Women in R

Last week I gave one of the keynote addresses at R/Finance 2018 in Chicago. I considered it an honor and a pleasure to be there, both because of the stimulating intellectual exchange and the fine level of camaraderie and hospitality that prevailed. I mentioned at the start of my talk that the success of this conference, now in its tenth year, epitomized the wonderful success enjoyed nowadays by the R language.

On the first day of the conference, one of the session chairs announced that a complaint had been made by the group R-Ladies, concerning the fact that all of the talks were given by men. The chair apologized for that, and promised efforts to remedy the situation in the future. Then on the second day, room was made in the schedule for two young women from R-Ladies to make a presentation. There also was a research paper presented by a woman, added at the last minute; she had presented work at the conference in the past.

I have been interested in status-of-women issues for a long time, and I spoke briefly with one of the R-Ladies women after the session. I suggested that she read a blog post I had written that raised some troubling related issues.

But I didn’t give the matter much further thought until Tuesday of this week, when a friend asked me about the “highly eventful” conference. That comment initially baffled me, but it turned out that he was referring to the R-Ladies controversy, which he had been following in the “tweetstorm” on the issue in #rfinance2018 . Not being a regular Twitter user, I had been unaware of this.

Again, issues of gender inequity (however defined) have been a serious, proactive concern of mine over the years. I have been quite active in championing the cases of talented female applicants for faculty positions at my university, for instance. Of my five current research students, four are women. In fact, one of them is a coauthor with me of the partools package that played a prominent role in my talk at this conference. I’ve taught my department’s ethics course a couple of times, and gender issues form a major part of the reading list I assign.

That said, I must also say that those tweets criticizing the conference organizers were harsh and unfair. As that member of the program committee pointed out, other than keynote speakers, the program is formed from papers submitted for consideration by potential authors, and it turned out that no papers had been submitted by women. Many readers of those tweets will think that the program committee is prejudiced against women, which I really doubt is the case.

The women who complained also cited lack of a Code of Conduct for the conference. This too turned out to be a misleading claim, as there had been a Code of Conduct posted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the host of the conference.

So, apparently there was no error of commission here, but some may feel an error of omission did occur. Arguably any conference should make more proactive efforts to encourage female potential authors to submit papers for consideration in the program. Many conferences have invited talks, for instance, and R/Finance may wish to consider this.

However, there is, as is often the case, an issue of breadth of the pool. Granted, things like applicant pools are often used as excuses by, for example, employers for significant gender imbalances in their workforces. But as far as I know, the current state of affairs is:

  • The vast majority of creators (i.e. ‘cre’ status) of R packages in CRAN etc. are men.
  • The authors of the vast majority of books involving R are men.
  • The authors of the vast majority of research papers related to R are men.

It is these activities that lead to giving conference talks, and groups like R-Ladies should promote more female participation in them. We all know some outstanding women in those activities, but to truly solve the problem, many more women need to get involved.

Addendum: Unfortunately, this blog post brought me under criticism in that Twitter discussion. My comments urging women to become more involved in writing packages and papers were interpreted by some as “blaming the victim.” I strongly disagreed, considering my advice to be good mentoring; I still do.

(Some material here was updated on July 21, 2018 and on May 18, 2019. Also, see my post about the 2019 R/F meeting, )

9 thoughts on “Women in R”

  1. I am just dabbling in R, and am not an active member of the R community. I wanted to comment on this because I have many decades of Human Resources experience, My time includes significant experience at one of the world’s top corporations (UPS) at a time when UPS did not reflect the gender a racial diversity of the communities it served, most relevant here was the gender imbalance of about 86% male.. I also spent some years at a rapidly growing non-profit that, although diverse, had about 87% female staff.

    Your post makes the same mistake a lot of organizations, managers, and people in general make: blaming the victim. Affirmative Action (AA) has had plenty of both supporters and detractors. One of the great things about it, especially in the private sector, was that it forced people and companies to push beyond their excuses and find good candidates.

    To take the position that you do in your post, which boils down to, “there is no real discrimination, if more women applied, then more women would be represented”, is to ignore the structural, cultural and societal biases that are working against women. Privilege is blind, and those of us who are privileged must make a conscious effort to overcome this blindness we have. Notice that once someone raised the issue, overnight two or three women were found. There are plenty of brilliant female data scientist out there, and perhaps you could partner with one. She will gain the benefit of your access, and you will learn more about the issues that prevent women from participating in these types of events. The tech world is seriously challenged because it is so male dominated and is decades behind nearly all other industries, except perhaps fire fighters.

    1. You have gravely misread my post.

      I am a longtime supporter of Affirmative Action (AA). I have served as Chair of my university’s Affirmative Action Committee, I write op-ed pieces in support of it, and so on.

      If you had bothered to click on the link I had in my post, you would have seen that I definitely believe there is discrimination against women in the tech field.

      And even in my main post, if you had read it even a little carefully, you would have seen that I do support the idea of “casting a wider net” that you point out HR departments have benefited from. See in particular my comment about errors of commission vs. errors of omission.

      I learned today that there were NO (known) female submissions in response to the call for papers in the conference. My point is, and was in my post last night, that I do not believe the program committee has a bias against women. So there was no error of commission. If one feels that they should have been proactive in recruiting female authors, that is a separate issue, but the tweets made against the committee made it sound like the committee consisted of a bunch of sexist Neanderthals, which I believe is false. Frankly, I found those tweets very irritating, and wondered whether some of those tweeters have a genuine interest in solving the problem.

      The two R-Ladies members who were added to the program at the last minute did NOT talk about technical issues. They were undergraduate students who presented slides on improving diversity. So your statement “You can find them if you want to,” while true (again, commission vs. omission), was NOT exemplified by the hasty addition of the two R-Ladies to the schedule.

      Actually, I think the program committee deserves high praise for making that quick adjustment to the schedule. I can tell you that in most conferences, such a thing would be unthinkable.

      We are never going to solve problems if we talk past each other. Careful reading of things like blog posts is crucial.

  2. Norm, I think it is you who have misread the Twitter response. No tweets I saw were suggestive of active anti-female bias amongst the organising committee. Such a thing is basically unthinkable these days, and by erecting this straw man you are damaging your own credibility.

    Let me spell it out for you: The benchmark expected by the R community is not committees that act without consideration gender and other minority statues. i.e. Be blind to them. The benchmark now is that effort be made to actively correct the imbalance in recognition of ‘structural obstacles’ that have lead to poor participation rates.

    As an event organiser myself, I fund it utterly unbelievable that this problem was not flagged as soon as the fist program draft was put together, if not earlier. There was almost certainly plenty of time to do a better job of correcting this than the committee did. Instead the committee made a decision to take no action. Perhaps holding the outdated view, like you, that in the context of their blindness to gender and overall low female submission rate, community expectations would be met.

    Expectations were not met. And the CHOICE to take the easy route and do nothing under the cover of an ‘unbiased approach’ is certainly an ‘error of comission’ in my book. As is your blog post. You’ve actively tried to pour water on the heat they are deservedly getting by advancing outdated views that no longer meet the benchmark. Examples:

    ‘Indeed, my experience on journal editorial boards shows me that in many cases, gender is unknown, as it is not obvious from authors’ names on a paper. The notion that the committee ignored any and all submissions by women just doesn’t hold water.’

    This is dumb. No one sensible is suggesting this. Also blindess alone is ineffective.

    ‘Arguably any conference should make more proactive efforts to encourage female potential authors to submit papers for consideration in the program’

    No. Not ‘Arguably’. This is not up for debate any more.

    ‘It is these activities that lead to giving conference talks, and groups like R-Ladies should promote more female participation in them. We all know some outstanding women in those activities, but to truly solve the problem, many more women need to get involved.’

    No. The community expectation is not that R-Ladies is responsible for this alone. The expectation is that all organising committees and participants will make an effort.

    By writing something as tone deaf as this you demonstrate that you too are no longer meeting community expectations. I think if you want to keep those hard earned credentials, you need to see about correcting the ‘error of comission’ you have made here. I’d start with an apology.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Miles, much appreciated even though I will disagree with some.

      In addition to the tweets, a number of people have been contacting me privately, giving me background and so on. So I don’t think I misread the tweets at all. I’m due to talk to another person tomorrow.

      I think we had a generally useful, if a bit heated, exchange on Twitter. I think that some of my points will actually be heeded, in spite of the rhetoric.

      One thing that irritated me was that many people completely overlooked the points I made in my WordPress posting about proactive efforts to involve more women in conferences. It is clear from your posting here that you overlooked it too. Maybe you should apologize. 🙂

      I do think that some of the tweeters were far too inflexible. Sometimes one should be pragmatic rather than dogmatic. Or do you think that’s an “outdated” view? 🙂

      It is not clear to me that the committee even knew, beforehand, that there had been no paper submissions by female authors. Again, gender is not always clear. However, a committee member did inform me that a female researcher had been asked to submit a paper, but with no response.

      You say that proactive work on the part of conference committees to include more women authors is “not up for debate anymore.” Though I personally have that conviction and act on it, some do not. I don’t think this is some kind of generally recognized Moral Imperative. On the contrary, it is a rarity. It is even rarer to be proactive in involving underrepresented minorities; I was disappointed that people yesterday were not mentioning this aspect.

      Take the R Journal as an example. I am on the editorial board, and we made great efforts (with eventual success) to find top-quality female editors. But we make no effort to increase the number of female authors, esp. lead authors. In fact, of the four conferences I will attend this year, I’m not aware of any that makes such efforts.

      I’m not sure your tone in the above post would pass a Code of Conduct test, by the way.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  3. Dear all,

    Matloff, thank you for your initial post and your willingness to conduct this online much-needed conversation. I am a woman (of color) who also is a data scientist who has written a book about R (https://www.crcpress.com/Analyzing-Health-Data-in-R-for-SAS-) and authored courses on LinkedIn Learning in R (https://www.linkedin.com/learning/instructors/monika-wahi?accountId=2125562&u=2125562&success=true&authUUID=1EieAf6%2FSeCOA2OmSbpYMA%3D%3D).

    I also publish peer-reviewed papers where I use R for the analysis. And, by coincidence, I study institutionalized racism and sexism – and by study, I mean quantitative and qualitative research methods. I’m an epidemiologist. Here’s a recent paper that looks at institutionalized racism in US nursing: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1043659618766225

    What fascinates me most about this back and forth on this blog post with discussion is that 1) it’s (apparently) only men discussing it, and 2) Miles & George ACCURATELY counter Matloff with the correct scientific reasons for the phenomenon he observed (e.g., no women being asked to speak at an R conference, and this resulting in controversy even when remedied). They also cite the evidence-based responses that should take place if Matloff wants to actually involve more women as leaders in R and speakers at conferences. I’m very impressed with how well Miles & George respond. Without citing the research, they speak as if they have read it.

    I’m also impressed at how Matloff seems to firmly push back on both Miles & George. This very logical person suddenly uses many emojis in his response, and is distracted away from logic. Imagine what *I* get when I make these points to the Matloffs of the world!

    While I appreciate the efforts of Matloff to involve women in R, I agree with Miles & George, who have clearly had a more nuanced experience of institutionalized sexism in the workplace. Perhaps Matloff just did not see in his life what Miles & George see. But the fact that Matloff – presumably a very logical thinker – would push back so hard on these facts is disappointing to me. If Matloff really wants to be an ally, he needs to start opening his mind to other ideas.

    For example, in the original post, Matloff complains about the tweets, saying they are unfair. I did not look at the tweets, but Miles did, and he found what I suspected – the tweets were critical, but not out-of-bounds. It’s just that the people reading the criticism wanted not to consider it, so they just labeled it “out-of-bounds”. This is very common.

    Matloff, please allow me to suggest this to you. This idea of a crime of “omission not commission” by leaving women speakers out of the R conferences needs to be rethought. Let me refer you to a paper about an intervention done at a college to try to reduce institutionalized sexism in STEM faculty. By reading about this evidence-based intervention, you might begin to see the difficultly we have in dismantling sexism in R, even with terrific allies like you, Miles & George: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4310758/

    1. Thanks for the detailed comments. I’m afraid I don’t have time for a detailed reply, other than to reiterate that many participants in the Twitter discussion were highly unfair to R/Finance people. The latter worked very hard to put together a more inclusive conference one year later; in fact, I’d call it a model for others to follow. I think it is very telling that neither Miles (whom I like and respect, and who BTW did apologize), R Ladies or the R Consortium have ever acknowledged that in the slightest. Very shameful, I’d say. PS: I’m sorry, but who is George?

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