02 June 2014

Role models

During grad school, my advisor suggested I identify a recent grad who has been, to me, successful. I could then use him or her as a guide. I picked someone (he now knows who he is), and the exercise was useful: there are lots of ways to be successful in research land, and this helped me focus.


I'm fairly serious about yoga. I've had a lot of instructors over the years and noticed a high correlation between InstructorILike and InstructorWhoIsMale. Initially I believed this was because male instructors pushed more, and that worked for me. Over time I realized that was not the full story.

I spent two weeks going to classes by instructors I hadn't had before to try to understand what variable(s) made the difference. I've believe now that a large part of the reason I like male instructors is precisely because they're male. A female instructor would do some crazy pose and my brain would immediately say "I could never do that." A male instructor would do the same pose and my brain would say "If he can do it, so can I." (I'd then try and fail several times, but never with a defeatist attitude.)


I've heard for a long time that having role models you can identify with is important. As someone who has in almost all of my life fit into the overwhelming majority (white male in tech/academia), it's been rare that I've had the opportunity to really feel this effect for myself. I try to believe things even if they haven't happened to me, but it's always better when you can empathize rather than sympathize and it's easier to empathize when you've actually been there.

The first time I remember feeling the effect of a role model "who looks like me" was  at the 1996 Olympics and Poul-Erik Høyer Larsen (Denmark) was the first European to ever win the badminton semi-finals; he then won the gold medal against Dong Jiong (China). (This sport is dominated by Indonesia, China and Malaysia.) Growing up in a particular part of Los Angeles and playing badminton as a kid, I was very much an outlier. Even though I'd never heard for Poul-Erik before (everyone knew who Jiong was), his win gave me something I could aspire to.

A few years ago I began broadcasting my support of the LGBT community, e.g., an HRC link on my web page and painting my laptop. Since then I've gotten emails from several people (mostly students) effectively asking why there aren't more/any LGBT role models in our community. You can interpret "community" meaning anything in the NLP/ML to CS to Science/Tech range. My answer: I don't know. It's hard to even know how large this community is because, unlike things like race and (binary) gender, it's not always outwardly inferrable (with noise). These issues effect tech is nuanced ways; see for instance an interview with the founder of Lesbians Who Tech or Queer in STEM for more.

This is all to say that having role models is important, and yes, it does matter who they are, where they came from, and what they look like. It mattered to the high school aged version of me, the grad school version of me, and the associate prof version of me. I'm not saying anything new here, but for our field to be healthy, we need a large number of successful people who can be role models for all sorts of students (and beyond). Token visibility is not enough because a single example of some particular label won't match with everyone who self-identifies with that label. The person I chose was, yes, a while male. There were plenty to choose from. But I chose him, and others would not have sufficed.


Anonymous said...

great post! these kinds of things aren't always easy to talk about, but this was really well written. thanks!

Anonymous said...

fwiw, your support for LGBT meant a lot to me the first time we met. I was open about stuff back in Portland, cuz it's not a big deal there. But when I moved to Baltimore I closed up; Johns Hopkins is a great school, but not the most welcoming sort of place. So when you came out for a talk et al., you reminded me of how things could/should be, which helped me to open up again.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post about restoring the 'faith' for people in academic. I like this post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about this, Hal!