About the first women in logic workshop

About a month ago I attended the first Women in Logic workshop. I presented the partial results of a paper with Bruno Woltzenlogel Paleo on translations of resolution to sequent calculus proofs. The workshop was open to everyone, but every submission must have been co-authored and presented by a woman. In the end, the audience was composed of mostly women, with one man attending all talks (kudos Francesco!) and another showing up for one of the invited talks. As you may imagine, I’ve had long discussions with different people about this kind of event, before and after. I had my reservations as well. Is closing up in an almost-exclusive event the right thing to do for inclusiveness? What about other minorities? What exactly are we trying to accomplish? If there is a lack of women in logic, what is the root of the problem? I thought it would be worth attending anyway, not only because it was in Iceland, but to see for myself what it would be like. When the program was out, I must say I was a bit disappointed, as there was no space for the discussion of what I thought were the important questions, but only scientific talks. And those were quite diverse (you may imagine the broad range of topics when the only restrictions were logic and co-authored by a woman).

Finally the day came, and as the hours went by and presentations were given, something interesting happened. These women were comfortable. Most of the time, I could not see the usual stiffness, result of nervousness and stage fright, so commonly witnessed during presentations by both men and women in big conferences. The speakers were calm, talking in a usual speed and stopping to explain things on the board or on the slides. They looked confident. The feeling was not that of an aggressive audience, but of a supportive one. So, what changed?

In my view, it was not the fact that there were mostly women in the room. More than that, it was the mindset of the speakers themselves. Somehow they go in front of this audience thinking it will be ok, and then it is ok. Why do they think it will be ok? Maybe because these are other fellow women that get as nervous as they get when presenting to an audience of old white men. Maybe because they can finally relate to the audience. Maybe because they think that women will be less critical and nicer with the questions. Whatever reason you choose, regardless if it is true or not, if it makes you feel more at ease, it works. In the end, it is impossible to predict if the audience will be “nice”, or if you will get mean questions or harsh criticisms (ok, it might become a bit easier to predict once you get to know the people 😉 ). All you can do is think of an “it will be ok” reason to calm you nerves. Here are some suggestions that work with most audiences:

It will be ok…

  1. … it is not my PhD defense.
  2. … half of the people will not pay attention anyway.
  3. … more than half of the people are not experts in this area and I probably know more than them.
  4. … it is only 30 minutes of my life.
  5. … I can always reply honestly that I don’t know.

The usefulness of a workshop such as the women in logic one, in my opinion, is to show women that they can do this. They can go there and present and take the questions and criticisms. It is a bit more scary than presenting to the walls of your bedroom, and a little less scary than presenting at a big conference. The crucial thing is to take the next step, and get out of the women-only shell. The last thing we want is to create a clique inside this already small community of logicians in computer science.

As an after-note, lack of security is hardly a women exclusive issue. This makes me think that a larger part of the academic community could benefit from this kind of friendly low-profile workshop.

As an after-after-note, the lack of security and self-confidence is, in my opinion, the main reason why women sometimes do not pursue the careers they want. I have heard more women than men saying “I don’t think I am good enough for this”, and I say it myself sometimes. This is hard to overcome. It is good to remember that there will be people believing in you even when you don’t. Also, don’t try to do everything alone. Hardly everybody does. Ask for help. Ask for people to proof read your first papers, to listen to and give advice on practice talks, to discuss ideas for your projects… you will see how much people are willing to help, and how much you can learn from it.

About women harassment

It seems like I have to spell this out to you. So here we go.

Women street harassment is a thing. Women go out on the streets and they get harassed. I am sure no one will challenge this statement, right? Now, what most people (mostly men) don’t know is that harassment is not only rape, or calling someone names, or inappropriate touching. No no no… Harassment can come in several different flavors, sometimes even unintentionally. And this is the hard part because, since the harasser has nothing but good intentions, and did nothing wrong explicitly, you will be the feminist bitch to bring it up and be mad about it. Well, I am not a feminist bitch, I will just be honest because some things have got to stop.

Men think that it is ok to approach women they don’t know, talk, flirt and, if she seems receptive, ask them out. It sounds ok… if you are at a bar, or a party! But *not* if you are in the bus, or subway, or airplane, or hotel, or doctor’s office waiting room. You have no idea how annoying it is to realize that that person with whom you were having a perfectly harmless conversation has ulterior motives and was actually hitting on you. We start believing that people are never nice just for the sake of being nice, which means that, if you are nice back, you’d be receptive to his asking for your phone number in about 5 minutes. So what do we do? We stay serious, we don’t engage on any conversation, we look anywhere but other people’s faces. And it sucks, because suddenly you realize that you walk around with a constant angry face, you choose not to sit next to unknown guys, you pretend you don’t speak the language and hide the book you were reading, you don’t do *anything*, absolutely nothing!!, that can be a conversation starter (unfortunately we have to sneeze sometimes…). It is sad that all these self-preserving acts come naturally for most women. This means that, at one point or another, every one of us found ourselves in a weird situation with a guy, and it happened so often that the person who came to talk to you had an agenda, that we just stop listening, even to the poor people that have no agenda at all, and are actually just being nice.

So, men of the world, I am sure that you sometimes have the best of intentions. You’re both just sitting there doing nothing, so what’s the harm in talking? But before engaging, ask yourself this: if the person sitting next to you was another guy, would you ask him the time or comment on the weather? If the answer is no, it is better to keep your mouth shut.