Insightful advice for academia from WICSE

Today I attended the WISCE Berkeley-Stanford annual meetup and there was quite a bit I learned that I think applies to anyone in the field, so I wanted to share it here (along with more women-specific things). In particular, I found the academia panel to be very insightful and wise. Here were the key points.

First off, there are lots of resources specific to women + careers in EECS from an annual conference called Rising Stars in EECS. It’s neat because the talks are all online and the advice is quite specific to EECS and covers both academia and industry.

The panelists

The first invited panelist is Professor Ruzena Bajcsy (Berkeley), who has been in the field for 40+ years and thus has been through many of the shifts through the generation. The second panelist is Professor Tsu-Jae King Liu (Berkeley, current EECS department chair). She was immediately asked a bunch of questions about time management, chair responsibilities and whatnot, to which she says that of course being chair is a lot of work and easily takes up half of her time. The third and last panelist is Dr. Sadia Afroz (Berkeley, current postdoc).

Shifts in academia

When asked about what the biggest changes in academia have been, Ruzena commented that she’s noticed almost an obsession with money among young researchers… people are always talking about their salary, grant funding, etc. She cautioned (and reminded) us that she chose academia because she wanted to do her own projects, to think independently… not to be led where the money lies.

Advice for new faculty

Ruzena, now 80+ years old, still advises a full lab, comes to work every day, stays fully engaged in the community and the field. I find it remarkable and admirable and awesome. When asked the question “What advice would you give a new young faculty?” she gave the advice: you really want to have a job where every day you are happy to go to work. She commented that she is literally happy to come into the lab every day, including weekends (our meetup was on a Saturday). Specific to academia, she advised that if you are not curious, don’t like teaching, don’t like exploring wild ideas (and keep in mind that many of those ideas won’t work out), don’t do it.

A lot of these qualities actually ring true with me. I love teaching, mentoring; I like exploring new ideas, I like thinking about the future, and certainly I’m curious. But at the same time, it’s really important to me that the things that I work on see the light of day and actually make a real difference in people’s lives. So I asked the question: is curiosity in conflict with broad impact? It seems clear to me that, at some point, if you want to carry an idea out further and broader, then you need to spend the time and effort to invest in that single idea… which of course detracts from other curiosities. So then is academia still suitable if your life drive is the impact and results rather than the curiosity?

Ruzena’s response was actually unexpected but heart-warming and wise. So, Ruzena had just seen the talk I presented at this meetup, which was focused on developing large urban systems. In my particular context, she agreed that academia is probably best suited for this type of work because it can connect me with a wide group of people in many different related fields, and this is necessary since urban systems touch on so many different studies, e.g. EECS, civil engineering, urban planning, economics, public policy, etc. But more generally, she advised that everyone take advantage of the breadth of courses and resources that are available to us (at a top school); to explore a bit because anything narrow that we learn now will become out of date. And so it is prudent to pick up a breadth of skills.

Nice gals lose?

Often times, women (and actually many people in EECS) feel like they need to be more aggressive in order to succeed, but feel conflicted because it is counter to their personality. When asked the question of “Should I be more aggressive if I want to attain professorship?”, Liu responded that confidence is everything; that the key is to develop confidence in your own abilities, over time and to recall that often times people are just curious… there’s no need to get defensive. In order to have people recognize you as an individual rather than as a woman is to have confidence from within, display that confidence, and engage in conversations.

Advice for yourself?

The next question was: now, putting yourself back in your own shoes as a grad student, what’s one piece of advice that you’d give yourself, in order to succeed in academia? Ruzena responded succinctly: learn as much mathematics as you can. Liu’s advice was to really get to know your classmates; in fact, that also helps with building confidence. Sadia’s response was to not be afraid to ask questions, make the critical comments about other people’s work — to not assume that other people know better — because often times, you will be right. And I full-heartedly agree with all of the responses. The bottom line is really to gradually build up your own confidence.

Relatedly, what’s one thing you did right?

To this, Liu responded with seeking out a good mentor, one who is separate from your academic advisor. This person should believe in you, be able to provide emotional support. Ruzena, being the only female in robotics at the time (eeeesh) and immersed in a somewhat WASP-y culture (white anglo-saxon protestant), simply tried to make friends, looking for those (male) colleagues who were open to equality. She slowly built up a network and community for herself, slowly but surely. It wasn’t revolutionary by any means, she commented, but she was really supported by this network despite the opposing culture. What we have here now with WISCE is not far off. It’s a great community of like-minded people, and it’s really important that we stick together and support one another.

Thanks to Alex Lee for feedback on this article!

How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science – Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Our most important finding is that family formation damages the academic careers of women but not of men. Having children is a career advantage for men; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high personal price. They are far less likely to be married with children. We see more women than we used to in visible positions, like presidents of Ivy League colleges, but we also see many more women than men who are married with children working in the adjunct-faculty ranks, the “second tier,” and one of the fastest-growing sectors of academe.

The most vulnerable years of a female scientist’s career are the earliest: the graduate-student and postdoc years. The greatest
leak in the science pipeline occurs before women obtain their first tenure-track job, and the major reason is childbirth. Specifically, according to the NSF survey, married mothers are 35 percent less likely than married fathers to obtain a tenure-track job. Single women without children, on the other hand, are almost as likely as men to get that job.

via How to Level the Playing Field for Women in Science – Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In summary, academia sucks for married/attached women.

Real Numbers: Asian Women in STEM Careers: An Invisible Minority in a Double Bind | Issues in Science and Technology

Percentage of doctoral scientists and engineers employed in universities and 4-year colleges (S&E occupations) who are tenured, by race/ethnicity and gender (2008)

Percentage of scientists and engineers employed in government who are managers, by race/ethnicity and sex (2006)

Percentage of scientists and engineers employed in business or industry who are S&E managers, by race/ethnicity and gender (2006)

Percentage of scientists and engineers doctorate degree holders employed in business or industry who are S&E managers, by race/ethnicity and sex (2006)


The advancement of Asian female scientists and engineers in STEM careers lags behind not only men but also white women and women of other underrepresented groups. Very small numbers of Asian women scientists and engineers are advancing to become full professors or deans or university presidents in academia, to serve on corporate board of trustees or become managers in industry, or to reach managerial positions in government. Instead, in academia 80% of this population can be found in non-faculty positions, such as postdocs, researchers, and lab assistants, or nontenured faculty positions, and 95% employed in industry and over 70% employed in government are in nonmanagerial positions. In earning power they lag behind their male counterparts as well as behind women of other races/ethnicities in STEM careers.

via Real Numbers: Asian Women in STEM Careers: An Invisible Minority in a Double Bind | Issues in Science and Technology.

Gender disparity in EECS persists |

only 12.4 percent of students in the EECS major at UC Berkeley are female

via Gender disparity in EECS persists |

Well-made clip on gender diversity in EECS at Berkeley.

Somewhat related, it is comforting to learn that gender is not a huge factor in the report titled Ph.D. Student Attrition in the EECS Department at the University of California, Berkeley. The following interpretation is interesting but not fully backed with data.

A possible interpretation of this result … career choices must fit into a larger picture. For men, it is more acceptable to segregate the two. Seymour observed this same phenomenon in a study of undergraduates: “young men… are more willing to place career goals above considerations of personal satisfaction. By contrast, young women show a greater concern to make their education, their career goals, and their personal priorities, fit coherently together.” Another important concept is the idea of the science “mold.” If there are no role-models, no women faculty within the academic mold that appear to enjoy the life graduate student women aspire to achieve, women will seek a career option in which it is easier to integrate career and personal goals.

On Nerd Entitlement

These are curious times. Gender and privilege and power and technology are changing and changing each other. We’ve also had a major and specific reversal of social fortunes in the past 30 years. Two generations of boys who grew up at the lower end of the violent hierarchy of toxic masculinity – the losers, the nerds, the ones who were afraid of being creeps – have reached adulthood and found the polarity reversed. Suddenly they’re the ones with the power and the social status. Science is a way that shy, nerdy men pull themselves out of the horror of their teenage years. That is true. That is so. But shy, nerdy women have to try to pull themselves out of that same horror into a world that hates, fears and resents them because they are women, and to a certain otherwise very intelligent sub-set of nerdy men, the category “woman” is defined primarily as “person who might or might not deny me sex, love and affection”.

Women generally don’t get to think of men as less than human, not because we’re inherently better people, not because our magical feminine energy makes us more empathetic, but because patriarchy doesn’t let us. We’re really not allowed to just not consider men’s feelings, or to suppose for an instant that a man’s main or only relevance to us might be his prospects as a sexual partner. That’s just not the way this culture expects us to think about men. Men get to be whole people at all times. Women get to be objects, or symbols, or alluring aliens whose responses you have to game to “get” what you want.

And so we arrive at an impasse: men must demand sex and women must refuse, except not too much because then we’re evil friendzoning bitches. The impasse continues until one or both parties grows up enough or plumps up the courage to state their desires honestly and openly, without pressure or resentment, respecting the consent and agency of one another.

This usually doesn’t happen. What usually happens instead is that people’s sexuality and self-esteem get twisted into resentment of the (usually opposite) gender; they start to see that gender as less than human, particularly if they are men and learn at every stage of their informal and formal education that women are just worth less, have always been less, are not as smart, not as good, not as humanly human as men.

via On Nerd Entitlement.

HT Yang Ruan

This is a response to Scott Aaronson’s story concerning nerd entitlement [src].

I don’t understand her proposed action in the end, but I loved a bunch of parts of the response.

Tangent, which I’ll incorporate into another article soon, hopefully: Institutional sexism and society bias produce an environment in which women are automatically less of people than men. A by-product is of this is that women are raised to care more about what other people think of them and what they do. Some of this leads to a great skill in understanding other people, other people’s problems, and a general concern for other people. Empathy, basically. I believe that these skills place women (and others who have honed these skills) at an advantage when we consider the problems of the world, which continue to involve more and more people. We need more problem solvers who can also understand problems of people.

Many Women Leave Engineering, Blame The Work Culture : All Tech Considered : NPR

From the aerospace sector to Silicon Valley, engineering has a retention problem: Close to 40 percent of women with engineering degrees either leave the profession or never enter the field.

“It’s not women who need to change — it’s the work environment that does,” she said.

The study found that only 17 percent of women left engineering because of caregiving reasons, which Fouad said dispels the notion that pregnancy plays a big part in keeping women out. But she does point out that many of those who did leave to stay home with children did so because their companies did not offer flexible enough work-life policies.

“We’ve found that women stay in engineering because they want to make sure they are making a difference,” she says. “If women feel they are making that difference, retention levels will be higher.”

via Many Women Leave Engineering, Blame The Work Culture : All Tech Considered : NPR.

NAILED IT: This Ad Calls Out 5 Ridiculous Double Standards Women Face In Less Than 60 Seconds

In a widely read study, business school students were given a case assignment on Heidi, a real-life successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. But there was a catch. Half of the class randomly received their case with one teensy tiny change made: The name "Heidi" was changed to "Howard." Afterward, the students were surveyed, and though Heidi and Howard were found equally competent (as they should have been because they are the same person), the students found Howard much more likeable. The following ad pretty much sums up why.

via NAILED IT: This Ad Calls Out 5 Ridiculous Double Standards Women Face In Less Than 60 Seconds.

The 10 Colleges Most Likely to Make You a Billionaire (Harvard Is #1) – Gwynn Guilford – The Atlantic

Women who want to strike it rich should consider Northwestern and Brown Universities–almost 15% of their UHNWIs are women, compared with 2%-4% for the University of Chicago, MIT, and Yale. But in terms of raw numbers, Harvard produces the most ultra-affluent women.

via The 10 Colleges Most Likely to Make You a Billionaire (Harvard Is #1) – Gwynn Guilford – The Atlantic.