Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why care about gender?

Q: Your point of view seems too gendered. Why do you waste your time with this crap instead of becoming more competent so people respect you more (or something like that)?
A: Because it is usually the case that people (not just white males) do not question the white male cultural standards by which much of our society is evaluated. Ignoring gender issues hurts non-males the way ignoring cultural differences hurts non-whites.

For instance, consider the differences in self-presentation between Chinese and American culture. An American might get the impression that his Chinese colleague is not so bright because the Chinese colleague prefaces everything with "I do not know what I am talking about, but..." (If people believe John McCain for repeating lies while there is much reason to not believe him, then how do you expect to not be influenced by what your colleague says?) What the American may not know is that the Chinese are quite influenced by the ancient intellectual philosopher that the dumber you appear to be, the more you can learn from others. As a result, Chinese schoolchildren (and adults) are taught to be humble and to be good students. This does not involve posturing, showing off knowledge gratuitously, and all kinds of other things that are often over-valued (imnsho) in American society.

Q: The "male" standards to which you refer seem to be "objective" standards. Isn't this a good thing?
A: You are absolutely right that "male" standards are "objective"... if you mean that males like to think such standards are objective. I have a proof that these standards are not objective. Suppose we take male standards to be objective, and suppose males value competence, which is measured by outward display of competence. Oh, and suppose by objective, we mean based on some absolute scale and not influenced by emotions, how much we like the person, or anything else bad like that. Given any two people, we will place them on some objective competence scale based on their Outward Display of Competence (ODC). WLOG, the presenter of competence encodes the ODC as English sentences which are sent through some channel and processed by the evaluator of competence. But oh wait, the brain is not a dependable processor and goes around filling in the blanks (and replacing things) left and right. (Psychologist and neuroscientists have shown this as much as anyone can show anything.) So even if there existed a semantic encoding that the presenter and evaluator could share, the evaluator's brain just added a bunch of layers of noise--noise dependent on the evaluator's background, which includes gender, culture, what s/he ate for lunch, and a bunch of oher things. So much for that. =><=

You seem to want to view male and female as different cultures. Is this specific to American culture?
A: I have evidence that this is not specific to American culture. As I stated in my previous post, Deborah Tannen talks about how in cultures where men have indirect patterns of speech and women are direct, the indirect manner is valued more highly. I will state without much empirical evidence, however, that American culture is quite behind in gender equality issues. If we consider the differences between typically male and typically female modes of interaction and compare this to what is valued. I do not believe this difference is as great in, say, Israeli culture, where women join the army and are treated more like men.

Q: It seems that going to an all-girls school ruined you because not only did it cause you to view everything in terms of gender, but you seem to have had terribly difficulty dealing with a gender balanced environment upon arriving at college.
A: First of all, I don't view everything in terms of gender, but I do think it's important to not ignore the gender completely when considering interactions with people. How I deal with gender differences is similar to how I deal with cultural differences: when I interact with people, I interact with them according to my default set of assumptions on how they are supposed to behave. If I develop negative impressions ("Gee, this person is really an idiot;" "This kid is a total goon") I will back off and reevaluate based on gender and cultural information. Could I be evaluating this person as an idiot because they are not showing off their knowledge enough, or because they are showing off so much that I think they must not know anything? Do I think this person is a goon because they come from a background that values different things than what I value? (For instance, I may think someone is a total goon if when I try to talk about computer science all they talk about to me is "partying," "cute boys," or some other topic I find insipid, but this may be a result of their socialization.)

Secondly, I would like to point out that I have not done so badly as a woman in computer science. I mean, I continued doing computer science after I became somewhat unhappy with various aspects of it, including issues I had with the gender imbalance. I believe that I stuck with computer science perhaps because I had the all-female environment for many years for the following reasons:
  1. Look at the facts? Many women drop computer science for various vague reasons like they feel like they can't handle it (which is often false) and other things. I am still doing computer science, I am still doing computer science as a graduate student, and I am still doing computer science at Big Bad MIT, which has not know to be particularly friendly to women.
  2. From my high school experience I gained the confidence that I was not an idiot (like some fellow computer scientists often try to make me--and other peers--believe).
  3. I did fine (and some may even say, excelled) academically, socially, and generally in my mostly male summer programs whiel attending my all-female high school. Therefore I do not believe my high school prevented me from learning to interact with males in an academic setting.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dominance hierarchies, the inversions thereof, and whether women can afford to be nice

Derek, a very tall, bearded graduate student on my floor, inverts dominance relationships for fun:
  1. He has some sort of masters' student working with him whom he enjoys calling his "boss" and
  2. he will lay down on the ground when babysitting small children so the children are taller. He explains that he does this because he is a big guy and all still understand that he is dominant.
When he told me about this practice, I marvelled at the genius of the idea and was quite excited to try it out. Unfortunately, several people told me that this may not work so well for me.

"But wouldn't my acting subordinant make people think that I was inverting the dominance relationship and, in doing so, establish my dominance?"

Apparently not. I was told that since I am a "small Asian girl," my dominance is not taken as a given, and the best I could hope for is dragon lady*.

We can infer a few stylized facts from this anecdote:
  • Dominance is something that some people (perhaps men?) establish and/or reference in interactions not only with peers, but with non-peers (such as small children).
  • The establishment of dominance is such a recognized/accepted/overused gesture that the absence thereof can signal dominance. (An analogous situation in presentation of wealth: tasteful concealment of wealth connotes greater wealth than an ostentatious display, which labels the offender as nouveau riche.)
  • The dominance of petite Asian women is not taken as given and therefore people of this type cannot take advantage of negative signalling.

I bring up this story because I have recently been thinking about gendered "cultural" differences and their role in the success of women in computer science. In a recent post, I discussed a theory on the male model of dominance vs. the female model of cooperation and how this impacts the way women are viewed in the heavily male-populated field of computer science. I was discussing this with a very successful female computer scientist, who wondered if she would have been as successful if she had not taken such a "hardass approach" to certain things. She posed the questions of whether women in male-majority fields are required to actively establish dominance and whether this is a good thing.

The Derek story and other experiences have convinced me that as a petite Asian woman, it is important for me to actively establish some sort as dominance so as not to be forced into a subordinant position. That is, in order to interact on the same level with many of my peers I must first signal that I am competent and not going to tolerant shit. I conclude that I personally, for some reason or other, need this active reestablishment of dominance for "success," and I deem this to be a good thing because currently the entire world (not just the field of computer science) judges Things That Matter To Society (intelligence, worth, etc.) by "male" standards**.

Note: I think it is complete bullshit that the world is this way, but as far as whether it is bad that computer science judges women by men's standards my answer is no, since in this case my chosen calling forces me to develop skills that will earn, in expectation, greater respect by The People Who Matter To My General Success.

Small Asian girls sleep a lot (false) and it is getting close to my bedtime (true), so I will wrap up this post with some additional analysis:
  • Asian cultural things don't help when being judge on the "dominance scale." Humility, modesty, and general deference seem to "reveal" incompetence, insecurity, and other things that do not cause people to achieve success. After changing these behaviors, however, I was still told that I could only hope to pull off "dragon lady," so it is likely that 1) people associate Asians with these qualities and/or 2) being petite and being a woman are condemning traits.
  • Being petite definitely contributes to difficulty in establishing dominance. Since I have no experience as a a tall woman, I do not have much else to say about this.
  • After I got my hair cut very short I felt like I was taken more seriously, but this may have been psychological. An explanation for why this may have been so is that people have strong priors about Young Asian Women With Shoulder Length Hair (of which there are many) and few priors about Asian women with the very short Jean Seberg A bout de souffle haircut (and variations thereof).

*A reference to Jeannette Wing, Asian female professor of computer science and some big something-or-other at the National Science Foundation.

**According to Deborah Tannen, across all societies it is the male mode of whatever that is valued higher. For instance, in societies where men use an indirect way of speaking and women are more direct the men are considered more talented and refined and the women are considered crude. Women never win. Oh, and this is more evidence that the dominance-criteria is "male" rather than "objective," "good," or anything else like that.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Republican military men on John McCain

Republican military men discuss how McCain is hotheaded and "not a peacetime president." Pundits and people who know things about the army discuss how McCain would likely cause us to bomb Iran and how this would be a terrible thing for America. (From the video: we would awaken the "nuclear genie;" pick which American city you want destroyed because they will destroy at least one.)

It is a very well done video. Stop the insanity!

Gender balanced environments: harmful?

I arrived at Harvard after seven years at an all-female school and many years of mostly-male computer science summer programs. During freshman year, I would often joke to my roommates that the gender-balanced community was too much of a culture shock to me: perhaps I should transfer to either Wellesley (an all-girls school) or MIT (which has a 60/40 male/female ratio). This made little sense to my roommates, but I finally have an explanation of why the near 50/50 gender balance made Harvard difficult to navigate: as a woman in the most gender-imbalance department in the college (computer science), I found it difficult to develop a voice that suited me in my computer science life as well as the rest of my life. In this post I present the following point: women face a particular set of difficulties when they are in a male-majority field within a greater, gender-balanced community.

At the foundation of my argument is the idea that men and women in our society evaluate their same-gender peers in different ways*. While men tend to perceive conversation as ways of achieving dominance, women often view conversation as a way to cooperate. Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen says that men tend to do more public speaking, or report-talk, while women tend to do more private speaking, or rapport-talk. According to Tannen, the dominance view causes many men to establish authority/competence in conversation and view modesty, qualifiers, and conversational deference as signs of insecurity or incompetence. The cooperation view causes women to hide their competence in favor of building trust and view displays of authority/talent as obnoxious. Tannen also writes about how groups of males tend to value talent in each other, targeting their criticism towards those deemed to be incompetent, while groups of females tend to have more group values, targeting their criticism towards those they deem to be singling themselves out.

If we take these descriptions to be true, then we can explain why it is difficult to interact as a woman in a male-majority environment within a gender-balanced community. In a male-majority environment, men evaluate women as they would other men, making it difficult for women to be as successful if they are modest and polite (i.e., wait for people to finish speaking before saying what they want to say, in which case they may never get to speak). In a gender-balanced community, women are judged by men by men's standards, by women by women's standards, and everyone by how well all people (men and women) judge them. Ideally, men and women adjust standards when the groups mix, so the problem comes from women having to be judge by men's standards while still having to interact with other women. In this case, women are pressured to single themselves out while risking ostracization by female peers.

It is my theory that coming from an all-female environment, I was particularly sensitive to the judgment of fellow women and so I was particularly careful to display modesty and politeness. This was particularly harmful to my desire to be listened to and taken seriously by my computer science peers, where I felt like people were always talking over me and telling things in a somewhat condescending manner. I hypothesize that this is because the computer science department was male-majority, my peers were accustomed to evaluating each other on a male rubric. Since I did not realize that interaction with my academic peers required different behaviors from my interaction with my other peers, I was often quite frustrated with not getting listened to, getting talked over, etc. (Harvard is actually dominated by Tannen's "male" style of interaction, so I was generally confused about how to behave.)

Epilogue: Things didn't actually turn out that bad for me, since I became angry/bitter/cynical/jaded/mean and become quite successful that way. I am now at MIT and love it because the 80/20 male/female ratio makes it so that there is no question that I can be as mean as I want and not be ostracized by the other women, who are usually not even around to see me be mean. Also, I am my advisor's first female graduate student so my group members don't even know that women are supposed to be ncie. As a result, I am as mean as I want and really enjoying myself at MIT. This is particularly liberating after 7 years of being nauseatingly un-mean at my girls school. And by "mean," I mean that I no longer care as much what people think.

*My evidence is from experience and from the book You Just Don't Understand, by Deborah Tannen. Though Tannen's book is somewhat stylized and generalizing, Tannen says many things that seem correct and relevant. One good thing she does is she does not make claims as to why things are the way they are; she merely states her findings.

**Side discussion: Who has it right? I was talking to a friend about how all-girls environments are tricky to navigate because people are ostracized for showing off too much, and the friend says this seems like total waste. I pointed out that the "male" manner of competing and displaying everything also breeds waste. (Think peacocks or other birds with lots of useless feathers that cause them to be eaten much more quickly.) Also, many people at my high school were competitive, but we mostly kept it secret and would only ever go as far to say we "competed with ourselves." ("Lorrie did 3 points better than me. Man, I really need to do 4 points better than myself next time.") I don't claim to have a stance on "who has it right;" I just want to point out that there are differences. Both sides involve a bunch of waste.

Friday, September 26, 2008

SMLNJ on 64-bit Ubuntu

I had some trouble with this but found a helpful link here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gloria Steinem on Sarah Palin

A feminist discusses her views on an anti-feminist here.

Also, regard the Women Against Sarah Palin page.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Craigslist: An excellent way to purchase items

A few months ago, I purchased a piano on Craiglist. It's been almost three months now and the piano still works, so it is appropriate to share my story as evidence that Craigslist is a great way to make markets more free.

One day, I decided that I desired a piano. I went on Craiglist for about half an hour or so while at work and e-mailed various people about seeing their pianos, digital and otherwise. Towards the end of my search, I struck gold. Some guy was selling a Yamaha PF-80 digital piano with weighted keys and a sustain pedal for $300. This is a total steal, as the internet reports that used ones have sold for as high as $1500.

The piano acquisition story is as follows: I e-mailed the guy, we arranged a time for me to view the piano, and we arrived at the guy's apartment to discover that he had been using the thing as a TV stand. Apparently, he had a roommate who went to Berklee school of music who left the piano with him. The guy wouldn't take checks, so we drove to the bank and performed an exchange of cash for piano. The piano was incredibly dusty and required some cleaning before we could move it. It now sits in my apartment under a nice cover. It works fairly well except for the right speaker, which has been damaged some from the TV.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Anna Quindlen on Sarah Palin

Anna Quindlin has a great piece about the hypocrisy of the Republican party, the hypocrisy of Sarah Palin, and how Palin should be judged not as a woman but as a politician.

Sarah Palin: A Goon

For those of you who haven't heard, McCain has chosen for his running mate a former Alaska mayor of a town of 9,000 with two years of "real" political experience.

Frank Rich has a good piece about how the whole Palin affair is such a sham. He writes:
"We still don’t know a lot about Palin except that she’s better at delivering a speech than McCain and that she defends her own pregnant daughter’s right to privacy even as she would have the government intrude to police the reproductive choices of all other women. Most of the rest of the biography supplied by her and the McCain camp is fiction."

Jonathan Alter (who is sometimes also a goon) has written a nice piece in Newsweek, McCain's "Hail Sarah" Pass, about why he thinks Palin is a goon. He writes in apostrophe to McCain:
"Your campaign against Barack Obama is based on the simple idea that he is unready to be president. So you've picked a running mate who a year and a half ago was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town of about 7,000 people. You've selected a potential leader of the free world who knows little or nothing about the major issues of the day beyond energy. Oh, and she's being probed in her state for abuse of power."

Krugman also has a piece about what he sees wrong with Palin's position:
"Can the vice-presidential candidate of a party that has controlled the White House, Congress or both for 26 of the past 28 years, a party that, Borg-like, assimilated much of the D.C. lobbying industry into itself — until Congress changed hands, high-paying lobbying jobs were reserved for loyal Republicans — really portray herself as running against the 'Washington elite'?"

Monday, September 01, 2008

A prototype for saving American education?

This past Newsweek ran this story on a Teach for America alum turned head of D.C. schools who has a plan to save the D.C. school district by changing the teaching profession from one dominated by teachers' unions and job security to a higher-paced one with incentives more in line with student achievement. She was hired (and is backed) by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, who says he will do whatever it takes to reform the school system.

This story is quite inspirational because Rhee's plan, if it succeeds, will do to D.C. schools exactly what the schools need for a makeover. Rhee and Fenty have somehow managed to take power from the teacher's union(s?) and school board to do things like firing 100+ non-union central office workers and 36 principals. Also part of the plan is a "probation" for teachers that involves observation for a year and can result in a salary of as much as $130,000 per year. This is much closer to what the American education needs than vouchers, No Child Left Behind, etc.

Below is the Newsweek header.

An Unlikely Gambler

By firing bad teachers and paying good ones six-figure salaries, Michelle Rhee just might save D.C.'s schools.