Community Building at the 2019 CRA-W Grad Cohort for Women

418 graduate women in computing learning the skills to change the world #GradCohort2019
So many ribbons, y’all. [Alt: Eight conference badge ribbons of different colors.]

This week, I attended the Computing Research Association’s (@CRAWomen) Grad Cohort for Women in Chicago, IL, USA. The two days of the workshop covered a lot of ground, from advice for first years on how to choose an advisor to strategies for third years thinking about post-degree life.

Ayanna Howard and Maria Gini. [Alt: Two women on a stage in front of a crowd.]

Ayanna Howard (@robotsmarts) and Maria Gini (website) officially welcomed us Friday morning. Ayanna spoke about the importance of building a community in a field where women can be few and far between. Maria followed up by highlighting the global impact of CRA-W: The workshop was hosting visitors from Kuwait, Turkey, and a few other countries who wanted to see if this program could work for them. After some concrete tips for networking and elevator pitches — which we were told to practice at least 50 times this weekend! — they turned us loose for sessions.

Networking and Finding Advocates

A.J. Brush (@ajbrush) & Soha Hassoun (@sohahassoun)

Soha Hassoun and A.J. Brush. [Alt: One woman speaking at a podium, another seated at a table.]

A.J. kicked off the first-year track by tackling what is a very intimidating topic for many new grad students (myself included): networking.

“It takes a community to help you succeed and reach your full potential.”

Unfortunately (fortunately?), simply being a great researcher can only get you so far. Having a network of people who know about your work and your talent enables you to become part of a greater scientific community. A.J. brought up the very true point that there’s always another chance to network. You will survive a missed connection or less-than-eloquent elevator pitch. She also gave a few concrete strategies, such as having a simple pre-elevator pitch handy (“Hi, my name is X, I’m from Y, and I work on Z”) or blaming your advisor if you need an excuse to talk to someone (e.g. “They said I have to take pictures with 10 new people in my research area”).

Soha then switched topics slightly to the task of finding advocates (or sponsors).

“Somebody who is powerful, influential, and is actively opening doors for you … talking you up to other people, telling the story of your work.”

Mentors help you craft a career vision; sponsors help drive that vision. Mentors lead discussions about building skills, knowledge, and confidence; sponsors directly promote your work and make active connections for you. Some mentors may act as sponsors, but the roles don’t necessarily overlap. Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored relative to their male peers, so it’s important to start seeking advocate connections early and intentionally. Soha’s strategy for doing so:

  • Create opportunities for research/education/business focused conversations at conferences, workshops, lab meetings, etc. with the particular person.
  • Seek their advice on important issues and take it.
  • Follow up with them and let them know how their advice helped you.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Publishing your Research

Andrea Danyluk (site) & Margaret Martonosi (@margmartonosi)

Andrea Danyluk and Margaret Martonosi before the session. [Alt: Two women chatting at a table in front of a crowd.]

Why do we write? Margaret began session 2 by unpacking that question. Not only is writing the way that most academics share their super-cool interesting research, but it also can be a neat challenge. Margaret demystified the conference submission process and the intricacies of peer review. Of particular interest were her tips on how program committees choose reviewers:

“Be aware when you’re building your references list that the people you cite might be reading your paper.”

Margaret also underscored that reviewers tend to look for clear contributions, technical soundness, and solid evidence to back up a claim. If a reviewer can’t easily identify these in your paper, a rewrite (or even abandonment of the project, in worst cases) is in order.

Andrea spoke to the writing process itself. She framed iteration as key to creating a good argument:

“You shouldn’t view it as I’m going to research for N weeks, and I’m going to write for N weeks, you should view it as this iterative process … the writing guides the research too.”
“In the act of writing it and rewriting it, we realize, oh, that’s what we’re doing, that’s the part that’s interesting.”

Andrea also emphasized the need for writers to take the perspectives of their readers and avoid “kidnapping” them. Consider this: you’re asking readers to grasp in a few minutes the concepts it took you months or years to figure out. Explicitly tell readers where you are going and why it matters that you go there.

Panel: Balancing Grad School and Personal Life

Andrea Danyluk (site), Mandy Pant (site), & Rebecca Wright (site)

Andrea Danyluk, Mandy Pant, & Rebecca Wright. [Alt: Three women standing at a table and podium in front of a crowd.]

We’re all told that we need to have a healthy work-life balance if we’re going to succeed in grad school. But sometimes that’s really hard, dang it. This session focused on these challenges.

The three panelists first shared their stories about finding balance in grad school. Some felt it was better to take a holistic approach:

“There’s a way of thinking about work and life as two separate entities and that there must be some sort of 50/50 balance between them, whatever that means….I see my work as contributing to my good life.”

Others took a pragmatic approach to self-care:

“You can even think about it in a formulaic way — It’s about making your brain work better and your body work better so that you can continue to exist and function.”
“Your sleep, your nutrition, your hydration: It’s hard to do these things when you’re putting out fires that come from you running on empty.”

The panelists also stressed the importance of identifying unbalancing forces, as well as strategies for addressing tradeoffs in the wicked design problem that is grad school life.

“You cannot have it all, at least not at one time. … Find the set of tradeoffs that are going to be appropriate for you personally.”

Lunch with research groups! [Alt: A hotel ballroom filled with 400+ women at tables.]

At lunch, we sat with our self-identified research interest groups. I hung out with the CS education people and was pleasantly surprised to see there were enough of us to fill a whole table! Briana Morrison (@Bri_Morrison) of U. Nebraska Omaha, Jamie Gorson (@jamiesarahg) of Northwestern, and I chatted for a while about research methods like think-aloud protocols and interviewing strategies. It’s difficult to figure out what’s in a student’s head when the very act of them vocalizing it can change their perceptions. Surprisingly, we didn’t solve this open problem in twenty minutes of lunchtime conversation, but we collectively shared some resources to work toward more effective methods.


Keynote: The Pursuit of Collective Intelligence, and Happiness, in Science

Radhika Nagpal (site)

Radhika Nagpal’s radical ruminations. [Alt: A woman standing at a podium in front of a crowd, next to a projected slide discussing how scientific culture is based in implicit rules, and how changing the rules can change culture.]

Radhika focused her talk around how to change implicit rules that reinforce power structures within scientific communities. She took apart four pervasive myths that underlie academic culture:

#1 — The Myth of the Isolated Genius: that there’s a single person out there who is going to change the world all by themselves, and the only way to succeed in academia is to be that person. However: Research is done in teams, science is done over generations, and group intelligence can outweigh any one individual.

#2 — The Myth of the Highly Competitive: that science is a competition, a survival of the fittest scenario, and to be the best you have to win. However: Science is an international collaboration. The best work happens when we create opportunities for talent from everywhere — not just Western, first world countries — to join the conversation, which rests on generosity, not competition.

#3 — The Myth of Gender-in-STEM: that the fix to gender issues in STEM is to simply increase exposure by running events for women in STEM and making STEM classes mandatory. However: Women aren’t absent from STEM, they’re absent from careers and powerful positions.

“We don’t have a Gender-in-STEM problem, we have a patriarchy problem. … I’m not here to encourage you to stay in computer science. I’m here to encourage you to stay in power.”

#4 — The Myth of Success as an Image: that if you don’t look like the people in successful stories, you can’t be successful. However: We have the power to choose the stories that we tell. By sharing diverse portrayals, we enable people to imagine that they can be successful too, which can start to change the narrative.

Radhika’s keynote kicked ass. One day I hope to be as confident, well-spoken, and radical as she is.


Strategies for Human-Human Interaction

Jamika Burge (@JDBurge), Margaret Martonosi (@margmartonosi), & Kathryn McKinley (site)

Jamika Burge, Margaret Martonosi, and Kathryn McKinley before the panel. [Alt: Three women seated and chatting at a table on a stage.]

The opening panel for Saturday morning focused on the reasons women and gender minorities often don’t feel welcome in computing: harassment and the generally unpleasant humans who discriminate against us. The goal for the session was to share stories, strategies, and resources.

Kathryn started by explaining the iceberg model of sexual and gender harassment based on the recent National Academies harassment report. There’s all the overtly gross and illegal activities that are obviously sexual harassment above the water, but much more often there’s oblique gender harassment below the water. For more details, check out the report.

Margaret spoke about how to report harassment so that we’d know what to do when (not really “if”, unfortunately) it occurred.

“I worried about this information dump on women so early in grad school. But everything that’s happened lately has convinced me … now you can go forward and make your own decisions.”

She pointed out that the NSF now has an official harassment-free policy. If a PI or co-PI on an NSF grant has a harassment claim filed against them, they can lose their funding — and since 75%+ of computer science research is funded by the NSF, that’s a pretty big deal.

Jamika stressed the importance of intersectionality.

“If your harassment feels different, it probably is.”

Women of color, especially, can experience a double bind where it’s difficult to tell whether harassment is due to their gender identity or their racial/ethnic identity. So, while the world spins its wheels and tries to figure out how to deal with diversity in computing, how can we thrive in these contexts? The panelists opened up the floor for questions, anecdotes, and thoughts from the audience, which I won’t report to respect the confidentiality of those brave enough to speak up. Suffice to say that there are many strong women in computing dealing with bullshit that is not their fault and that harassment comes in many shapes and forms.

Building Self-Confidence

Bushra Anjum (@DrBushraAnjum) & Patty Lopez (@pittrpatt)

Bushra Anjum and Patty Lopez. [Alt: Two women on a stage, one of whom is speaking at a podium.]

Ah, impostor syndrome: The close friend of many PhD students. This session dealt with the lack of confidence that often undercuts women’s computing experiences.

Patty and Bushra began by emphasizing that no one is automatically born with confidence — it’s a learned skill, just like any other skill of PhD life. One way to start gaining confidence is to reframe failure as a learning experience rather than an ending. The idea of “productive failure” is a key concept in creative professions like design, where failure is an opportunity to gain new knowledge.

“If you succeed, you succeed; if you fail, you become smarter. There is no harm to this! … When you face a challenge, it’s okay if you fail. Next time you will not.”

Another is to understand that comparing one’s self to others is irrational. Though we can’t stop ourselves from doing it, we can recognize that it’s a vain pursuit:

“We know as scientists to make comparisons, you have to control the variables. … You cannot control for an infinite number of variables to ‘truly’ compare to others.”

Finally, the speakers wrapped up with a metaphor: Power, success, and influence are not pies! It’s not a matter of who gets the largest piece, and there aren’t limited amounts to fight over. It’s about making sure that everyone has a chance to succeed in their own optimal ways.


After some closing remarks and lovely lunch discussion about ethics in research, they turned us loose. Some stayed for resume and career advising, but I opted to wander downtown in search of Chicago style pizza and adventure.

The Grad Cohort was a great experience. Though the sessions sometimes seemed a bit generic, the keynotes were amazing and inspiring. I’ll be back next year to reconnect with this amazing community of women in computing.