The diversity dilemma

Someone I spoke to recently was discussing the New York Times/Bloomberg article which laments the lack of diversity in the AI community and how men are making all the advances in the field. He wondered if we should stop making progress until the diversity equations are sorted out. Put that way, does one stop trying to improve lives with science and technology until the right proportion of men and women is found?

I wish there was more diversity. I wish it everyday. I have felt an outsider in most teams I have worked with, at the beginning. Life goes on, the teams get used to me, I get used to them, and then I cease wondering about the unusualness of being the only woman in the room, even in very large groups approaching a hundred or so. It ceases being jarring once you go through the same experience a few times.

I find it not really necessary to go out of my way to find women in workplaces, even if they are in a completely different line of work. I know all the receptionists, the services staff, the facilities personnel and the purchasing department employees. They are usually more knowledgeable about the company, its collaborators, its products, and vision, than the engineers are.

Now, where I work, I also have the chance to see a few female engineers in software, in other groups, even if they are far, far removed from my domain of work. They are more difficult to relate to, somehow. I find that at least a few of them put on a front of fitting into a programming culture where everyone fits in by speaking like men, by walking like men, by dressing like men, which confuses me greatly. I am sure there is some benefit to it. I am also sure many of them actually prefer to act and interact that way.   It is only sad if they actually feel that they need to do so because of the line of work they are in. I hope that isn’t the case.

The other issue that flares up is that of comparison. It makes me feel out of place and upset when an engineer in a different field comes to me and is all eloquently in praise about my line of work and how he or she could never do it. No, that isn’t the case. It is only that I made different choices during my school years, to select a domain that had no hopes of a straight and clean path to a stable job, especially as a non-citizen, and it was miserable until the domain somehow rose to its fifteen minutes of fame.

Back in grad school, I had tired of people in other fields telling me that I should prepare for a mainstream software engineering job track, since that is where the jobs were. Every campus job fair proved them right. Every job search I undertook proved them right. Now the same people tell me that I should encourage more students to follow this course. How can I? It seems irresponsible to encourage students to take up this path when I know well the difficulties involved.