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Perspectives on computing and technology from and for those with an interest in programming languages.

In part 1, I argued for the necessity of raising awareness and of supporting those who work for change if we are to make any progress in gender equality in academia. Unfortunately, I don’t believe these two actions  to be sufficient, especially in computer science and engineering. I have been so busy listening to experts, reading the literature and helping to set up the actions described above that I have forgotten to think like a computer scientist! For example, take my department (CSE at Chalmers). It is a network of communicating individuals, organised into groups in various ways. There is a hierarchical management structure with a head of department and a leadership group, with responsibility for personnel (including faculty recruitment), budget, our research and teaching and much else.

But there is a whole other system at play. Every faculty member makes a stream of decisions daily about what to focus on, which research topics to prioritise (if any), where to publish, who to collaborate with, how to do teaching, how to supervise students, where to look for resources, whether to stay or go or maybe have a startup, whether to give up on research, how to support which colleagues, and (at least for doctoral students and postdocs) who to hire. These communicating actors form a sort of substrate in the department, influencing each other and determining the academic culture of the department and of sub-groups. The management structure may have a smaller influence than we might expect on individual decisions by academic staff, but it is important as the link between the University level and the faculty. Of course, in a well-functioning department, the formal and informal systems work in happy symbiosis.  In any case, to understand and influence the academic culture of a department, we need to observe and understand the behaviour of individuals and groups, their reasons for making decisions, and how both the culture and outside influences determine gate-keeping decisions that guide career trajectories.

If we want our actors to change behaviour, we need to understand them better! A department or research group is a complex system. We must model it, somehow, at least informally. Worse still, we need to better understand (and influence) the environment in which the system works. This includes the University and how it interacts with the department through the University management structure and other ways; if we want change, are the necessary incentives in place? Are those with power held accountable? It also encompasses our external environment, including flows of people feeding, and leaking from, our pipeline. Adding a few female actors while leaving everything else unchanged seems to me to be doomed to failure. 

I am convinced that we will only be able to change the system if we understand it much more deeply than we currently do. And I think the work needs to be done for each department and the University as a whole. One of the great dangers of gender equality or diversity work is that it may turn into a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise. Here, I plead for quite the opposite: an honest, serious, deep, and possibly painful analysis of individual academic departments and groups, and of University management structures and how they really work (or don’t work). Vitally, this analysis needs to be done by the University staff themselves, perhaps with the help of former staff and even external experts. No amount of online training or obligatory courses on unconscious bias is going to cut it. 

This line of thought results in a third task that I think we must tackle if we are to get anywhere with gender balance in computer science and similar departments.

3 Have honest conversations about your academic culture, openly and continuously

There are many questions to ask, at many levels. What kind of support is provided to newly hired researchers and teachers? What kinds of behaviours are valued? What kinds of people (if any) get put on a pedestal? How do we decide in what fields to recruit faculty and how do we search for new recruits? Are there insiders and outsiders in the department? If so, listen carefully to the outsiders! How does communication work generally? Is there a strong feeling of community in the department? How are collaborations initiated and preserved? Do we emphasise true research quality? What makes individuals decide to pursue research at an international level, and where are the blocks? How well does meritocracy work in your research sub-field? What characterises excellent supervision in your group? How do we choose research problems? What do we do to recruit and retain more female students? How do we interact with funding agencies and with industry? And a myriad more. High and low. Deep and shallow! I am convinced that we need to tackle academic culture and not just culture in general. And it is not only about studying organisational culture in the abstract but also about studying our own concrete organisations, their complicated power structures, and their many secrets.

This task is much more onerous than it looks at first sight. It is hard to have these kinds of conversations; we are trapped in a system that encourages us to describe only our successes, and indeed to compete with each other! Of course, we are not going to agree. In these last few years, I have learned that academic meritocracy is a surprisingly shaky foundation, and one that we must question. We all need to change, and we need to work hard on observing and eliminating anti-mentoring (see part 1). We need to change our power structures and norms so that mentoring, rather than anti-mentoring, becomes the normal, natural, usual behaviour. It is not about changing the women; it is not about changing the men; it is not only about changing individuals! But we won’t be able to change our systems and power structures without some deep self-examination. 

My, possibly naive, hope is that opening the discussion will free us to imagine and then actively pursue a better, more supportive, yet still excellent, academic culture that allows more of us to thrive as teachers and researchers, supplying the world with the diverse expertise that it needs. In Genie, we are currently running a course on how to work with culture change for representatives of all departments, so we are taking the first steps in a long term experiment, on which we will continue to report. In the course, I was amused to learn of honest conversations as an object of study among those who do research on organisations and change. Mike Beer argues that without honest, collective and public conversations about external and internal reality, organisations are doomed. Even though his ideas are mostly applied to commercial companies, they have a somewhat alarming ring of truth even in my world. Universities surely need such honest conversations, but don’t seem well designed to support them. So let’s roll up our sleeves and do some work.

It has been tempting to see gender equality as something that the women need to work on. My fellow female academics in CS will be well aware of well meaning rules about equal representation in selection and promotion committees, and even among keynote speakers. It is important to acknowledge that female academics have extra demands placed upon them, while likely facing guilt feelings if they don’t join in efforts to improve matters for coming generations of women. I think we need to be more scientific, and make some effort to analyse the effects of such policies, remembering that we are all biased. And we should be willing to consider alternatives that spread the necessary work more evenly, for instance the use of unconscious bias observers in academic meetings.

If we don’t manage to reach a state where pretty much every member of academic staff sees improving gender equality as an important goal that needs to be considered whenever decisions are made, we will fail! And in particular, academic managers, heads of department and research group leaders need to accept that this is their problem! This will only happen if those who lead Universities also accept that this problem is one that they need to wrestle with themselves, in every meeting, and whenever they study the current status of their beloved University, and wonder where next to put their own intellectual effort. This demands greater transparency, and that the most powerful groupings be more open to influence from those who are not on the inside. We are not there yet! The work at the department level that I just outlined must be matched by similar work at the top level of Universities, and by honest communication between all levels.

Homework: Start an honest conversation about your academic culture. Prepare by listening to or reading Mike Beer.

Much of my own research has been about the problem of designing hardware circuits so that they are guaranteed to meet a specification, rather than coming up with a design and then trying to prove it correct after the fact, as is the current practice. This is an important problem both in theory and in practice, and neither I nor anyone else has solved it fully, yet, though many clever people are working on it both in academia and in industry. But still, I have to say that it is a very easy, well-defined problem compared to figuring out how academia works, in Chalmers and in the world, and how to make it all work better with any certainty. It is tempting to retreat to the lovely, abstract world of research in hardware design, but I can’t, or at least not entirely! I am faced with a complex, fascinating and important problem, so how can I resist? And the future of our field is at stake! Please join me on this quest.

Bio: Mary Sheeran is a functional programmer and full professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Chalmers. She is vice-director of Genie, Chalmers’ Gender Initiative for Excellence.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the SIGPLAN blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGPLAN or its parent organization, ACM.