Denice Denton and the Politics of Ugly

On June 24, 2006, Dr. Denice Denton, Chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, leaped to her death from the roof of the Paramount apartment building shortly after her release from the UCSF psychiatric hospital. “Didn’t you meet Dr. Denton at Google?” asked my husband. “Sure did – I wrote about her” I responded as I struggled with the coffeepot (see UCSC Chancellor on Academia, Women, and Technology). “Why?”. I was totally unprepared for the next sentence: “She killed herself this morning”.

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.

Roomba, We’ve Waited for You All Our Lives

CNN has a delightful profile of Helen Greiner, Roboticist and Roomba inventor that is a must-read for young women in technology. “I think in the old days, robots had a perception of being kind of scary, and more science fiction than science fact. These robots are on a mission, and so are we: to bring robots into the mainstream. … We can make robots do a better job than humans in some cases.”

An admirer as an 11 year old girl of R2D2 in Star Wars, her latest consumer product (IRobot also has substantial military applications, but that’s not “consumer”) is the Roomba robotic vacuum. Imagine never having to tote around a vacuum again. The little Roomba scouts around the room, scooping up the dust and dirt, so you never have to. It’s not surprising that has sold over 1 million in two years. I’ve watched the little critter skitter around at Frys.

Watch Out for that …. Queue! Oh Wait, I Feel Buffer.

Ran into Vidya Babu (Director SW Engineerng, Cisco) at a girls Internet event sponsored by the ATW and Cisco called Great Minds Program Series: The Human Internet Game. What was it about? According to the invite the “…participants play the roles of routers, switches and packets in a network. Working together, these “components” (AKA the girls) have to route as many “human packets” as they can through the network in a limited amount time.” In other words, I got to watch my daughter Rebecca Jolitz and her friend Jesse run from hop to hop, while other girls stood around acting as very unsophisticated routers.

So I asked Vidya “What do you do with the girls if a packet is dropped”? I kind of left her speechless. Nope, no congestion control, retransmission, window, or other stuff. This would have made the game a lot more fun and real to the girls. I guess we’re just at link, right?

Or maybe I should save the inside humor for Byte next time.

Women in the Newroom, Women in the Schoolroom, Where Will It all End?

Enjoyed Pati Poblete’s article today “Personal Perspective: Whither the Woman’s Viewpoint?” in the SF Chronicle. It is so true that getting up into management and calling the shots on a news story is rarely a woman’s choice. But this is also true, actually much worse, in industry trade press like the computer industry. It’s hard to have the dual tech and writers credentials, and keep them current given the levels of stress (work, family, finances) and demands of the business post-bubble. But, as the they said during the Blitz, “We’ll muddle through somehow”.

I also was asked today privately about an academic’s work who happens to also be a woman married to another technologist who does similiar work. The question in a nutshell was “Should she be considered part of his work, or is her work separate”?

Kind of an odd question, isn’t it? After all, I haven’t had anyone connected to me except for those nine-months (thrice) when I was pregnant. Amazingly enough, ever since my kids were born they have not been connected to me, let alone my husband. So assuming that a woman, just by marriage, must somehow be “part” of her husband’s work instead of a “co-worker” is really quite bizarre. But of course, this question is interlinked with Harvard, and we all know what’s been going on there. But if everyone is “enlightened” and “talking about it”, why does this question keep coming up? Perhaps it’s simply lack of disciplined thinking… so let’s practice a bit, shall we?

Girls Can Do Calculus and Physics and Astronomy and Look Nice!

Joan Ryan of the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed a psych professor who claims that girls don’t do calculus in high school because they didn’t do well in algebra in middle school (training their brains). Funny, she’s also got a book coming out. Her comments don’t jive with the research or studies, but, hey, it reinforces stereotypes and makes her money, right?

Perhaps we should interview middle school teachers on what they see “in the trenches”, or maybe we parents should take a glance at the honor roll lists. Girls are usually the A students in these subjects. Often the validictorian is a girl, which meant all A’s. More girls than boys are on the highest honors (all As). By this simple objective measure, clearly girls on average are training their brains by ” reinforcing and strengthening their skills in math and science” just as boys are.

All this nonsense about outside activities compensating for middle school boys increased ability (“building blocks and train sets”? – come on, she seriously thinks middle school boys are into this stuff?) without any serious objective measures and studies is academic doubletalk.

Fun Friday – Silicon Valley Cowboys a Dying Breed

Wired today laments the lack of women at C-level in Silicon Valley tech companies. After Carly’s ouster lask week, there are only seven women at Fortune 500 companies and none of them are SV companies. Wired printed my response today.

It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley is particularly difficult for women to move up in ranks – the “cowboy” company style isn’t known for consensus management, team players, or progressive initiatives. The thing to remember is that many of the founders and investors in these cowboy companies (e.g. National Semiconductor, Fairchild, Intel, …) are still going strong in Silicon Valley, and the independent gun-slinger executive who they identify with most strongly is also most likely male. Not always though – Carly’s go-it-alone style fits more with cowboys than the older HP way of Hewlett and Packard. Perhaps Carly would have been better shaking up things at Intel or National Semi? She’d fit right in.

If you want to see Silicon Valley change, watch the obits. The fewer cowboys, the less fascination with the old cowboy style and the more interest in global strategy and fast execution. And women will most certainly do well in this new Internet age.

Why Women Don’t Like IT?

Ed Frauenheim of cnet put together an article on why women have trouble with IT. So I start talking, and before I know it I’m sitting in CNET’s letters section next to one of RMS’s rants. Good show!

It’s a good article, and I’m pleased to see this subject is starting to be discussed more. When I wrote about this serious loss of women in computing (SF Chronicle, Sept2003, Paving the Way for Systers reflecting on the passing of Anita Borg and the impact of women on technology, I found a real dearth of discussion of this issue in the mainstream and technical press – it was viewed solely as a “woman’s issue” relegated to the margins. Yet I received a great deal of email, both from women and men who have lived with this problem when the article appeared – much more than usually is received. And what they shared with quite striking.

You Can Have it All – Unless You Want to Retire

Sue Hutchinson wrote a nice article that discusses the closing of the gender gap in longevity. But I’m hopefull for a followup. Seems that there’s serious talk in the social security reform set of taking into account women’s “longer” lifespans by reducing benefits (e.g. Meet the Press last month) right when we don’t seem to have that edge anymore:

“MR. RUSSERT: Do you think Congress, Mr. Chairman, would accept any formula that said that people would be treated differently because of their gender or their race?
REP. THOMAS: If we discuss it and the will is not to do it, fine. At least we discussed it. To simply raise the age and find out that you’ve got gender, race and occupational problems later, I would not be doing the kind of service that I think I have to do. You and I have been around quite a while. We went through the ’80s. We went into the ’90s. And now we’re in the 21st century. We saw the choices that were made in the past. We went to the well over and over again with the same old solutions which really aren’t solutions. We’ve reached the point where we have to fundamentally examine it in my opinion. The president has given us that opportunity. We ought to take it.”

So what if there is no “longer” lifespan for women within the next 30 years if these factors Sue described continue? The reset for social security is then based on an outdated premise? Coupled with lower lifetime earnings by women, looks like the reforms in social security could create a new subclass of permanently improverished women.

Girls and Science – the Hard Costs of Pushback

Recently there has been a stormy controversy about women and their abilities in math and the sciences, including astronomy and physics coming out of Harvard. Harvard’s President Summers, in an unguarded (or simply unthinking) moment, decided that the reason there are fewer women in science than men must have a “biological” component – in other words, women must be inferior to men in science. QED. Quite an intellectual tour-de-force, but since he’s a big guy I guess he could get away with it (I doubt any woman in academia could).

But a recent discussion on the astronomy lists caused me to actually put down in writing why a lot of girls abandon science and engineering – it’s simple clear nasty misogyny – that’s hatred of women, for those who don’t know. Yes, like other awful human vices like bigotry and racism and religious hatred, it cuts through all levels of society and cuts through it’s victim’s souls like a knife. But ordinarily in balanced civilized environments (that’s called “diversity”), people who try to indulge their private vices get pushback – from their coworkers, friends, and bosses – fast and hard. So going over the line has a price.