Chicks of a Feather

Dagnabit, I’m late. I intended to leave the convention center earlier, but it just didn’t happen. And now I’m running, like an idiot, trying to find the San Diego Marriott Hotel and the meeting room for the Birds of a Feather entitled "Chicks of a Feather." Walking, running, waiting, waiting, being directed, seeing a glimpse of a group of women, thinking it might be them, getting off on the wrong floor, and realizing it was them. Finally, out of breath, with a half hour left of the session, I walk in. Pleasant surprise after all this running about, I’m made to feel welcome from the get go.

So, Chicks of a Feather, what imagery does this inspire? Yellow fluffy fur balls with beaks (rendered with the latest technology, to keep with the SIGGRAPH theme), a group of highly vexed, angry, extreme feminists absorbed in unproductive thrashing of the industry and all men there involved? Whatever generalization comes to mind, throw it out the window as you enter the room. Here is a group of intelligent, funny women, of all ages and races, discussing how to better the situation for women in the fields of computer science and animation through mentoring and support. Among the ideas being voiced are those to create public announcements exposing young girls to the idea that it’s cool for girls to play with computers, the need to raise awareness that there are visibly fewer women than men in the industry, and that this will not change on its own, and thoughts on how to tangibly bring about changes on these fronts. Constructing a list of links for women to refer to for support, brainstorming ideas and solutions, and sharing the gist of personal experiences, were some of the approaches employed to reach this goal.

Having missed the earlier part of the gathering, I attempted to draw nearer to the driving force behind this particular Birds of a Feather (BOF), a woman by the name of Kay Cloud. As I waited on the outskirts of her conversation, as she spoke with someone else, I couldn’t help but notice that people were still trickling in. Emails were being exchanged, informal introductions being made, and a mailing list was being constructed. The reigning feeling was one of inspiration, as those present shared their advice, experience and encouragement. You didn’t feel a part of some trademark touchy-feely moment, but were given a sense that people wanted to help by sharing their knowledge, or simply by being the successful role model many women have lacked in the past. As for speaking with Ms.Cloud, she was actually on her way out by the time I got to her, but was gracious enough to agree to meet with me and answer my questions at a later time. Her responses to our impromptu interview will be covered shortly.

In terms of the other participants in the BOF, now that the slightly more formal (or at least, personally more daunting) sitting group construct had broken up, people were comfortably interacting one-on-one. Having joined them, I quickly discovered that frustrations were not constricted to lack of encouragement for young women to go into fields like computer science, or annoyance that nurturing qualities and femininity could automatically undermine one’s status as a competent professional, but also by the unhealthy mentality of some pre-existent women’s support groups. As one woman so aptly put it, we need to focus on solutions instead of complaining about the problem. Then we can actually start to make progress.

A day later, fast-forward to the exhibition floor and my conversation with Kay Cloud, Technical Art Director at Electronic Arts. First thing is first; I ask what prompted her to create this Birds of a Feather. Her answer is simple; she was looking to see what others were doing in terms of connecting with people and structuring a mentoring program for girls. When she didn’t find what she was looking for, and heard that free meeting rooms were being offered for BOFs, she embraced the opportunity. She had actually organized a similar event two years ago at SIGGRAPH, but fewer people got wind of the event since it wasn’t listed in a major listing, as it was this year. In terms of turnout, this year nearly thirty women showed up. When I asked if she was surprised by the attendance, she very diplomatically noted that she wasn’t surprised, but was certainly made to feel hopeful by the turnout. And types of people present? Given the duality of SIGGRAPH, did she notice more computer science, or more arts people? The response was that it was a fairly balanced group. There were many young computer science students, and senior people from the arts side. And we must not forget, there were also some of us, like myself, who come from both backgrounds. In her words, “tTere was a nice mixture of women who were there to help bring other women along”. She further clarified that this BOF was not really meant to be about networking (since there are other resources out there for that). Instead, it was meant to be a forum to discuss things we can do to bring up girls and help sustain them. That is to say, after attending events such as SIGGRAPH and asking herself “where are all the women?”, she began to wonder if other people were thinking that the situation was getting better on its own, when it really was not. She felt, in order to change this, we must reach women when they are still girls, before they even enter college. The plan of action? First off, raise awareness by setting up a mailing list and getting those involved to spread the word. Second, look into creating public service announcements that target young girls and give them a confident view of women and technology. And finally, look further into finding coalitions that help young women, and see if they can expand their programs to include encouraging women to explore and pursue fields like computer science. And if it is not possible to expand on pre-existent programs, create ones to tackle the issue. She also mentioned creating more chapters of ACM Women, an offshoot of ACM SIGGRAPH that I was not even aware existed.

Vision and aspiration being important to any good initiative, I later asked Ms.Cloud what her hopes were for the future of this project. Her response, she would like to see clubs for girls in every community, where girls can play with computers and computer games, do science experiments and discover how much fun it can be. And, relating back to one of her earlier statements, would she be happy simply seeing more women in computer science? That may be a start, but it’s far from being good enough for Ms.Cloud. She wants to see absolute parity across the sexes, and across races as well. With people like her and some of the other women I had the privilege to meet, the possibility seems that much closer to becoming a reality. Personally, I walked out of that BOF and my conversation with Ms.Cloud with a renewed sense (as corny as it may sound) that anything is possible and that I shouldn’t sell myself short. If we can inspire that in young girls of tomorrow, maybe they will see more female faces in computer science courses and SIGGRAPH conferences than I did. In any case, one step at a time, we are making progress.




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Last updated 8/25/03.

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Photos courtesy of Cybershot digital cameras generously loaned by SONY.