Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dear Kate - March and April 2014 edition

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

Dear Kate,
MIT is an amazing place -- so full of opportunities and so encouragement that I can't imagine having picked any other university to go to grad school. Over the last couple of weeks I've received a number of emails from my department admin (and others around MIT) advertising an abundance of fellowship/scholarship opportunities, but I have I begun to struggle with some deeper philosophical questions regarding the appropriateness of gender-specific awards. Of the last 10 in my inbox that went out to wider mailing lists, 8 were only available for women... now I understand the importance of helping elevate and empower women in academia but it felt to me that these types of gender-exclusive scholarships really should have less and less of a place in higher education. The US already boasts more women in higher education than men and the real challenge lies in the drop-off between grad school and postdoc/faculty. In that sense, wouldn't it be better to channel these opportunities at bridging that gap rather than enriching the intelligent women who already attend? Have we gone too far? How will we know when we've done enough and need to focus on a different location in the pipeline?
Equality Emily

Dear Equality Emily,

I’m glad your experience as a graduate student has been so positive- I must agree MIT is an amazing place. It is true that overall the number of PhD earned by women has come to equal men in the last 10 years, but that is definitely not the case in all STEM fields. As you pointed out, the gender gap widens drastically immediately after women receive their PhDs. Why this is the case is not simple to answer although two factors stand out: the need to balance career and family and a lack of professional networks. A graduate fellowship is not just check to help your advisor offset the cost of your existence- submitting the application alone is a valuable professional development exercise, if awarded it is significant addition to your CV, it is an extra opportunity to improve skills necessary to be competitive, and it is a professional network. Should more be done to address policies and issues facing women as they leave their PhDs? YES, but we should not remove effective opportunities while trying to improve support at other points in the pipeline. There are many ongoing efforts to bridge gaps in academic post-PhD careers, such as the NSF’s ADVANCE program, the Career-Life Balance Initiative and grants to cover costs for childcare but there must be a shift in the academic culture along with policy changes for these efforts to be successful. I believe we will have done enough when the demographics of our academic leadership reflect our communities and support the diverse needs of the people those institutions impact.

Kate M.
Kate M. obtained her Ph.D. in Biology and is currently a program manager at MIT.

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate M.!
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here. We are always looking for more questions for our Kates to answer!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dear Kate - February 2014 Edition

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

Dear Kate,
How best should I respond to obvious sexist remarks from people outside of MIT? Two occasions in recent memory come to mind--once when I was shadowing physicians, considering going to medical school after graduating with my master's, I was asked did I wanted to leave engineering "because the math was too hard"? Also, at a holiday party I was told point-blank that the only reason I got into MIT was because I was female. Usually I'm too stunned to respond but then I'm left feeling angry and discouraged.
Female Engineer

Dear FE:

It never ceases to amaze me how many people feel compelled to offer gender-specific, offensive insults (or any insult for that matter)!   You can't control other people, but you can manage your own responses.  The first step in dealing with this type of interaction is taking a moment to breathe before you choose how to respond.  I use the word respond very specifically.  Responding rather than reacting allows you to take the "high road".  Little or nothing is achieved by becoming defensive or combative and you will not change anyone's mind.

In the first instance, a response such as, "As much as I love math, the idea of helping humanity through medicine appeals to me greatly.  Is that why you went into medicine?" The first sentence leans on a positive aspect, while the second is a question which deflects negative energy from you.  If we wanted to verge on the snarky (which may be more satisfying but ultimately not positive for you), you could simply ask, "Is that why you went into medicine?"  However, it is important to know your audience and if you have to remain respectful, the first response is probably the better one.

In the second example, you could choose to respond directly with, "I'm sure you didn't mean to be insulting or insensitive. Isn't this weather/food/house incredible?"  Since this is a social occasion, most likely with no career implications, you can be a bit more imaginative and "off the wall".  By following your initial straight-forward statement with a non-sequitur question, you can deflect the negative energy.  

The following is crucial: you must employ a half-smile.  Easy and confident. You can practice.  Imagine the sling of an insult coming at you.  Breathe in slowly, exhale slowly, inhale again.  All the while with a half smile. On the 2nd exhalation, practice saying, "I'm sure you didn't mean to be insulting and/or insensitive.", with a gracious smile on your face.  

Kate W.
Kate W. has been a senior administrator for MIT for more than 25 years.
On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month's Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate H.!
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Speaking Fake-Polish is No Different from Speaking “Male”

“I see you eating with the Polish kids,” a friend said to me. “I don’t get it. To be honest, it’s kind of weird.”

Summer 2012, I was taking a three-month hiatus from my Ph.D. at MIT to intern at Facebook. I ate most of my meals with a crew of male Polish university students, fellow interns at least three younger than I was. Looking at me, a mid-twenties Harvard-educated Asian-American woman, you would expect me to be friends with my fellow yuppie-geek-hipsters who spent their free time appreciating the yoga and cocktails of San Francisco. Instead, I spent most of my days with my friends who spoke mostly Polish and honed their competition programming skills in their free time. It was kind of weird. But no weirder than anything else that absurd summer, when I felt equally alien in most aspects of my life.

Four years into my Ph.D., after I thought I had gotten too old for summer camp, my Spanish-speaking advisor sent me to Facebook to establish what he called “street creed.” My research was on programming languages for privacy; Facebook had interesting privacy problems. In the name of confirming my relevance, I found myself, a female academic with a liberal-arts education, transplanted into Facebook’s macho engineering culture. That summer I lived the programmer dream, taking an unmarked white luxury shuttle for forty-five minutes each morning from gentrified San Francisco to the post-apocalyptic salt marshes of remote Menlo Park. I ate all three meals in the Facebook cafeterias, with its tables painted so white there were buckets of sunglasses for loan. Everywhere I looked I saw the mottos “MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS” and “DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT” in all-caps. Though I shared an alma mater with the founders and the same social network as many of the engineers, I felt like no more an outsider with my Polish friends than I did with anyone else.

My Polish cultural experience happened by the accident of my start day. Not thinking about the social implications, I had requested to start my internship in mid-July, just after a major paper submission deadline. I found myself at orientation with at least twenty college boys from various countries in Eastern Europe, where summer vacation apparently begins in July. Over the last few years, tech recruiting and Eastern European programming competitions have coevolved to send these students en masse to the Facebooks and Googles of the world. These were the best of the best of the Eastern Bloc, trading their summer vacations and a few thousand lines of code for enough money to last for years back in their home countries. The others introduced themselves as coming from Poland, Croatia, Russia, and Georgia. I was the only female intern, the only American intern, and the only Ph.D. intern there.

Faced with a Facebook cafeteria scene that looked like a male-dominated version of the Mean Girls lunch room, I was grateful to my Polish orientation table-mate for inviting me to dinner. Like the American university interns, the Polish students hung out mostly with their schoolmates, taking all meals together. Excited to make an American friend, they invited me not just to meals but to join the #polish Facebook-internal chat channel, on which conversations occurred solely in Polish. In using #polish I learned that Google Translate was not the most useful for producing Polish (a particularly difficult language due to noun declension rules), but it will translate the created Polish faithfully back to the original English. Pretend-speaking Polish on #polish was how I would find out when to meet the Jagiellonian University students “pod mostem” (“under the bridge”) for meals each day. At the meals, I quickly learned that phrases from my Lonely Planet Polish Phrasebook didn’t cut it. (“Is there a doctor present?”) Fortunately I learned to say “nie pogadasz” (“nothing to say”).

Truth was, speaking fake-Polish was no different to me than speaking “male” or “engineer.” Instead of going West to find my fortune by building things, I had stayed back East to think about how things should be built. In contrast to the motto “move fast and break things,” the motto of my research might as well be “move slow and make sure things never break.” Plus, I was neither geek nor “brogrammer,” the new breed of the cool “bro” programmer. In my spare time, instead of playing Street Fighter or participating in beer-fueled hackathons, I like to read, write, and discuss the workings of the world over wine. Fortunately, growing up in an immigrant family had gotten me used to speaking a different language at school than at home. And by then, I had come to expect that being a woman in tech, academic or not, brogrammer or not, means speaking different “languages” at home and at work. As Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen discusses in Talking from 9 to 5, due to observable differences in conversational goals women are often maladjusted to the male speech patterns expected of them at work. (For instance, men tend to view conversations as a battle for dominance, while women view the goal as preventing others from being subordinate. When a woman and a man converse, everyone agrees the man “wins.”)

Being friends with the Polish crew was interesting on a meta-level because they seemed to be integrating into Silicon Valley tech culture particularly well. Upon reflection, I realized that they had two things that women in tech most often don’t: a tight-knit group and a sense that they deserved to be there. First of all, they had a group of similar people with whom they could speak their language, intensely miss their mothers’ home cooking, and reflect on their foreignness in California. The group had sufficiently many things in common besides simply being Polish—similar ages’ similar places of origin; shared interest in competition programming—so that even if they were not friends coming in, there was a fundamental level of trust. In addition, my Polish friends had the confidence that comes from being highly respected in the greater community. Besides being revered in their own countries, my Polish friends were respected by American programmers for their programming talent. It was fashionable to recruit from Eastern Europe: even my summer roommate, then the CTO of a small startup with zero American employee, had his beloved Belorussian programmer. To accommodate his programmer’s hours, he became nocturnal, leaving on our bathroom fan each night to protect me from the sound of their Skyping. As the cool kids on every block, my Polish friends felt like they had every right to be there. And so they could focus on comfortably settle in.

From this experience, I wondered whether we could recreate the Eastern European programming competition model for women. That is, whether we can create a system that assimilates women into the tech world as a highly-respected group with its own group identity. An important part of this involves creating groups of women who strongly identify with each other—and are also respected by the greater community—based on a shared interest or talent. Hackathons such as Chime for Change, sponsored by Elle Magazine with the goal of making apps to help girls and women around the world, could help create female sub-communities that are externally respected. We may also be able to find structures other than hackathons for doing this. For instance, I don’t find hackathons a good fit for me, but have always loved being a part of robotics teams. (Relevant side note: when I have been part of all-female groups, my teammates have taken my input into account more than when I have been on teams with males.) The challenge lies in creating an environment where women are engaged while producing a result that the rest of the community respects. Communities created by the upcoming Female Founders Conference may achieve this goal.

Learning to speak “male” and “engineer” on my own was good for me—and even prepared me for a summer of speaking fake-Polish. If we want to increase the number of women in tech, however, we should make it easier for women to assimilate. Viewing gender diversity issues as cultural diversity issues helps identify problems with current approaches and also provides models of success from which to learn. Now that we have rephrased things in this way, perhaps the brilliant engineers of the tech world can solve this social engineering problem to better include women.


This content originally appear on Medium

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dear Kate - January 2014 edition

The namesake of this advice column is Katharine McCormick, who graduated from MIT with a B.Sc. in Biology in 1904. Among others, she was the benefactor of McCormick Hall, a suffragist and a philanthropist.  We hope to continue her legacy and dedication to the advancement of women through this advice column.

Dear Kate,

I am in my 3rd year of PhD and recently completed my official thesis proposal to my department. I generally find my project fun and interesting, but I’m concerned because all the ideas came from my advisor and I don’t feel like I am capable of coming up with my own ideas. I’m afraid I’m not creative, smart or visionary enough to steer a research project, much less have that research be groundbreaking (which I would really love). I don’t see how this will change, as some have suggested, as I continue to work on my project. In fact, considering how specific and trivial my day-to-day tasks are, I don’t quite understand what I am getting out of my PhD training at all. I’m worried about what this means for my career and life prospects.
Where do ideas come from and is there anything I can do to get better at generating them? Am I doomed because I am uncreative?

Uncreative Cat

Dear Cat,

Generating creative ideas that are in that intersection of things that are feasible but yet really innovative, is one of the hardest things we do as researchers. While every research field and every research group is different, from a developmental point of view, I often start my own graduate students on projects where many of the creative ideas are mine; but I definitely hope that they start taking steps toward being capable of coming up with their own interesting ideas in the last year or two years of their Ph.D. study. So, at least in my portion of the world, you are right on schedule to be asking this question: this is the question I want all my third year Ph.D. students to start asking, so good for you.

Let's start with some context, which is: let's think about where the project you wrote your thesis proposal on came from. It is probably something that your advisor believes s/he and you are set up to work on, meaning that you have the background, expertise, necessary equipment, etc.  If you are being supported on a grant, chances are that your advisor proposed this line of research already to some funding agency, which might mean the piece of generating the initial idea might even have occured several years ago, maybe even prior to your deciding to work with your advisor. If creative ideas came out of whole cloth, this might be cause for despair. However, I have found that usually the best creative ideas come while doing something routine: you have a project that looks straightforward, but then you hit a snag, or the data comes out in a way that is completely strange, or something else happens you just didn't plan for. In my experience, most of the groundbreaking, creative work happens when you are doing the expected thing, and then hit an obstacle and it sends you off on a new, completely unanticipated direction. I notice that usually, you will hit some obstacle (even if you don't know in advance what that obstacle will be). And such things are to be seized as opportunities to start being creative.  I wish I could give you a recipe for generating great creative ideas, but I think you will find, if you value opportunities to do groundbreaking things, often they will come to you, and often they come in the guise of accidents, but they still come when you embedd yourself in a project and work deeply on it.

However, every field is different, and every advisor is different.  This is a great thing to start talking to your advisor about. Ask your advisor exactly this: don't call yourself uncreative, but ask how s/he generates his/her best creative ideas. How senior was he or she when s/he felt s/he was savvy enough to steer a research project? How can you learn to develop this skill?  Most good advisors will  be eager to mentor graduate students who  ask such  important questions,  and   you  might  have  some very meaningful  and  deep conversations.

Kate C.
Kate C. received her PhD at MIT and is a professor in the Boston area.

Thank you to the Dear Kate student contributor and to Kate C.! 
If you have a question that you would like to ask our panel of experts (GWAMIT mentors), please submit it here.