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Assimilation is not evolution

Dr. Cherri Pancake is past president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and director of the Northwest Alliance for Computational Research at Oregon State University. She will present the keynote at PEARC20 (July 27-31) to address computing’s poor reputation for diversity and how to create cultural change.

We caught up with her recently to talk about how her background as an anthropologist has informed her view of computing culture and why she thinks tech culture is in danger of strangling itself if it continues to discourage the people who could bring the new perspectives it so badly needs.

It feels like a talk about ‘changing the culture’ of computing is especially relevant at this moment. Would you agree? 

<strong>Can we change the face of computing?</strong> Cherri Pancake, past president of the Association for Computing Machinery, will present the opening keynote for the PEARC20 conference on July 28, 2020. I think it’s been relevant all along. Diversity and inclusion have been huge issues in the tech industry for decades now, with momentum building for doing something about it in the last ten to fifteen years. But I hope to convince PEARC20 attendees that all of us can be doing things. We each need to figure out what those things are and then take personal responsibility for becoming agents of change, not just wait for the field to change for us. 

How long have you personally been concerned with diversity in computing? Was there a specific moment when you realized you need to be doing more? 

I originally started in anthropology, and I didn't come to computer engineering until I was in my 30s. By then, it should have been the norm to include women in computing, but unfortunately it wasn’t. I was the first woman graduate student in my whole engineering school, the first woman faculty member, etc. 

From the very beginning, I was often the only woman and always the one who was different in the group. So it would have been hard not to be aware of the problem and to not notice the difficulties we were having in attracting students who weren't from the white male majority. 

We each need to...take personal responsibility for becoming agents of change, not just wait for the field to change for us. 

The time that really made me decide I needed to do more than try to just be a good example and encourage students was when there was a larger proportion of women students who came to computing in the late nineties. But it turned out to be a bubble that went plummeting back again to really low levels a few years later. 

That told me there was something really wrong, that having women in roles of leadership and authority wasn’t enough. Because by that time, there were women on the faculty. We were still a small proportion, but we were there. It wasn't a matter of not having any role models, which was what everybody thought at first. We were still seeing the trend of attracting women shrink again. That says there is something really wrong with the environment that we're creating in the field. 

How does your background in anthropology fit in? What insights does anthropology bring to a discussion of cultural change and diversity?

When I changed careers and first went into computing, I thought I had to leave my entire anthropological perspective behind because the engineers I was working with viewed it as suspicious. But later I was advising a young woman graduate student who wanted to develop a software tool to support computational scientists and computational engineers. My first question was, “What do we know about what these people need?” 

<strong>The PEARC conference series</strong> provides a forum for the research computing community to discuss challenges, opportunities, and solutions. Courtesy PEARC18.It turned out nobody had ever bothered studying what users needed. That's when I reached for my anthropological background and became one of the first people to think of trying to study users the way we study other cultures. It was that sort of a-ha moment in my research that later led to the fact that when we're talking about needing to change a social or workplace environment, it really is talk about changing a culture.

In technology we have always relied on saying, “Well, we'll hire a few women and they can adjust to us. Or we'll hire a few black women or men of color and they’ll adjust to us, and they'll make us more diverse.” But of course, that's not how you change a culture. Assimilation is not the same thing as actually recognizing the value that other perspectives bring to the table. 

It is in everyone’s interest—whether you're at a school or a not-for-profit organization or a company—to learn to really hear other perspectives and not try to make people fit into the same mold that you already have plenty of people fitting into. That is very much an anthropological perspective about cultural change: assimilation is not at all the same as cultural evolution. 

What do you mean by personal responsibility? And why does cultural change require personal responsibility? 

If we’re the one in the minority, somebody who doesn’t fit into the traditional mold, the inclination—and it's a natural one, it’s certainly one I’ve felt—is to sit there quietly and learn how everybody else does things and adjust to their way of doing things. To assimilate. And the problem with that is it doesn't get anybody else to change their perspective or broaden their worldview. 

At any stage in our career, there are things we can do to help make sure the people we're interacting with in the workplace or in society learn to recognize why different viewpoints make them better professionals too. 

I think we're finally seeing signs that the technology community is ripe for change. 

Seeking out new perspectives and valuing them, that’s something that it’s actually very hard to see when you're part of a cultural majority, in this case an overwhelming cultural majority. It's really difficult to see how to approach problems differently, how to think of things differently, how to even hold discussions differently. I think those of us who aren't part of the cultural majority need to be a little more proactive and take responsibility for helping them learn how to do that.  

What about people in the majority? What’s their personal responsibility? 

Obviously, every individual has personal responsibility for making the world better and making the workplace a better environment. But what I've learned is that a lot of the cultural majority colleagues I have, honestly and truly don't see that they are missing this whole panoramic view. So somehow we have to help them realize it.

One example that’s really almost trite is that often a man who thinks of himself as liberal and welcoming and inclusive will use a term that's derogatory or will appear to be ignoring somebody's opinion, without realizing he’s doing it. 

<strong>The PEARC Student Program</strong> offers mentoring, tutorials, and offers an opportunity for the next generation to share their research with the rest of the community through papers and posters. Courtesy PEARC18.So if somebody politely asks him, “Did you mean to ignore the problems that Alice raised?” “Did you mean to imply that Fahid didn’t know what he's talking about, or did it just kind of come across that way?” That wakes them up to realize that the way they're expressing themselves can be interpreted in different ways. It’s a little moment that jogs them out of a pattern. 

What I'm suggesting is that we can take responsibility for trying to turn these occasions into a teaching moment where we help people realize how they're being limited by their cultural perspective.  

Is there anything unique to the scientific and research computing community or culture that gives you hope about their ability to embrace and actually make changes? Or do you think there are particular blind spots this community has?

I think in general, people in our field tend to be educated and intelligent—and that’s a plus. They also tend to value rational thinking. The art of programming is all about thinking rationally about a problem and coming up with an incremental way of solving that problem. So I do think there's a real possibility to change things in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do in a field that, say, values some more physical attributes like strength or a particular kind of speech.

You've been a part of this community and have been encouraging change for a long time. Do you think that this is a community that wants to change? 

I think more and more people are getting on board. When you have a culture that is well-established, the first question is, “How do you get people to even question whether there is something wrong with that culture?” We’re still in that mold a bit. It takes a long time, but it's also something that happens one person at a time. 

It is in everyone’s interest to learn to really hear other perspectives and not try to make people fit into the same mold that you already have plenty of people fitting into. 

That's another reason I like to encourage actions that are nudges in the right direction rather than shoves. Because if you nudge in a way that can be seen not just by the person who caused an incident but also to the other people in the room, it’s a potential teaching opportunity for all of them. And that part, that extra education, you don't get through things like establishing quotas, or other actions that are rule-driven and top-down. I think the change really needs to be bottom-up.  

Are you optimistic that because of the many things going on culturally around race and diversity and even #metoo, that this time something's really going to shift? Or are you more cautious?

I’m optimistic because I think you first have to talk about things and be aware of them before you can ever change them. A lot of times people say, “Oh it’s just lip service when someone in power says they're going to respect different opinions.” My answer is usually that lip service is a necessary prelude to change. If you don't talk about it and you don't say it’s needed, you're probably not going to do it. 

It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to make the change immediately. And certainly, no matter how fast it happens it’s not going to be fast enough for me and probably not fast enough for you to be happy with, because cultural change takes time. 

But we have seen changes in our field. We've seen a lot more understanding of the idea that we need to start taking into account the social repercussions of the software and technology we're developing. That’s never happened before. It was always about advancing technology for its own sake, “Let’s push it to the limit.” So I think we're finally seeing signs that the technology community is ripe for change.

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