Gender Discrimination at CHI 2012

CHI this year was incredible. Amazing. It was my first international conference and wow, what an experience it was. I saw so many fantastic and thought provoking presentations, from the brilliant ones on text entry (my one true academic love) to a fascinating presentation on making interactions purposefully uncomfortable. Everything was very thought provoking. And the parties afterwards. Well. Austin is the most partyful town around. The evenings were unforgettable whilst at the same time being slightly hazy the next day… Overall, it was, as one house in Austin put it: lovely.

Now, with that stellar review in mind, I want to talk about the less awesome side of CHI this year, and that was the feeling of gender discrimination running through the event. This was something that I began to notice myself, and then began picking up on when reading the CHI related tweets (the twitter community made this event even better, reporting on interesting talks when you were unsure about where to go, and letting the conference venue know that the air conditioning needed turning down!) Let me tell you the story through a series of tweets. [All the tweets used here are from public accounts and, when not from me, have had user details removed.]

Before attending CHI, my supervisor had asked me if I was going to the Women’s Lunch. I said I wasn’t. I am keen on supporting women in fields where they are under represented, I was a member of the Hoppers society in Edinburgh and helped organise events to offer support to female computer science students and also invited female speakers to talk about a career in industry. I felt these events were necessary and justifiable because females were so under represented on our course. And we regularly heard tell of discrimination against the women doing computer science. The drop out rate for females on the course was significantly higher than for males. So in these situations I believe that providing support and gender specific events is important. However, in domains where there is not a clear divide, I think that holding events specifically for women is hard to justify, and discounts from fields where this support is necessary. That’s how I felt about the HCI community, there are plenty of women in the office here at UCL, and were plenty in the office at York. Therefore, in my eyes there was no problem, and so no, I would not be attending the Women’s Lunch at CHI.

Now, at the conference. I had a paper accepted into the Text Entry workshop. Awesome! I was very excited about this. When I turned up, I was the only female in a room of around 25 people. This was unexpected. I was not made to feel different or excluded, and felt part of the group, but I didn’t think I’d be the only female there. Meeting up with my supervisor later that day I admitted that maybe the number of women in HCI perhaps wasn’t quite the same as the number of men.

At the opening keynote I was to find out! We were presented with a breakdown of the people who were attending CHI. One pie chart showed the number of students, academics, and industry types that were attending this year. Very interesting. The next chart showed the gender split. From memory, the split was around 60% male, 39% female and 1% not answered.

This was fine, interesting graphs, good to know who’s attending, made me realise the small number of females. Now, what happened next was not so fine. The Conference Chair, Joseph Konstan was up next. He took the stage wearing an oversized cowboy hat, which covered  his eyes in shade, so we could only see his mouth. He decided to make a joke about the pie chart, he said something along the lines of “maybe next year we can run a session to help those people work out what they are!”. I was shocked. Now I don’t know who was in that 1% of people who didn’t answer, it could be people choosing not to divulge that information, or it could be people who feel that of the two options: male or female, neither suited them. But to come on stage and say he would “help them find themselves”, that showed a level of incredible ignorance, and could definitely have been very insulting to some people. I wasn’t the only one to notice.

This was when I became aware of people reporting these sorts of things on twitter. And the fact that I had to start collecting the tweets. Like sexist pokemon.

One person pointed out that many of the examples being used in talks, when needing to talk about a novice user were female, the “soccer moms” and the old ladies. No male novice users out there apparently.

Some others pointed at the way that women were being treated at the conference, one person letting men know that if a woman shows any interest in your work, it’s best not to tell that women that you think she may not be smart enough to grasp the content.

Another person pointed out how, in one session, a female first author was introduced as “talking on behalf of her coauthors” whereas all the male speakers in that session were simply introduced, even if they weren’t the first author.

Then we take a look at the videos presented this year. A couple were quite interesting. One, for a device called TEROOS, showed a robot on a woman’s shoulder, being controlled by a man. Whereas another showed a women stressing out over having to cook a meal, everything was going wrong but with a smart cooking system, she was able to make the meal successfully in the end. That was fine. But then we find out she has been stressing out over a meal she is cooking for a man. She places it on the table in front of him then watches him eat. She has not made anything for herself, just the man. In fact at the end she has to ask the man if she is allowed to have a bite of the meal she’s made. Thankfully she is allowed some, and doesn’t starve.

All this. In the space of one week. Maybe I was wrong about the discrimination at CHI. It’s there alright. And I know, sometimes it’s symbolic (in the case of the videos) but there were still reports of women being made to feel inferior due to their gender, whilst at the conference itself. And this just isn’t good enough.

By the end of the conference, I think that this had come to the attention of the organisers, and when Joseph Konstan got up to give the closing speech, he apologised. But he didn’t really apologise. The message he gave was something along the lines of “I’m sorry if you were offended”. As in, ‘I’m sorry if you chose to be offended by this thing I said that I do not believe to be offensive’. Meh. He talked about “slips of the tongue” which I think can’t justify the prevalence of these sorts of comments. These aren’t just slips of the tongue, they represent an ingrained and malformed beliefs that need to be addressed if we are to feel like this community is an equal one.

The one shining light at the end of the tunnel came from Hugh Herr. Hugh Herr gave the closing keynote. And what an inspiring keynote it was, about the fantastic work his lab at MIT is doing for amputees. During his presentation, he spoke of how humans were designed, and then spoke about what the smartest human in the world would do, how she would design a human. Fantastic. There you go. Hugh Herr’s hypothetical smartest human is a woman. There, that wasn’t hard.

I don’t want this post to seem like I was bitter at CHI, or that I didn’t feel welcomed into the community. Because I did feel welcome, I really did. But the fact is that mine wasn’t a universal experience. It is clear that in some areas, some men are still making everyone else feel like second class citizens there, and sometimes joking at their expense. And this isn’t good enough. I’m not suggesting that every talk at CHI next year lists women as the superior gender, all I’m asking for is some equality. Something needs to change.

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Audible thinks you want to keep your books a secret

Interestingly, in relation to this post I made a while back about advertising the book you’re reading on you kindle, audible’s new spotify adverts suggest you might want to download an audio book so that you can listen to book you might not be so proud about reading; thus meaning no one else around you needs to know that you’re enjoying the works of Stephanie Meyer.

It seems the kindle does not deliver for me in terms of not sharing enough information, nor does it deliver for audible listeners in terms of it giving away too much information! Poor kindle.

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In this post I would like to introduce you to both my new Projects page, and my first project, Twitfortune.

Twitfortune is a website that gives out twitter generated advice, like a fortune cookie. The adive can range from the utterly non-understandable, to amusing, to genuinely useful.

The idea came from seeing many friends posting “note to self” style tweets. I thought it was strange that people use the very public platform of twitter to write seemingly personal things. With this in mind, I decided to call out these ordinarily private tweets and create a website based around them. Seeing as the tweets often contained advice to the author, they suggested a fortune cookie style. The fact that these pieces of advice were not written specifically for others to read gives each fortune a slightly cryptic air.

The process of creating these fortunes is fairly straight forward. I search twitter for the latest instances of the words “note to self”. The tweet is then stripped of these words to leave only the message. Further work is done to remove any puncutation symbols that might follow, to make it look a bit nicer.

The final bit of processing done on the tweets is to make them a little less introspective. All instances of the first person (I, me, my etc) are  replaced with their equivalent second person words (You, your etc). This means they are now peices of advice for the reader. Strangely specific, peculiar, obscure pieces of advice mind you.

After testing it out, I realised that there were two common actions I wanted to do. Firstly, the most amusing ones I wanted to share with people. I found myself taking lots of screen shots and messaging them to my sister. I realised I could make that process easier by providing people with a method of sharing the fortunes: sending them back to twitter! So I added the “Tweet it” option to each fortune. The second action I found myself often doing was translating the tweets. Many people were beginning tweets with the english words “note to self” and continuing on in another language. I wanted to know what they were saying! So I added the “Translate it” option. This takes you straight to the google translation of the fortune, from whatever language it was written in to English.

So there you have it. Twitfortune, check it out!

Comedy on the radio

Here’s a link to the programme Word Of Mouth. This programme was about communicating research using comedy. This theme meant that they came along to Bright Club on the night I was performing and asked me a few questions before and after my set. They interview me to find out what I thought of the experience, and how I found it overall. I appear at the beginning and the end of the programme. At the end, they interviewed me just as I came off the stage, so I sound quite high on adrenaline!

Have a listen to the programme, the bits where I’m not talking are also pretty good too ha.

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Now you can’t judge a book by its cover

I love reading, and I also love my kindle. Not only have I been reading far more books since I got it, I’ve also been reading a wider range of books. Whenever I get on the tube I have the option of reading that text book I need to get through…or the latest in that trilogy of books that I can’t stop reading, I have the choice there and then without having to lug around a thousand books in my bag. In that instance I usually choose the fiction book I can’t put down. So I guess in some ways the kindle is actually encouraging bad habits.

One of the downsides to reading from the kindle now, is that no one can tell what I’m reading. Admittedly, if I was the type of person to read Twilight, this may actually be a great thing, I can read trashy novels without anyone else on the train knowing about it. But no, I actually think overall it’s a bad thing. Every now and then, I used to meet some very cool people on the tube, all because of the book I was reading. They’d see the cover and then strike up a conversation about the book: “Oh, how do you like it? I really liked the opening, especially the bit with the…” or maybe “is that so and so’s new book? I read her last one but wasn’t sure about this one, do you like it?” and so on. And I loved these interactions! They were like mini impromptu and anonymous book clubs. But now, with my kindle out, no one knows what I’m reading about, and so no one asks. Again, this may actually be a good thing for some people; when recently talking to my Aunt who was thinking of buying a kindle, I pointed out this apparent flaw to her, that no longer would people chat to her about the book she was reading. Her response to this was “Great. Good point. I’m buying one”.

Well, I used to like those interactions, and I miss them now! So, I started thinking about how I could bring them back. It’s simple really: add a title to the back of my kindle. And that’s what I’ve done!

Ok, I know it’s low tech at the moment. But I want to see if this makes a difference, if people start talking to me about the books I’m reading again. I think this wouldn’t be something that would be too hard to incorporate into a kindle cover: add a little e-ink screen, interface with the device via the spine or mini USB. Done! I think one issue may be that we do judge books by their cover, that is we recognise particular cover images. Especially if that book has just come out on film for instance. So my little title and author sticker might not do the trick, but we’ll see! I shall be trialling this on the tube for a little while to see what happens.

I will let you know.

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Double blogging

To save me talking about my most recent published work for a second time, here’s a link to my Digit Distribution work on the CHI+MED project’s blog.

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Punctuation and number entry

I was recently told a story by JW which made me reconsider by focus on purely digits and the decimal points. I now consider the comma to be an interesting character in the world of number entry.

J explained how he was trying to set up a monthly payment online for a particular bill.  He wanted $170.00 to be automatically taken out of his account, and sent the billing company.  On the website, he got to the text box in the form that asked for the monthly amount he wished to pay, and he entered in 170.00:

Only this isn’t what he typed. He typed this out on a laptop keyboard and so used the top row of numbers, and the full stop as a decimal place. When he typed the decimal place however, his finger slipped and what he actually entered was this:

A few weeks later, J gets a call from his wife, frantically asking him why their bank balance is so incredibly low all of a sudden. After inspection, it turns out that for two months, $17,000 has been leaving their account each month. Oops.

When J submitted the form, he didn’t notice his mistake, there was a difference of two pixels between the decimal point and comma character in the font on the web form. He saw there was something there between the first to zeros and understandably assumed it was the decimal point he’d gone to press.

The first error was typing a comma instead of a decimal point and not noticing it. But really, if this wasn’t picked up by the human, it so easily could or should have been picked up by the system. That comma is in a weird place – if it were representing a thousand marker, there should be an extra zero, or is should be between the seven and the zero. This was a malformed number entry. And the system did not pick up on this. Instead, it chose to ignore that comma, and strip it out of the input, leaving only 17000. And resulting in an incredibly angry customer.

Conclusion: Think about the erroneous characters people enter, even in number entry. Don’t ignore them without thinking about why they might be there.

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