Sunday, May 19, 2013

Surviving Prejudice as a Woman Programmer and Academic by Losing Yourself in Your Work

Today, we had our Isenberg School of Management PhD picnic in North Amherst on a cool and rainy Sunday afternoon.

I always feel that it is very important to show up to such events to support the doctoral students and, despite the weather, it was wonderful to see many of our students enjoying one another's company, conversing with the faculty who showed up (a few actually did), and huddling in the pavilion for some warmth.

This was a nice break, despite the unfortunate weather, since I had spent hours working on a plenary talk, Network Economics and the Internet, that I will be giving in Athens next month. I had been "in the flow" for hours,  consumed by the task at hand and had made great progress -- quite enjoyable and rewarding.

Upon my return from the picnic, I glanced over The New York Times, and became intrigued by the OpEd by Ellen Ullman, How to be a `Woman Programmer.'

I have written about working in industry as a computer programmer, while pursuing my Master's degree at Brown University in Applied Math (thanks to the companies that paid my way). and often write about how much I enjoy the research that I do, which necessarily requires algorithm development and implementation -- which means computer programming -- to solve problems that we build mathematical models for.

Ullman writes in her OpEd (and I concur with her) that The first requirement for programming is a passion for the work, a deep need to probe the mysterious space between human thoughts and what a machine can understand; between human desires and how machines might satisfy them.  The second requirement is a high tolerance for failure. programming is the art of algorithm design and the craft of debugging errant code. In the words of the great John Backus, inventor of the Fortran programming language: “You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work.” 

Computer programmers are necessarily resilient!

Ullman writes of the challenges that she faced during 20 years as a programmer and how today women may be facing even more virulent discrimination and prejudice and the numbers reflect that women are underrepresented in the computer science fields and industry. She speaks of venture capitalists looking for those that resemble them to invest in.

Sad to say, I feel this prejudice even as a holder of a chaired professorship. Ullman speaks of the disregard and the invisibility and I can attest (colleagues can confirm) that requests for information at even a departmental level fall on deaf ears and no response is received, despite repeated attempts.

Ullman beautifully concludes her piece with the following:

What will save you is tacking into the love of the work, into the desire that brought you there in the first place. This creates a suspension of time, opens a spacious room of your own in which you can walk around and consider your response. Staring prejudice in the face imposes a cruel discipline: to structure your anger, to achieve a certain dignity, an angry dignity. 

Indeed, all we can do is to lose ourselves in our work and maybe that is what instills the strange responses, whether of silence or of disregard -- we can and will continue to lose ourselves in research that we truly believe in.

And with 3 female doctoral students, I have to serve as a role model.