend to bin the ambivalent people into the "part of the problem" category (lack of obvious mentoring for female and underrepresented students in STEM fields is as bad as blatantly negative mentoring). But lately I'm faced with a whole new category of people: the "I Give Up"s. These are people who care, or say they care, or once cared, about diversity, but whom have grown weary or discouraged at the lack of progress and thus are ready to just give up. "What difference does it make, anyway? I've tried and tried and there still are so few women and people of color. I'm tired of not making a difference."

Achieving diversity is hard. It's hard because we're in essence fighting against so many societal factors, against indifferent teachers, against toxic classroom computing environments. We're fighting a world in which girls are constantly told that Math Is Hard and that it's not cool to be smart, much less into computers or robots or whatever. We're dealing with students who grew up in homes where the family computer was probably in the boy's bedroom, not in the girl's bedroom. We're dealing with students who were not encouraged to take math and science, or who did not have the "right" math and science classes at their school and have no realistic chance of success in any STEM field. We're competing against "easier" academic majors, against programs where the gender diversity is better and where the classrooms and labs are not ruled by alpha male geeks with few social skills. It's an uphill battle, dammit, and it is *hard*.

But when I hear comments from the I Give Ups, it makes me very sad. Because I know that every female student or student of color that we manage to get into our classrooms is a victory. Because even though a few is nowhere close to great, it's better than zero. Because the only way we're going to change anything is to keep pushing for climate change, to keep strongly encouraging our students to take our courses, to *explicitly* mentor the students who need that extra push, to be continuously vigilant, to keep asking "What else can I do to improve the situation?"

I'm tired, too. But I'm not giving up. This is not a war that I'm willing to concede. The stakes are way too high. This is definitely not the time to give up.


Laura said...

I'm with you. I'm not giving up either. Part of why I don't have a CS degree, I'm convinced, is because at some point, someone convinced me that it wasn't a good idea. And it could have been that CS class I failed, in which I was the only girl. I fell backwards into the technology field. I often encourage the students who work for me to take CS classes and a few have ended up as majors (they're all women, of course). It is incredibly frustrating to watch the number of women in my department shrink. We're down to 3 now. I have little hope that the 3 slots, which are very technical positions, will be filled by women. It's depressing. But I serve on search committees. I do what I can. And I also give my male colleagues grief when they're being hostile to women. Alas, it still happens. It's subtle, but it's there.

Anonymous said...

Some of the time, I give up.
I work with my students and pretend I don't see the larger issue.

I'm trying to develop a (ahem) constructive engagement strategy to demonstrate to colleagues that they will benefit if the department is more diverse. So far, I the only angle I have on it is that NSF may use inclusiveness & recruitment as one of the yardsticks on grants review.

In other department arguments, you can win support for iniative X if the men can see how it will pay off for them.

Zuska said...

"I give up" might also be described as "I am so burnt out that if I give one more ounce of energy to this issue it's going to be bad for my physical/mental/emotional health."
You know, having reached that stage myself a few years ago, I have some sympathy for those who need to take a break from the front lines. Sometimes you have to rotate the troops. I really do see the fight for gender equity and racial diversity and to increase access to kids from lower socioeconomic classes as a war. And it wears people out. Because every single day you are faced with people Who. Don't. Want. You. To. Prevail.
Now, if you are the only one, or one of few, women in a science or engineering department, you may feel lonely, but you can also interact with your male colleagues about your academic interests. There is at least connection on those grounds. But if you are an advocate for diversity, you are often all on your own. Especially if that's actually your job - say, leading a women in engineering program or the like. You have no colleagues with whom to discuss your efforts, to provide feedback and encouragement.
It is not surprising that valiant warriers burn out. It is surprising that any of us manage to continue waging war at all. Because most people want us to fail. And that's a hard knowledge to swallow each morning and then get up and keep going.

Now, if the "I give up" folks are those who participated in one diversity-related event and are disappointed that women did not suddenly show up in their department like crocus in spring, then I have no sympathy for them at all. They are "I don't care" people hiding behind "I give up".
And Zuska says, a foul rash upon them all.

Turtle said...

I see the struggle for diversity and being a multi-generational and multi-pronged effort. And I wonder if it's easier to get burned out if one thinks that such a huge tangle of problem can be sorted out quickly, or that one is supposed to see some kind of change as a result of one's efforts.

I really believe that the effects or our efforts are felt much more widely than we will ever know, and that while we're working and waiting for change, we need keep voices calling for change even in the face of backlash.

At the same time, I also choose my battles and do not push forward equally at all times on all issues that I care about. I recognize that I can't do it all alone and so I trust that while I work a lot with gender and STEM issues, that others are working on race and ethnicity and class and sexuality and ... and ... I hope that others have my back and that they recognize that I have theirs. And I continue to try to educate myself about how the complexity and multi-layered nature of diversity.

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