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An observation

December 15, 2014

Last Friday in our theory reading group, Yael Kalai observed that there’s only one other woman in the room. She noticed it because in cryptography meetings, at least in the Boston area, there is a significantly higher female presence. Make no mistake, cryptography, even in Boston, still has a very lopsided gender ratio. But I think it is still a bit better than some of the other areas of theoretical computer science, largely due to a few strong role models such as Shafi Goldwasser. The gender ratio in TCS is sometimes thought of as an unfortunate but constant fact of life, that is due to larger forces in society beyond our control. Examples such as this show that actions by small communities or even individuals can make a difference.

I truly believe that theoretical computer science, and computer science at large, will grow significantly in importance over the coming decades, as it occupies a much more central place in many of the sciences and other human activities. We’ll have many more problems to solve, and we can’t do it without using half of the world’s talent pool.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Anon permalink
    December 15, 2014 11:53 pm


  2. Julia permalink
    December 16, 2014 1:22 am

    My impression is that there is a much higher percentage of women in mathematics, including in areas that are very close to TCS, such as, e.g. combinatorics. I have no idea how to explain this.

    • December 16, 2014 2:11 am

      I also have the same impression (though mostly based on anecdotes). Am not sure the reasons but clearly such disparities between closely related fields can’t be blamed on K-12 education or social norms and other such factors that are outside the TCS community’s control.

      • anon permalink
        December 16, 2014 11:41 pm

        What would you guess is the outside perception about the proximity of TCS to mathematics versus to CS?

      • Anon permalink
        December 27, 2014 5:43 pm

        Boaz, I wonder if indeed social norms are exactly what is to blame in the disparty between TCS and combinatorics/crypto. All these fields of theory are very competitive. That’s why, as a young woman, its important to have senior role models to protect you (eg from being scooped, from not obtaining credit for your work) and promote your work. Senior female women in the field do tend to do this for younger women.

        So a young woman doing theory might rationally choose to migrate to eg cryptography, where there is a better chance her work will protected and acknowledged by senior people in the field..

      • December 28, 2014 9:41 pm

        I don’t know if the “protection” aspect is the most important role of the advisor, nor am I sure that male advisors will do this less for female students. I do think its more about the “role model” part. Many people, when starting out, have a hard time believing they’ll ever be able to create original research. Seeing a successful example of someone that has a similar background to you goes a long way towards building your confidence that you could do it too.

        So, I do agree that having more female TCS faculty in the top departments (which are also the top producers of future TCS faculty elsewhere) would make a difference in the overall TCS gender ratio.

  3. December 23, 2014 6:53 am

    This is an excellent post. Not only STEM attracts less women, retention of women in research after Ph.D. is even lower in my observation. Partly women characteristics are to blame, and partly the lack of support/understanding from the whole community.

    Women often find it difficult to self-brag about their excellent results. Here is a story that Tal Rabin shared in Women in Theory Workshop. One of her collaborators was telling another theorist in a conference about his excellent piece of recent work without any reference to Tal who was a collaborator in that work and standing right beside him.

    Women are often vulnerable to lower self-confidence and seek approval from the community regarding their works. Community support for women is lacking in TCS. I have heard instances where a male and a female students put equal contributions in a work, but the mentor wrongly judges the work to be done by the male student alone. This kind of experience, even if it happens once, significantly discourages a women to continue in the field.

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