Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Guest post by Samir Khuller on attending The TCS Women 2019 meeting

(I will post the solution to the problem in the last blog later in the week---probably Thursday. Meanwhile, enjoy these thoughts from Samir Khuller on the TCS Women 2019 meeting.)

Guest Post by Samir Khuller:

Am I even allowed here?” was the first thought that crossed my mind when I entered the room. It was packed with women (over 95%), however a few minutes later, several men had trickled in. I was at the TCS Women spotlight workshop on the day before STOC. Kudos to Barna Saha, Sofya Raskhodnikova, and Virginia Vassilevska Williams for putting this grand (and long needed) event together, which serves as a role model and showcases some of the recent work by rising stars. In addition to the Sun afternoon workshop, the event was followed by both an all women panel and a poster session (which I sadly did not attend).

The rising stars talks were given by Naama Ben-David (CMU), Andrea Lincoln (MIT), Debarati Das (Charles University) and Oxana Poburinnaya (Boston U). After a short break the inspirational talk was by Ronitt Rubinfeld from MIT.  Ronitt’s talk was on the topic of Program Checking, but she made it inspirational by putting us in her shoes as a young graduate student, three decades back, trying to make a dent in research by working on something that her advisor Manuel Blum, and his senior graduate student Sampath Kannan had been working on, and I must say she made a pretty big dent in the process! She also related those ideas to other pieces of work done since in a really elegant manner and how these pieces of work lead to work on property testing.

I am delighted to say that NSF supported the workshop along with companies such as Amazon, Akamai, Google and Microsoft. SIGACT plans to be a major sponsor next year.

The Full program for the workshop is at the following URLhere.


  1. Thanks for this blog post.
    I just wanted to mention that the first couple of lines speak precisely to why lack of diversity in TCS is causing our community to lose out on some great colleagues.

    " "Am I even allowed here?” was the first thought that crossed my mind when I entered the room. It was packed with women (over 95%), however a few minutes later, several men had trickled in."

    Now re-read these two lines after switching the words "women" and "men" to get an idea of how some women (or so I am told) feel in TCS conferences. Hopefully events such as TCS Women and others will help improve this imbalance.

  2. I wrote that to make precisely this point. You made it explicit in the comment, and I witnessed the same when organizing theory seminars etc. Very few women participate and I will also add that one of my female students went to a non-theory conference and told me that it was a more welcoming environment.

  3. "Am I even allowed here?” is actually a nontrivial question and I think this is a good opportunity to discuss that. From my personal experience, sometimes men are indeed not allowed (something I really never see a good reason for). Perhaps the most relevant example is from the last year's TCS Women event at STOC 2018. I was really interested in the event and registered. However, later on, I received the following email which I'm still disappointed about (and wonder if it could have led to confusions and a negative impact on the TCS Women event's attendance by men this year):

    "Dear STOC attendee, you are receiving this message because you checked attendance at the TCS Women Lunch Panel when you registered for STOC. [...] A non-trivial fraction of those who registered are men. While the organizers can envision future similar events being open to both men and women, for this year's first iteration, the organizers would like to restrict attendance to women only. Thank you!"

    In light of this, I believe it is very natural for Samir to wonder whether he would be welcome at the event.

  4. Hi Mahdi,
    Thanks for your comments. In STOC 2019, we expanded our program to start TCS Women Spotlight Workshop so that men can participate in our events. However, TCS Women lunch+panel was still restricted to women participants. We have discussed in length whether to open the event to all, and there were compelling reasons not to do so. I will be happy to chat with you more about that. In any case, I do think, we need broader community participation if we really want to address diversity issues in our field. We hope to expand our program further and there will be more opportunities for men to participate.

  5. Hi Barna, thank you for the detailed comments and yes, let's chat next time we meet. It might be best to make the discussion public, though, as I'm sure many may be wondering about the same issue now.

    I do strongly believe that, as a matter of principle, any event or activity that fosters diversity must itself exercise diversity. Otherwise, it may do more harm than good, as people who care about the issue but are excluded (even when they try) will feel disappointed, or perhaps offended. At the very least, excluding men will cause confusion and discomfort (as Samir somewhat alluded to) and I'm sure many men will just exercise caution and decide not to participate when they are not explicitly invited (something that happened to myself and you may not have factored in, which is why I decided to give you this one data point).

    I strongly suggest that all TCS Women activities in the future (as well as the chance to help organizing them) be open to all genders. We want to eliminate imbalance by not only achieving epsilon mean, but also epsilon variance!

  6. Madhi,

    I have witnessed closely (for many years) the particular problems that women often have working in theory. Let me be clear: I find NO PROBLEM with women in theory having their own meeting that is exclusive to women. Madhi, you already got your meeting that is (practically) exclusive to men: it is literally every other theory conference. (Some are worse than others wrt diversity, but they're all terribly low.) Why not let women have their simulated environment -- we have already seemed to have acknowledged in this discussion that it can greatly enhance the comfort of the individuals involved.

    In all honesty, if you take a step back, it sounds somewhat silly to be offended/disappointed just because a severely-underrepresented subset of people in theory would like a private space for a couple of hours at a major conference. They will tell us when they need us, Madhi.

    - ryan williams

    1. Hi Ryan,

      Of course you're more experienced and I'm grateful to hear your views, and perhaps I over-emphasized on the silly part. I'm also completely unaware of the context for the meeting in question and the compelling reasons leading to the decision to exclude men (which will be clearer to me once I get a chance to discuss with Barna).

      My purpose was to share one data point about my personal experience which might help with the future events and also perhaps shed some light on the hesitation that Samir describes and David asked about (at the risk of being harshly judged in the online world based on how I personally felt).

      Let's take a moment and see this from my perspective: An early career academic who cares about the diversity issue, wishes to learn, and may only get a chance to attend one major TCS event per year (due to being in Europe at the time and belonging to multiple communities). Only recently do we see events dedicated to diversity at our major conferences, so I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to learn and be inspired, only to find out shortly after that I'm not allowed to attend. I even felt somewhat embarrassed about being among the "nontrivial fraction registered who are men". Did I make a silly mistake and miss something obvious? How did I end up in the epsilon fraction?! Ever since, I have felt somewhat anxious about attending events dedicated to diversity that do not explicitly clarify that everybody is welcome (even in my own department I'm not sure anymore and have to ask each time). Will I one day attend an event that I'm not aware is exclusive to women by mistake, get kicked out and be embarrassed? What if I had missed the fine print in that email from STOC 2018 and showed up? Of course, I may be the only one who is experiencing this kind of anxiety and confusion as a result of the above experience. Being involved in multiple academic communities gives me a chance to learn about the diversity efforts on all sides and notice how they differ. Recently, I attended ISIT 2019, a fairly large EE meeting, and had a chance to share this experience with a number of colleagues (male and female) from a different community. At least in my sample space, there seemed to be a consensus that the diversity efforts in major annual meetings should be open to everyone and would otherwise be discouraging. These conferences are the only chance for the entire community to be at the same place and reflect on the major issues and the path forward.

      I unfortunately did not attend STOC 2019, and it seems like the TCS Women meeting this year consisted of inclusive parts and also a women-only component. I do not recall STOC 2018 being that way, and I maintain that it is generally not a good idea to have a diversity meeting in our major annual event which only consists of one part that does not give a chance to everybody to participate.

    2. If being unsure causes you such anxiety, I would strongly recommend emailing the organizers and inquiring. That seems like the simplest solution for everyone.

  7. Dear Mahdi,

    I wanted to clarify a couple of things - I had the clear impression that the workshop talks were open to all, but when I entered the room I am not sure I saw a single man (I got there a few mins early), maybe one other man was there at the time. However once it got closer to the talks starting, that changed.

    I did not at all feel excluded - what I expressed was more a momentary reaction when I entered, and also wanted to make a point about how women might feel coming to a conference. I have been at small workshops that were attended by 3-4 women and sometimes I noticed that only 1-2 women were in the room.

    If the women felt that they wanted to have a private panel, that is their right and we should by all means encourage that. Clearly some junior women (especially students) might feel more comfortable asking questions in an all female panel/audience. We all might want to think about this issue deeply, but the reality is - that is the case for most of the women I know.

    There is no doubt that men and women have to play a role in encouraging participation from all minority groups, and while the wonderful event put forward by our theory colleagues can support the women in the field, we all have to help change the situation moving forward and work towards increasing participation - overall CS UG enrollments have now moved to 30% female in many Universities, at UMD "we" (I am Prof. emeritus there) have more 700 women in the major now - but Ph.D. programs, especially theory groups have lagged behind. The situation is very different in the HCI community and most HCI groups could have 35-40% female participation.

    I am happy to talk to you one-one about things we can do proactively as I have given this some thought. I hope that the TCS Women continues and the community does everything possible to encourage them, including a closed door private panel.

    Hope everyone is having a great summer - STOC 2020 is in Chicago!

    Thanks - samir

    1. Dear Samir,

      Thank you so much for sharing your insightful, well-thought, and considerate comments, which clarify a lot. I would love to have a chat next time we meet and learn about proactive measures that we can all take. I have slowly learned that being outspoken is generally the right thing to do (and also a good way to learn), but inevitably one that may create a lot of trouble especially for a junior academic.

      I'm saddened to see that virtually all theory talks are attended by so few women (and more generally minorities). I'm equally saddened to see that diversity-related events are attended by so few men (as far as I have seen). Obviously, this is the case for related reasons, but I think the latter should at least be easier to fix and may be a goal for us within reach. This is what we can be proactive about, by making sure that our colleagues genuinely care about and broadly participate in diversity events. I'd prefer to go in that direction, rather than the exact opposite of hard-coding a maximum imbalance in diversity events and eliminating the few men (the "non-trivial fraction") who do care. I'd personally much rather your proactive approach than let things be, wait and be called when needed.

      It is sad to learn that the environment is so hostile that junior women may feel uncomfortable to talk about the important issues. This has been somewhat harder to grasp for me, and I have asked a few female colleagues and friends about, and learned about how the situation is worrisome. This is also something we can all (and especially senior colleagues) be proactive about.

      I also hope to see a broader participation of men in leading the efforts, organizing diversity events and activities and taking up admin duties in that direction. Again this is related to how we see very few men attending diversity-related events, but I believe it shouldn't be so.

      I wasn't aware that the gender gap in theory is so much worse than other areas even within CS. For the longest time, I thought one of the greatest things about our community is that we care about the actual theorems more than anything else, something that would organically help reduce all kinds of bias. This turns out to be a very naive view, indeed. Our area is somewhat closer to math than the rest of CS, so I wonder how we compare with math.

      In any case, still much to learn for me! I do hope that every one of our conferences has at least one session dedicated to diversity-related issues, including parts that are open to men and attended (and organized) by the right proportion of men.

      Thank you again and see you at STOC 2020!

  8. Hi Mahdi,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and for opening this discussion.

    I understand your frustration, and I, too, was disappointed to see that when I told my male colleagues about the TCS Women event, many of them responded with “are you sure I’m allowed to come?” I understand where this sentiment is coming from, since many women events indeed do not allow men to attend. This may prevent men who care about diversity and are interested in such events from being proactive, for fear of offending or being tactless. I think in general that is a negative phenomenon, and I am glad that this year’s TCS Women event explicitly allowed men to attend.

    However, I also understand and have experienced first hand the importance of women-only events. It is very discouraging to walk into a room of 200 people, and understand that there are less than 10 other women in the room (as happened to me in the reception of the first conference I ever attended, SODA). Many women events help simply by having an overwhelming majority of women in attendance; it’s good to realize that, while in day-to-day life it might feel like you’re the only woman around, there are in fact many women doing the kinds of things that you do. You are not alone, you are not fighting a losing battle. I think this effect is hard to achieve if men ARE regularly allowed to attend. Simply because of the numbers, if every diversity event were open to all, the proportion of women would go back down, and these events would lose this crucial aspect.

    Another aspect is that at least in my experience, for better or for worse, it feels like people notice you as a woman much more than they would were you a man. This can lead to a fear of speaking out or asking questions; “everyone will notice me and remember me. What if the question I’m asking is stupid or obvious?” I think that this feeling is eased when there are only women in the room.

    In short, I really liked the way that this year’s TCS Women event was organized, with a portion that included men and encouraged them to participate and show their support, as well as a portion that was for women only, and fostered a comfortable environment for asking questions, and seeing other successful women. I’d like to thank the organizers of this year’s TCS Women event again for putting on this great event, and I hope this tradition will continue.

  9. Hi Naama,

    Thank you so much for sharing your illuminating thoughts, some of which I hadn't thought about. Indeed it seems like the existence of women-only events may have caused some confusion at least. I understand your very interesting points, though. I'm, too, glad that this year's event allowed men to attend and hope this will continue in future years. At least for me it helps a lot to have a chance to feel welcome and be allowed to contribute to the community's efforts in this important direction at all levels, from helping to organize to being an attendee. I actually wish one day we'll have the problem of too many men attending diversity events to the extent of having to restrict their attendance. :-)