There have been some discussions lately on gender ratios and equality in Computer Science. In this post I don’t want to rehash the scientific studies, but just talk about my own experience as a man in the field of theoretical computer science, ever since I started graduate school nearly 20 years ago. I don’t presume to talk for all males, but I don’t think my story is completely non-representative. This is also a good opportunity to recommend that people read the research life stories series that Omer Reingold initiated on this blog, as well as the Turing centennial series on Luca Trevisan’s blog.
Like many other new grad students, when I just started at the Weizmann Institute of Science, I was extremely anxious. While I loved (the little I knew about) theory, I was not sure if I’m smart enough to do original research in this area. The professors seemed like beings from another world, but one thing that helped was that at least I did share some background with them. Almost all of them were males (and in fact, this being Israel, almost all were, like me, Ashkenazi secular jews). So, it was not completely unthinkable to imagine that I would some day be like them.
Another thing that helped me a lot in my early time in Weizmann was my study group.
I quickly found three friends, all male, and we spent many hours together studying for exams, talking about research, but also playing video games.
As I progressed in the field, I’ve had a great many research interactions and collaborations. I’ve met people at all hours and various locations, including coffee shops, restaurants, and private homes. I’ve never had to worry about the potential for sexual harassment, nor that I would be judged by my looks or what I wear. I am the type of person that speaks their opinion loudly, perhaps sometimes a little too loudly. In my experience, women that act the same are judged by a different standard and often “rub people the wrong way” and get tagged as having problematic personalities. Also, I was never afraid to ask potentially stupid questions. I did not need to fear that asking such a question would confirm people’s bias about me that I don’t belong in this field. Asking potentially stupid questions is one of the most useful ways to learn and evolve as a scientist.
Last but not least, I would most definitely not be where I am if my wife did not quit her job in Israel to move with me across the Atlantic for my postdoc. Also, while I think of myself as an involved father, I have to admit that Ravit still does more of the childcare duties. (As I’m reading this out loud, my daughter is commenting that I am not such an involved father…) Again, I am not saying that all male scientists are like me, nor that there are no female scientists that greatly rely on the support of their partners, but I don’t think my situation is atypical.
On more general terms, one misconception I see about science in such discussions is that it is about “things” or “facts” and not people, and hence perhaps should be free of biases.
But in fact science is an extremely social enterprise. Since graduating, I have never written a solo paper. Much of my work is spent talking to people in front of a whiteboard or notepad, and I’ve learned a great deal from discussions with fellow scientists. This also explains why certain subfields of science can have outlying gender or ethnicities ratios. People just feel more comfortable working with others similar to them, and role models greatly influence the fields students choose to pursue. For example, there is nothing innately Hungarian about combinatorics. Similarly, there is nothing innately feminine about cryptography, but rather a few extremely strong female scientists have had a huge effect. The influence of people such as Shafi Goldwasser, Tal Rabin, and others has not been limited just to their (amazing) research results but also as role models and mentors to many female cryptographers (and many male cryptographers as well, myself included).
I don’t like the expression “leveling the playing field” because Science is not a game. This is not about competing but about collaborating with each other to uncover the mysteries of the universe. But us males (especially those that, like me, come from amply represented ethnicities), should be aware and grateful for the advantages we’ve had in our careers. We should not try to remove these advantages: access to role models, freedom from bias, ease of networking, are all good things. We should however strive for a world where everyone enjoys the same benefits. In such a world we’ll have more scientists that are more productive and happier, and that will only be better for science.