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Every year, the Anita Borg Institute celebrates Women in Computing with their Grace Hopper Celebration. This October 14-16th, I joined 20,000 other women in Phoenix, AZ for a great event. The weather was great (although a bit hotter than I am used to in upstate NY). While there, I met many fascinating and inspiring women– it reminded my of my year at Wellesley College, only 100x bigger and grander. Below are a few things I learned in workshops and several cutting edge critical HCI research projects.

1.  At the CRA-W session on “Managing Up” we discussed ways for those lower on the hierarchical totem pole to both understand their interactions with their superiors and ways to make the best of difficult situations.

a. Their first point was to understand institutional politics (what are the long term goals; what actions have been taken in the past) and what the chain of command is (who has authority in any given situation). The organization is usually a combination of lateral and hierarchical relationships. By having this information, it is easier to know “what you can get away with”. An example they gave was of a discipline that is notorious for being a resource hog (*cough cough* Cognitive Science *cough cough*). To allay concerns across the institute, that department should bring in partners early in the planning process to emphasize that the new initiative or activity is actually good for everyone.

Sample Organizational Structure

b. In the case of contrary colleagues, their best advice was simply to avoid them! If you must work with them because they are blocking your objectives, make sure to maintain a respectful, professional tone. The ideal response is to provide them with a space to air grievances so they are more willing to support you later on: this is particularly valuable when working as part of a committee.

c. Sometimes early career scholars find themselves with ineffective leaders, but this is usually due to one of several distinct issues: they may have different priorities, a lack of experience, or are simply unaware of your problem or perspective. The best strategy for handling this is to take on delegated authority for the project you care about and to make sure you maintain weekly check-ins with your manager/ dissertation adviser. The easiest way to feel alienated and ineffectual is to not maintain communication; Graduate Students should especially make sure that their adviser knows about their other commitments. Another key thing is to follow up verbal agreements with emails to manage expectations for later.

d. Changing the culture from a non-leadership position can be difficult. That is why serving on committees, learning the processes, and creating channels to advocate ideas is so important. You must meet people IN authority to create change.

e. To ask for something, make sure it is concise: provide 3 bullet points in support of a specific thing with a timeline. If possible, incentivize it, make it something that can somehow benefit the person in charge by furthering their goals.

2. Human-Computer Interaction is a broad field of research that seeks to understand and improve how humans interact with interfaces, whether that is a computer screen or something that is purely mechanical, such as a can opener. The following HCI talks from graduate students impressed me because of the non-traditional population they sought to serve. There was no overwhelming business reason for these projects, but they are inspirational for critically responding to adversity.

The first talk, “It’s More the Real Me: Appropriations of Tumblr by Fandoms” was presented by Serena Hillman. They “investigated why fandom users chose Tumblr over other social networking sites, their motivations behind participating in fandoms, and how they interact within the Tumblr community.” This qualitative research discovered that the unique attributes (and counter-intuitive barriers to access) were actually blessings to the fandoms. For example, the limited search feature protected users from discovery by outsiders of the community. In this way, you had to be enculturated and following a chain of users to become acquainted with the fandom and were less likely to troll the community. The lack of private messaging also ensured that communications were public and legible to all.

The next talk, “Achieving Leverage for Accessibility in a Large Organization” discussed how to get large, fast moving organizations to consider the accessibility of their platforms. Sarah Clatterbuck worked with LinkedIn to produce code that enables blind persons to use the professional networking site and the ways to “leverage” this important issue and gain supporters. She discovered that patches were necessary, because it was nearly impossible to keep going back to the original source code. Eventually the goal will be to build an open source pattern library for UX accessibility issues.

Finally, Zahra Ashktorab presented “iAnon: Leveraging Social Network Data to Mitigate Symptoms of Cyberbullying” which was incredible in its scope. Many social networks allow anonymous and abusive behavior. This team created an algorithm which finds users suffering by a great number of cruel posts and then responds with linguistically sincere semi-automated posts to counter-balance the negative impact the vitriol might have on young person’s psyche.

I had a wonderful time at the conference getting to know many of RPI’s brilliant CS majors and re-connecting with my colleagues from Time Inc. Thank you to Colin Bodell for sending me to the conference and to Fran Berman for paying for my room and board. Hopefully I will be able to attend in the future!