Irene Y. Zhang

The Superhero Network - A Case for Expertise in CS Sexism and Harassment

I spent the bulk of last week doing two types of service that I don’t necessarily enjoy but feel is important: reviewing SOSP papers and dealing with harassment. As an increasingly senior woman in the systems community, I get called on regularly to do both. When I review for SOSP, I lend my expertise to the community by critiquing papers aiming to solve a variety of problems in systems. I’m an expert because I have tried to solve these problems myself, so I understand them and the solution space. This is the big benefit of submitting to SOSP: you get a panel of experts that work on the same problems to look at your research and let you know what is working and what isn’t, which hopefully you can then implement to improve your research. I end up offering the same advice so much that I recently wrote a blog post on it.

In contrast to SOSP reviewing, I made this HotCRP reviewer expertise metric for D&I/coping with harassment:

  1. No Familiarly: Not aware that the problem exists. Most people fall into this category, including myself, barring the few times that I experienced harassment myself.

  2. Some familiarity: Aware of the problem but do not necessarily think it’s solvable or worth solving. Alternatively, may be aware of the problem and why it’s important but do not having any ideas on how to solve it.

  3. Knowledgeable: Has some expertise on the problem and is able to propose solutions.

  4. Expert: Has a deep understanding of the problem from working on it. Has implemented some previous solutions and understands what works and doesn’t.

I would rank myself between a 1 and 2 on this scale and if I were to assemble an “SOSP PC” for D&I, I would absolutely not include myself! Worse, when I work on D&I efforts, I am a 1.5 trying to convince a bunch of other people that are a between 0-1 on this scale!!

Recently, I have tried to increase my expertise by educating myself about harassment in the academic community. Unfortunately, there is limited related work and I would call most of the papers “measurement papers” that analyze the problem but do not propose solutions. Worse, there’s almost no research on solutions (for CS) that have been tested, evaluated and work. I also cannot find any experts to advise me (or they are all too busy). Maybe real experts do not even exist because no one has made it their work to fight, and especially prevent, harassment in the CS community. As a community, we are reactionary: we get together and talk about it when specific incidents happen but have not implemented prevention.

Let me very clear: Harassment of all forms (sexual, sexism, racism, bullying) exists in the CS community. It is pervasive and “cancelling” a few problematic members of the community will not fix it. We must focus on prevention, instead of intervention, because once someone has had a bad experience, it is already too late. While the ACM CARES committees and conference diversity chairs are a step in the right direction, none of the people in these roles are experts either. I was asked to be on the SIGOPS CARES committee and I certainly am not.

The Superhero network aims to fix that. I want to gather and train a group of people to be experts in coping with and fighting harassment. We will do research, read the literature, share experiences and mentor each other. We will put together references and recommendations for conferences and help others that are looking to help. And hopefully, together we will move the needle on this problem that desperately needs attention.