The power of role models

I spent a few days a while back in a board meeting for a national astronomy organization and noticed a property of the population in that room: Out of about 40 people, about a third were women. And these were powerful women, too: professors, observatory directors and the like. Nor were they wallflowers. Their contributions to the meeting exceeded their proportion.

In my long career, I had never before been in a room like that, and the difference in tone, conversation, respect, and professionalism was unlike any I have experienced. I can't prove it was the presence of women that made the difference - it could just be that astronomers are better people all around, a possibility I cannot really refute - but it seemed to me that the difference stemmed from the demographics.

The meeting was one-third women, but of course in private conversation, when pressed, the women I spoke to complained that things weren't equal yet. We all have our reference points.

But let's back up for a moment and think about the main point: In a room responsible for overseeing the budget and operation of major astronomical observatories, including things like the Hubble telescope, women played a major role. The contrast with computing is stark.

It really got me thinking. At dinner I asked some of the women to speak to me about this, how astronomy became so (relatively) egalitarian. And one topic became clear: role models. Astronomy has a long history of women active in the field, going all the way back to Caroline Herschel in the early 19th century. Women have made huge contributions to the field. Dava Sobel just wrote a book about the women who laid the foundations for the discovery of the expansion of the universe. Just a couple of weeks ago, papers ran obituaries of Vera Rubin, the remarkable observational astronomer who discovered the evidence for dark matter. I could mention Jocelyn Bell, whose discovery of pulsars got her advisor a Nobel (sic).

The most famous astronomer I met growing up was Helen Hogg, the (adopted) Canadian astronomer at David Dunlap Observatory outside Toronto, who also did a fair bit of what we now call outreach.

The women at the meeting spoke of this, a history of women contributing, of role models to look up to, of proof that women can make major contributions to the field.

What can computing learn from this?

It seems we're doing it wrong. The best way to improve the representation of women in the field is not to recruit them, important though that is, but to promote them. To create role models. To push them into positions of influence. Women leave computing in large numbers because they don't see a path up, or because the culture makes them unwelcome. More women excelling in the field, famous women, brilliant women, would be inspiring.

Men have the power to help fix those things, but they also should have the courage to cede the stage to women more often, to fight the stupid bias that keeps women from excelling in the field. It may take proactive behavior, like choosing a women over a man when growing your team, just because, or promoting women more freely.

But as I see it, without something being done to promote female role models, the way things are going computing will still be backwards a hundred years from now.

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