When I Was Young, I Thought It Would Be Different….

When I was in graduate school (back before the earth cooled) I remember thinking the following thoughts:

  1. Quantum computing is a new field filled with two types of people: young people dumb enough to not know they weren’t supposed to be studying quantum computing, and old, tenured people who understood that tenure meant that they could work on what interested them, even when their colleagues thought they were crazy.
  2. Younger people are less likely to have overt biases against woman.  By this kind of bias I mean that like the math professor at Caltech who told one of my friends that woman were bad at spatial reasoning (a.k.a. Jerks).  Maybe these youngsters even had less hidden bias?
  3. Maybe, then, because the field was new, quantum computing would be a discipline in which the proportion of woman was higher than the typical rates of their parent disciplines, physics and in computer science?

In retrospect, like most of the things I have thought in my life, this line of reasoning was naive.
Reading Why Are There So Few Women In Science in the New York Times reminded me about these thoughts of my halcyon youth, and made me dig through the last few QIP conferences to get one snapshot (note that I just say one, internet comment troll) of the state of woman in the quantum computing (theory) world:

Year Speakers Woman Speakers Percent
2013 41 1 2.4
2012 43 2 4.7
2011 40 3 7.5
2010 39 4 10.2
2009 40 1 2.5

Personally, it’s hard to read these numbers and not feel a little disheartened.

9 Replies to “When I Was Young, I Thought It Would Be Different….”

  1. It is disheartening. Who knows the precise reason, but I will hazard a guess. Sometime in the early part of the 20th Century the research practice in Mathematical Sciences took a disturbing turn towards a focus on rigor. The emblem of that was the “Bourbaki” trend within abstract mathematics. Sadly this took root right around the time that academies opened to women. If you fast forward until today, you find much evidence of a form of mental constipation in science which I (personally) think would irritate women. It is an excess of attention to: rigor; taxonomy; rules and hierarchical attitudes to knowledge. The result today is rather comical. There are entire fields built on the shakiest of foundations supported only by communities of zealots. One could provide a litany of examples, but I think quantum computing and quantum information theory are canonical examples. There is an “orthodoxy” to this subject on which entire careers are built, but no actual working computers. When you look at successful innovators like D-Wave you find a disproportionately high representation of women amongst their number. Why is that? Why is the “unorthodox” approach, that which is working, the one which attract women, whereas the “orthodox” one, which is not working the province of a male-dominated self-appointed priesthood?

    1. It’s a bit disturbing (and ironic) that this reply got downvoted so heavily.
      The reason that D-Wave has a high proportion of women is simple. The number one differentiator in whether you succeed at anything is the quality of the people involved. About half the time the best people are women.

  2. Do you believe so much in the worthiness of your cause that you had to make yourself anonymous? Just what we need, women with gumption.

  3. QIP steering committee numbers look much better (perhaps in line with participant ratios?):
    2009: 1/9
    2010: 2/9
    2011: 2/9
    2012: 1/8
    2013: 1/10
    2014: 2/10
    Didn’t check invited speakers, but I believe the fraction of invited speakers would be comparable to these (since the list of invited speakers tends to be similar to the Steering committee—an independent problem with QIP).

    1. Better like being stung by a bee is better than electroshock therapy?
      More seriously one thing I think a lot about is a common narrative thread I hear from these stories about the over assertiveness of male academics. As someone whose mouth can apparently rival the size of a whale, I often wonder about my own negative impact. Likely I’m a sinner 🙁

  4. But who wrote this post?
    Having a women-friendly academic environment is an important issue. Perhaps a new place to reflect on biases against women is the recent Internet activities, which usully do not represent top=of-the-line science where women presentation is smaller compared even to their persentage in the community.
    Here is something I was involved with when I was young:

    1. Hi Dave, Interestingly, I organized the conference in combinatorics that I linked to when I reached your ancient age of 38, twenty years ago. A special aspect of the conference was the unusually large number of female speakers. 16 out of the 30 main plenary speakers were women, and also many of the additional speakers, special session organizers, and other participants. When we sat our mind to it we discovered that we could easily have invited even double the number of women researchers with important contributions to combinatorics.

  5. Female Nobel laureates in the physics or chemistry by year
    If there’s a trend, it’s the opposite of what one would expect.

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