Tuesday, February 21, 2006

201st post, appropriately about numbers

I just noticed that I've cracked the 200-post mark. Wow!

But that's not what I wanted to talk about, although what I do want to talk about involves numbers, so there's the segue.

Today, as part of some committee-related work, I was looking at the numbers of female computer science faculty members at our "neighbor" institutions. I was somewhat surprised at the number of schools on the list that didn't have a single female professor. But I was also surprised at my initial reaction: "Gosh, I'm lucky to be at a place where there's at least one female professor."

But am I?

I hear this same sentiment from time to time from colleagues---in my department, in other departments. They mean well, of course. It could be translated as "We're lucky that we finally have one female faculty member in computer science, after all those years when we had none."

But how much better is 1 than 0? I thought about this all the way home today.

The advantages of 1 over 0: Women majors finally have someone who "looks" like them. Male majors see a different model of success in CS. There's a certain legitimacy that a woman professor lends to outreach efforts to women. And the wishful thinking part: Where there is one, surely more will follow.

But there are hidden costs of 1. 1 stands out, regardless of how much she tries not to. And sometimes in worse ways: it's not rare to have one woman in a room of computer scientists, but what if the one woman is also the authority figure? The one always has to represent, and the presence of the one may be used as an excuse by the rest to ease up on outreach efforts. It's hard for the one to be accepted as a true model of success, because she is an anomaly in this environment. The environment is always tricky for the one: every move happens under a microscope. And with one, there is always the underlying suggestion from some quarters that the reason the one is here in the first place is because of favoritism of some sort.

More importantly, it's hard to build momentum with just one.

So am I really lucky, or is this just wishful thinking...on everyone's part? That's a rhetorical question, but one that I will no doubt be contemplating, at least over the next few days and weeks.


Lisa, Paper Chaser said...

Man, that IS hard.

But I still think you totally rocketh.

Anonymous said...

Your post uses no reason. Almost all departments were once composed of all men. At one point in time there was likely only one woman in departments that there are now half women. Starting at one is starting. It won't magically be 50/50 overnight.

Schools are quite concious of the gender balance issue, especially hiring committees, it's just that C.S. has few women PhDs, so it is hard to get balance. I am sure your department is yearning for women because the whole academic system is pushing for them now-a-days so it is absurd to continue oppression, pity narratives. If anything you should inspire women who realize that departments seek to hire 'other' canidates, and so C.S. is a great field for women to go into, instead of being a horrible field, like you make it out to be. C.S. women PhDs get great jobs compared to men in similar situations.

Jane said...

Thanks, Lisa!

Anonymous, you've completely missed the point of my post. :) Yes, departments have to start somewhere and someone has to be the first, but there are very real issues around "tokens" within traditionally male departments. That's the point I was making. And I wish what you point out in your second paragraph were true, but that's not reality at all---it may be what people say or wish was true, but we are *very* far from the days where women are on Easy Street in this field. And even if women *are* getting these "great jobs" as you claim, they sure as hell aren't being retained in them--and that's a real failing of the entire culture.

Anonymous said...

I was the "only" woman in my dept. after the previous "only" woman retired. She had kept the minutes of the dept meetings. Being more modern than she was, I declined that role. The men then had the secretary brought in to do it. No other woman was hired for ten years. I was the only for the whole time and even with tenure, could not dent the old boy power grid. That stuff is not dead, just repackaged (old wine, new bottles). My sympathy. Even so, the life of a professor is a good one. Everything has its moments.

MaggieMay said...

I just found you through the "Inside Higher Ed" link. I, too, am the only woman in my dept and I can really, really relate to this post. I am even more dubious about the value of "one" than you are though: for example, I have almost triple the number of advisees as some of my male colleagues, because I "look nice." WTF?

Jane said...

MaggieMay, wow, that's horrible! Not to mention completely unfair. Luckily I don't have to deal with advisee discrepancies (the one area in which my dept is enlightened enough to keep the workloads relatively even), but I know that most of my female colleagues are dealing with heavy advising loads. Good luck and hang in there!

Anon #2, you hit the nail on the head. It is completely repackaged, which just makes it harder to prove that anything untoward is happening. Do you have more women in your dept now, and has that changed things for the better?

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