Monday, July 9, 2012

Kudos to Margo Seltzer

Margo Seltzer, fellow FCS, profesor at Harvard, and well known in the CS blogosphere, was featured in a great article in Txchnologist about women in CS. You can read the article here.

I love just about everything about the article, in particular Margo's comments on polo shirts:
Txch: The computer science community may not be able to control the way programmers are portrayed in the press, but it can at least control the image it projects. What are the big things they shouldn’t do if they want women to apply?

MS: Here’s my favorite. I was chatting with a group of university reps from a very large high-tech company. The reps were both men and women, and they were bemoaning the fact that they found it very difficult to attract women programmers. I looked at them and I said to one of the women, “Are the company shirts you’re wearing men’s polos or women’s polos?” She said, “Oh, it’s a men’s polo shirt.” I said, “Why? Why don’t you buy women’s polo shirts? They would fit better.” And she says, “Well, there aren’t very many of us and it would cost more.”

Now, this is a multi-billion-dollar corporation. I looked at them and I said, “I run a company of 25 people, and you know what? We buy men’s and women’s polo shirts. You’re sending a message that says men are the norm and women are second-class citizens, so we have to put up with what they give us.” I’m sure not many women look at the polo shirts and say, “This isn’t for me,” but I still think it sends a very strong subliminal message.

The other data point is—look at the big annual events that these companies hold for all their customers. How many of the featured speakers are women? The answer goes from zero to one, amidst twenty or thirty speakers. You see this over and over. I think it sends a message that says, “We’re a guys’ company.” There are little things that a company could do to send a message that says, “We’re gender agnostic. We actually hire both boys and girls.”
And her comments on how sexism is less of a big deal to companies than racism:
Txch: Does it behoove companies to narrow the gender gap?

MS: In the same way that we would not tolerate an environment that was blatantly racist. That would not be tolerated in any company in America. And yet we have these pockets in cultures of companies that really are very hostile towards women. People don’t seem to find that nearly as offensive.
I believe I've written about this topic before, where it's strangely acceptable to be sexist and ableist, but not racist. We really need to work on that if we have any hope of making progress.

In any case, kudos to Margo. Go read the article and check out her blog!


  1. I've noticed the polo shirt thing before at career fairs. What bother me more, though, is when the only woman they send to an engineering career fair is also the only person they send from HR. I find that worse than not sending a woman at all.

  2. Hi, "check out her blog" links to someone else's blog.

  3. @Miss MSE - I know what you mean. Not really a good way to represent.

    @Deb - Good catch, should be fixed now. Thanks.