Mid-quarter conferences are tough, and I’ve spent the past 36 hours trying to catch up with my work. But in between all the frenetic effort, I’ve been thinking about the idea of perceptions. At the SIGITE conference two of my three presentations had to do with diversity in the gaming pipeline, with a particular focus on gender inequality. Whenever the topic of gender inequality in technology comes up, the topic of perceptions immediately follows. A big consequence of being a minority in any area is that you come to represent an entire demographic rather than just yourself. I think that idea is best summarized in my all-time favorite xkcd cartoon:
It’s the only cartoon that I’ve ever loved enough to post on my door. And while the field in the cartoon is math, the idea is easily applied in computing or gaming or any other area where women are a small percentage of the population.
As it happens computing education is an area where women are better represented than the field as a whole. Since I switched my research focus away from theoretical computer science, I’ve even had the joy of experiencing lines at the women’s restroom at conferences. But I’ve remained especially conscious of the perceptions people express to me, and sometimes they surprise me.
The most recent surprise came at the end of SIGITE as I was getting ready to leave. I bumped into someone in the hallway, and he stopped me. He commented that I would “be in charge” of SIGITE next year, to which I quickly responded that I would in fact only be the program co-chair. Undeterred he pressed on, giving me his name and affiliation (which I’ve since forgotten) and saying that he hoped to submit something next year. I wished him luck and made my way out of the building. The interaction left me feeling odd, in a way that’s a bit hard to describe. Yes, I will be the program co-chair for SIGITE next year, but that doesn’t make me any more worth an introduction than I was two years ago before I agreed to do some work for the SIG. I’m just Amber, an enthusiastic and hard worker who may bite off more than I should, but an ordinary person all the same.
The oddest effect of this perception of increased importance is that it’s a somewhat self-fulfilling phenomenon. People listen to me more when I have the label “SIGITE program co-chair” or “SIGCSE treasurer” which then does make my opinion more influential than it would have been had I not had the label. And, yes, these perceptions are positive ones. But a mere 15 years ago when I was a graduate student the perceptions weren’t so positive and contributed to things like my funding being cut. So I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable being on the receiving end of someone’s perceptions, although I don’t think there is any way to escape them.