Wednesday, October 08, 2008


I went to a talk which was about a type of industrial software. At some point the speaker puts up a list about what typical corporate-research/programmer staff in this area do all day. The list was clearly meant to be a little humorous (inasmuch as people discussing such things can be). The last bullet was:
Find time to find a girlfriend.
Now, I'm not claiming to be most sensitive Neanderthal in the cave, but I am the father of three daughters, and this raised my hackles. The small number of women in the audience didn't seem to notice or mind, but maybe they did, or maybe one would the next time he gave the talk. As a field, this is exactly the type of throwaway comment that we have to, repeat, have to avoid.

I mentioned it to the speaker afterward, and to his credit, he was not defensive, and said he'd remove it or change "girlfriend" to the gender-neutral "significant other". (I'd vote for removal. Why even go with the stereotype computer scientists can't find love?)


Harry Lewis said...

"As a field, this is exactly the type of throwaway comment that we have to, repeat, have to avoid."
As a father of daughters, I sympathize with the instinct. And I'm glad this situation was resolved amicably.
But I'm always curious, when someone makes an unconditional and emphatic statement like this, how far they'd take it. Does that mean you'd bar Feynman from your department, for example, because of his affinity for strip clubs, etc.? Maybe not fair, because Feynman was a creature of another era. But that era was already passing while he was in his prime, without changing him one bit. And it's been awhile since I read his descriptions of all that, so I may not remember accurately how politically incorrect, or worse, he really was.

Arvind Narayanan said...

I agree with changing it to a gender neutral term, but other than that I don't see the problem. I simply see it as a gentle reminder of the fact that there's more to life than work. Many communities have self-deprecating jokes about having trouble finding partners. You're reading too much into it!

Anonymous said...

It's a sad affair that girl-friends are still treated as a commodity.

Claire Mathieu said...

There are only two daughters on your home page! When will you correct that sad omission?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Aw, c'mon, Claire, I told you it was on the to-do list.... OK, OK, this weekend...

Anonymous said...

"a list about what *typical* corporate-research/programmer staff in this area do all day."

Mathematically or empirically, isn't the claim:

"Find time to find a girlfriend."

precise? I see your point about being sensitive, but I hope the speaker was not a pedantically precise data analyst. From your post, I understand the speaker (he, as it is revealed in the second paragraph) was not one of those.

MyUnbiasedView said...

I take it that you brought it up with Larry Summers too at Harvard when he spoke few years back. Or, do you not take it up with high profile folks?

The truth is that such statements do track facts. Undergrads in the US have full freedom to choose their major. Why is it that the gender mix in CS/EE is heavily biased against females, much more than the overall (entire) undergraduate class?

I am not going to try to explain why the above happens. But, given this fact, such statements make a lot of sense. In fact, they come out naturally in conversation due to social conditioning, not with any intention to bias against the girl gender.

Mark Knell said...

"reading too much into it"

I wonder. My daughter's just old enough to to be putting consecutive sentences together, and I'm repeatedly startled by how I bristle at gendered things I wouldn't have noticed before. I was never a bristling kind of guy. So I'd have to concede that it's possible.

That being said, how much is "too much"? I also agree with MM that the profession (field) is on thin ice here, and that resolving the gender gap is the key issue--larger than making the world safe for lame jokes that grease an audience.

If over the next five years CS became known as hyperattentive gender police, AND the gender gap in enrollments closed, with women feeling welcomed and comfortable... I could live with that. I bet my daughter could, too.

David Andersen said...

I have all sorts of disagreement with the way it was phrased, but there's something in his statement that does ring true: the finding time part. "Find time to nurture your personal relationships" seems like an excellent bit of advice for any professional in a field that can eat up all of your time and energy, not just a computer scientist.

jxyz said...

I am very happy you bring up such issues in your blog. Such "throwaway" comments are by far not the worst thing women experience in fields male-dominated fields such as CS.

I am mainly posting in response to MyUnbiasedView, whose view is, I am afraid, quite biased and perhaps the reason why women tend to stay away from CS/EE. I would like to link to my blog post about sexism I have faced personally. I also have a post on research on biases against women, and another post on how American society's anti-intellectual and anti-nerd culture prevents girls with exceptional talent from sticking with math.