women in STEM: where to intervene

I am at workshop this week, and had an interesting sideline conversation today.  We both agreed that there was culture-induce inequality of the genders in STEM fields, but the fellow I was talking with disagreed with with me on how to fix things.

I was saying if a department had zero female faculty, then they should make an effort to encourage women to apply.  I was not saying that they should be given less stringent requirements or that a lesser qualified female candidate should be preferred over a more qualified male, but that they should simply make an effort to seek out qualified candidates.

He was arguing that we should address the cultural influence not at the faculty-hiring level, but at the elementary school level.  While I think that there is much that can be done in elementary school, this would never be enough.  A girl could be taught to love math in the third grade, but by the time she made it through the gauntlet of media aimed at middle schoolers, there is very little chance that the elementary school efforts could outweigh other influences.

If we're going to make an effort to level the playing field for men and women in STEM, it needs to happen at every level.  We cannot focus only on faculty or other employment nor can we only dedicate our efforts to primary or secondary education.  The efforts go hand in hand: without role models, girls may think that certain jobs are unappealing.  Without efforts in schooling, there will not be a population of women with the interests and tools to pursue STEM fields.

But these aren't the only areas that influence girls' choices to pursue math-y fields or not.  TV shows, movies, toys, magazines, advertisements, parenting choices, religious communities, political parties, news, and books all shape the way we think about ourselves, how we contextualize our existence in the world.

Any time a mother says to a daughter: I'm not good at math, ask your dad, the daughter's expectations  are adjusted; it's now okay not to be good at math.  Worse yet, she's taught that it's okay to deprecate yourself, which lowers self-esteem and propagates negative cultural influences.  Now, it's totally legitimate for many women not to enjoy math or not be skilled at it, but for the sake of your daughter, your own skill doesn't need to enter into it.  Instead, a mother could say: Oh!  This is important, but it's your dad's responsibility to help with math homework.

Since the influences are so broad and diverse, what can we possibly do?  When do we intervene and how much?  In most cases, I don't think we need a broad campaign; we just do what we can where we can.  If we're on a hiring committee, we seek out qualified candidates.  If we're an elementary school teacher, we make sure to present the material without gender (or other) biases, and teach all students that they can excel.  If we're a manager, we assign tasks simply based on the ability to perform them.  This applies to all areas of bias, be they gender, ethnic, orientation, religious, or something else.

The idea here is that popular culture and media pushes individuals in a certain direction: women need to conform to certain standards of beauty, families need to be constructed a certain way, boys should be good at math and sports.  When we see something that feels wrong, we just need to push back in whatever ways we can and hope that our efforts offset the influences we deem to be negative.

The frustrating thing about the conversation today was what felt like a willful misunderstanding.  He asked things like, So do you think that a certain percentage of the faculty in a department should be female?  No; it's silly to set numbers in advance.  If things are grossly unbalanced (like the specific case I was actually talking about with zero female faculty in a reasonably large department), then the department should make an effort to hire women.  He then objected that you shouldn't fight an inequality with the inequality of hiring under-qualified women.  What bothers me about this argument is that it assumes there aren't qualified women; there are, you just have to look a little harder for them, which is what I was proposing.  He then shifted the focus to contrasting elementary school initiatives vs. faculty hiring efforts and eventually even went so far as to compare recruiting females to recruiting people with blue eyes in an effort to question what constitutes diversity.

I think it's common for men to feel threatened by the idea that women should be more actively recruited.  It's natural: it implies that they're less desirable, which isn't the case.  The reason I bring this up isn't to shame a particular person (I intentionally included no names), but to highlight an area that can be improved.  I don't think everyone should agree with me, and I do think that he's right in some ways: women are just people and should be treated as such.  The problem is, that until they're actually treated as people in all facets, we can't pretend that everything will just be okay if teach elementary kids to like math and science.  There are so many factors at play that we need to make an effort to change culture; it doesn't happen naturally.

And in the effort to change to that culture, I think we need to be a little more careful about they way we converse about these issues.  I know I get defensive and other people do too; I think this is the first thing that can change, because as soon as it does, we can stop talking past each other and actually get some stuff done.


LDS Public Affairs

This past Sunday, I received and accepted a new calling: Secretary to the (horrible acronym warning) NYMMPAC, which stands for New York Metro Multistake Public Affairs Council.  It covers 3 Coordinating Councils, or 13 Stakes and 131 units.

Generally speaking, the idea of church public affairs makes me a little queasy.  In an ideal world, the good works of the church should speak for themselves and we should have no need to influence public opinion of us.  That said, I think the public affairs groups aren't there solely to bring about good press—the director emphasized to me that "public affairs" is really an unfortunate name, since there's much more to it than that.  But, prior to this, my perception of Public Affairs was the folks who force members to wear yellow Helping Hands vests and do photographed service activities.  Or, more recently, PA was represented by the token woman that introduced the Apostles for the press release on religious freedom.

So why did I accept the calling?  Part of it was certainly ego.  But another big part of why I accepted is that I was recommended for the position because of my strong opinions.  This means that they knew what they were getting, and I had license to be myself.  I also warned them that I have a blog.

I have a friend at church who is on the NYMMPAC, and she and I have had regular hallway discussions on church issues (in lieu of attending Sunday School).  She acknowledges that some aspects of Public Affairs and popular LDS culture need to be improved, and has been working to make things better.  The idealistic optimist in me says: now I can be a part of that effort!

While I do need to keep some things confidential, I hope to keep a record of some of my public affairs experiences, to improve transparency, define the role of public affairs a little more concretely, and to prevent me from drinking too much cultural kool-aid.

Update: Since writing this post, lots of people have told me about great PA experiences, like:
Folks have also pointed out that PA is one of the few areas in the church hierarchy where women have impactful roles.  Now I'm feeling pumped.


ice skating as a waltz

Yesterday, NWC and I went ice skating on the three frozen bodies of water in our area—a tour of the ponds and lake.  The muscles in my feet usually get tired after about 40 minutes, so the was a nice way to take advantage of the outdoor ice skating opportunity without wearing myself out.  As soon as we got tired, we took a break by switching to the next one.

I'm still very much a novice when it comes to ice skating.  This season I've made it my goal to practice two things: stopping and skating continuously (instead of two pushes and parallel gliding; repeat).  My biggest problem with smooth skating was speed; I could skate continuously by constantly pushing off one foot then the other, but then I end up going far too fast and losing control.

Yesterday I finally made a break through on skating continuously: I turned it into a waltz.   I was watching a slow experienced skater, and started to count how often she pushed off, and it was every third beat.  Once I found the rhythm and turned it more into a dance, it was like flipping a switch.  Now to figure out how to stop properly...


Allison's Law: "The mess has to go somewhere"

When I was a growing up, we had a standard of cleanliness in our house called "daddy-clean." My brother and I were asked regularly to clean are rooms, like most American children, but when we were done, mom would always ask: Is it daddy-clean?  This usually resulted in a second round of cleaning to make sure everything was out of sight.

There was a flaw to this paradigm, however, which was that daddy-clean only applied to things that were visible.  Thus, I learned the art of shoving everything under my bed, which had a convenient bedskirt to hide everything.  Toys, clothes, paper; everything went underneath.  When under-the-bed got full, the closet was my second choice.  Eventually my parents found out about this, due to an abundance of random objects poking out, but they allowed me my secret messes so long as they didn't get in the way of finding important things, which they occasionally did.

Nowadays my messes look a little different.  In addition to paper, I have more abstract things like source code.  And my experience growing up has taught me: the mess has to go somewhere.  Most of the time, this is just a trade off between different aspects of cleanness of an end product and time, but it applies in so many cases.

Consider the process of creating a user interface.  The mess can go into the source code; everything hacked together in an ugly mess underneath.  The mess could also go into the UI itself: bad design with beautifully easy implementation.  Or, the mess could be absorbed with lots of time to have pretty code and sleek presentation.

Or consider a different piece of software, like an operating system.  The mess could go into the kernel, into the user experience, or passed on to developers for that platform.  Or, again, the mess can be absorbed by lots of time and effort.

In my experience, the mess of the very pretty Mac OS is passed on to developers.  D3, with its steep learning curve and beautiful graphics, also passes the mess to programmers.  Easy-to-use and powerful libraries like ggplot2 for R probably put the mess in some combination of the under-the-hood code and time.

I've also been thinking about this in terms of (machine learning) model development.  Usually elegant models require an intense amount of time to polish into their perfected forms.

It's not always the right choice to absorb mess with time; sometimes a project isn't worth doing exceptionally cleanly.  I think it is always worth it, however, to consider where your mess will be going in order to make a measured choice.