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A committee of old white guys

I recently got asked to join what seems to be an important professional committee. I should probably have asked my advisory board [1] before saying Yes. But the work I’m being asked to do for that committee is work that I would likely do anyway. And so I said Yes.

But I’d just been talking to someone about that committee, and their comment had been It feels like that’s just a committee of old white guys. I’m an old white guy [2]. Does the committee really need me on it? Would it perhaps benefit from someone with a different cultural perspective? Almost certainly. And is it really old white guys? I’m pretty sure that everyone on the committee self-identifies as white, at least as much as I do. I’m told that 6/13 members self-identify as women. So Old white guys is not completely accurate, but it’s accurate enough.

Other than having more work to do [3] and knowing that I can make a positive difference for my professional community, what do I gain from saying Yes? I gain a bit of prestige, or at least a line on my CV. Evidence suggests that each new line on my CV leads to another potential new line on my CV. But I’m successful. Do I really need new lines on my CV, except as they may allow me to help my students or my institution? I’m not sure.

Should I say No and let someone else join? If I want to make a positive difference, I should probably identify people from other backgrounds who might be interested in serving on the committee and then encourage the leadership of the committee to invite them. Of course, the problem is that most of the women computer scientists I know who would want to serve on the committee are almost certainly already on the committee and I don’t know enough computer scientists of color who have the time and interest to take on another service obligation. But I can work harder to identify some.

At the same time, I do seem to add something to the committee, not just in the work that I can do, but also in my own perspective. For example, I’ve already identified some non-inclusive aspects of the materials the committee has produced. But seeing those materials really makes me think that we need a broader group reviewing the materials the group produces.

I also worry about asking others to serve. There seems to be pretty good evidence that people who are under-represented in an area get an unequal burden of service work and, in the end, service work, even national service work, counts less than research [4]. While I know that my CV will benefit from the work, I don’t know that it would benefit everyone. There’s clearly a work/benefit tradeoff to consider. I think, for example, of the task of Student-Volunteer Coordinator at the SIGCSE Symposium. I don’t think anyone gains much from being able to say I wrangled student volunteers at a conference. So that’s service that is not only appropriate, but perhaps even preferable, for an old white guy to do.

I’ve been trying to find the best way to approach the issue. I decided to raise it explicitly. I wrote something like Do you really want me on [the committee]? Shouldn’t we perhaps be looking for something other than Old White Guys (as someone commented)? I tried to imply that I’d do the work whether or not I’m on the committee [5,6]. But that didn’t seem to make a difference.

In the end, since the committee does not seem to have a cap on the number of members, I think my best approach is to join the committee and then work to identify other potential members who will help bring a broader perspective to the committee. And maybe I’m wrong about the diversity of the committee. We’ll see. But my next step is to think about who I should encourage the committee to add (or encourage to volunteer for the committee) so that we can broaden our perspective.

I apologize that this musing is more disjointed than normal. I find the issue troublesome and I’m having trouble working through it. Usually, writing helps. But when I try to conceal some of what I’m writing about, it’s hard to think as carefully or as deeply.

If you are a computer scientist and you’d like to talk about the issue offline (and might have some suggestions as to who to invite, depending on the committee), please contact me.

[1] The details of Sam’s advisory board will appear in a forthcoming musing.

[2] More or less. The white supremacy movement doesn’t think I should self-identify as white.

[3] And some interesting work that I can pass on to a student.

[4] Or teaching, at some institutions.

[5] Hmmm … committing to more work may be a bad idea.

[6] If I do the work and don’t end up on the committee, I’ll still have lines on my CV.

Version 1.0 of 2018-03-02.