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.