UCSC Chancellor on Academia, Women, and Technology

Dr. Denice Denton headlined a talk at Google last night on “Leadership and Strategies for Cultural Change in a High Tech Environment”. Ms. Denton, an accomplished engineering professor, was recently appointed Chancellor of UC Santa Cruz. Articulate and involved, she didn’t throw punches on the difficulty of integrating more women and minorities into an institution with very slow processes (tenure) and conservative personal networks in a fast-paced technologic world (see “Advocates Unlock the Clubhouse at Google”).

Given the recent Summers diatribe at Harvard and the propensity of jerks and bullies to get their way (see “Girls and Science – the Hard Costs of Pushback”, Dr. Denton did tackle the “why aren’t there women in the sciences?” question, and she wasn’t afraid to point out that a grave imbalance in gender didn’t imply ipso facto that those few women there would welcome more women, since the risk of becoming “just one of many” could erode the unique position such a woman might have. So while the “only woman” or “only minority” might chair a search committee, for example, with the charter of increasing “diversity”, there isn’t a lot of incentive to the lone representing person to personally risk a loss of position and also possibly antogonize her male colleagues by championing a woman. A man, in contrast, can do this without a loss of status, because he’s arguing against others in his somewhat homogeneous group the same as he might if he were debating fantasy football picks.

Yes, I know this is just common sense. To expect a lone woman to risk her career and position to help a stranger is not reasonable (although some still do). This fear of isolation and ridicule even impacts the mentoring of younger women – I’ve found very few established women willing to speak up for their younger female colleagues. In this case, it helps to be on the business side – see “Girls Can Do Calculus and Physics and Astronomy and Look Nice!”.

Often, to be honest, I find many of these women don’t have children of their own, having sacrificed motherhood for the brotherhood of university success. I do know women in academia who have sons and daughters and are motivated for their children to do the right thing. But then we run into the “can’t get tenure because of the babytrack” complaint (see “Why Women Don’t Like IT?“). Women in business run into this same problem – see “Mompreneurs and Tech”. I wish more women had the courage to do the right thing. But I understand in an area where the Dr. Summers of the world can rant about their peculiarly bigoted beliefs and still get raises, the likelihood of the few women in academia who have survived the gauntlet championing women, tenure notwithstanding, isn’t something I’d bet the farm on.

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