Female techies brave Reddit AMA to talk about their worlds

You have to hand it to MIT Ph.D candidates Elena GlassmanNeha Narula and Jean Yang for facing the lions’ den last week when they participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything forum.

The AMA, timed to coincide with Computer Science Education Week, addressed topics like what it’s like to conduct research at MIT; what it’s like to be a woman conducting research at MIT; programming in general; and so on. It was an AMA after all.

As you might expect, they got their share of sexist trolling, some of it pretty mild (requests for a date) and some less so — although the worst comments appear to have been deleted. But this shouldn’t detract from legitimate questions posed and the thoughtful discussion that ensued.

Asked whether a Ph.D is always worth the effort, Yang (pictured above) responded that for her the answer was yes, but that’s not true for everyone:

“A PhD can be a lonely experience and there is high opportunity cost: there are many things you could be doing instead that will make you more money. In addition, the only additional thing a PhD enables you to do (besides spend a few years enriching yourself) is become a professor or a researcher. It’s probably not the best idea to begin a PhD burned out–you’re going to need your emotional reserves.”

For some people, a Master’s Degree will work just fine, said Yang, whose work on Jeeves, a programming framework to help developers build privacy into applications, was featured at Structure 2011 in San Francisco (see the video below).

Keeping girls interested in tech

One commenter — a self-described non-techie — wanted to know on how to keep her 11-year old daughter’s interest in math and programming alive.  While other commenters recommended the Khan Academy, the Scratch programming language designed for kids, Glassman, an expert in user interfaces, recommended Pyladies , a group for teaching Python programming skills and Girls Who Code as resources in addition to more gender-neutral groups.

“You should try everything but I personally found groups like Pyladies awesome because they specifically focus on mentorship … Face-to-face learning in a warm environment can help someone stay committed.”

Scores aren’t everything

Some people asked questions about how critical top grades are in pursuing an advanced degree. Narula, an expert in parallel and distributed operating systems, advised motivated students who might have struggled with grades not to give up hope.

MIT Stata Center home to CSAIL

MIT Stata Center, home to CSAIL

“I think grades matter a lot to get into grad school, as in they are usually necessary but not sufficient. That said, there are lots of exceptions! MIT is definitely the type of place which cares more about what you do than your grades — One nice thing is that MIT EECS doesn’t even take GRE scores,” she said, referring to the Graduate Record Exams many grad schools require.

“I think you can get around bad grades by doing something really cool. Different professors care about different things; for example some will care way more about your projects/open source code than your grades.”

Asked what struck her about the session, Yang said via email that she was surprised by the number of people asking why gender was included in the AMA descriptor. She and her co-hosts are drafting a longer response to that question.

She added:

The highest we got on Reddit was #5. The more popular we got on Reddit, the more trolls we encountered. We saw an increase in the number of questions about “why do you get to do an AMA because you’re a woman,” “will you go out with me?,” “will you make me a sandwich?”

On the plus side, some participants “helped us out, downvoting the more trollish answers and answering some of the questions about ‘why is gender relevant.'”

Here’s Yang’s talk at Structure 2013:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nu5iBCbwJfg]

Note: this story was updated at 1:32 p.m. PST with Yang’s comments about the event.