Adve Fights to Offset Discrimination and Harassment in Her Research Community

9/21/2020 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

By working with colleagues to form SIGARCH CARES, Adve started a movement that altered the computer science research community and earned a distinguished service award.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Sarita Adve read the data regarding bias against women in the architecture research community. She heard stories of harassment, too. In a position of leadership through 2019 as the chair of SIGARCH – the ACM Special Interest Group (SIG) for computer architecture – this knowledge propelled Adve to push for change alongside her colleagues in the research community.

That process, which began about three years ago, took time, effort and an emotional toll.

Sarita Adve
Sarita Adve

There was one moment, especially, that resonated with her.

“For me, personally, I remember a discussion with colleagues trying to figure everything out,” said Adve, the Richard T. Cheng Professor in Computer Science at Illinois. “I asked – because we had been hearing a lot of these second and third hand harassment incidents – if anyone knew anything first-hand. One of the people said, ‘Well, buckle up, because I have been the target of such behavior.’

“That realization was a big kick in the stomach to me, personally.”

This combination of data and personal stories motivated Adve to work with the SIGARCH executive committee and other colleagues towards a solution, which became known as SIGARCH CARES.

An ACM SIGARCH subcommittee, CARES became defined as a “resource comprising of well-known and respected people in the architecture community who are approachable and willing to listen to and help people who experience or witness discrimination and harassment …”

The result has reverberated throughout the computing research community, as evidenced by the Computing Research Association (CRA) awarding the CARES movement the Distinguished Service Award. Today many special interest groups have their own CARES committees and an ACM level task force on diversity and inclusion has taken ownership of the CARES program.

“Such a committee may seem obvious in hindsight, but it took a lot of convincing and work on our part, as well as a lot of careful wording in our charter for approval from ACM,” Adve said. “We cannot file official reports for people who come forward with specific complaints. But we do have a group of respected people from the field who can provide a sounding board. We can help others who have been targets of such behavior.”

CARES was the culmination of a large number of activities in the architecture community that shone a light on bias and harassment.

Natalie Enright Jerger and Kim Hazelwood did a detailed study of the number of women winning awards or holding prestigious positions in the architecture research community. These statistics were clearly “abysmal.” For example, back in 2017:

  • There had been no woman program chair for the MICRO conference since 1991.
  • Across 20 conferences and 45 total keynote addresses in the previous five years, women gave just four keynote speeches.
  • Only one woman had ever won any of the major early-, mid-, and late-career awards in architecture.

Additionally, Adve’s own experience impacted her views. She recalled an email when she became ACM Fellow in 2010. A colleague from her undergraduate days congratulated her as the first woman of South Asian origin to win that recognition.

“I couldn’t believe it and thought it was completely ridiculous,” Adve recalled.

Then reading in 2017 that her mid-career award from 2008 was the only major architecture award given to a woman got her upset.

“I had been extremely fortunate to have had mentors who looked out for me,” Adve said. “Mark Hill, Janie Irwin, and Marc Snir, to name a few. It takes effort to put together successful award nominations, and I was lucky to have someone do it for me. To nurture confidence. And to provide advice when I faced difficulty. I had to pay it forward.”

Another flashpoint came when a 50-year celebration panel for the MICRO conference featured only men. Working with many in the community including Adve, Margaret Martoinosi, Computer Science professor at Princeton University, read a powerful public statement at the conference, raising a call to action.

Then senior researcher at Google, Katherine McKinley, published a piece on the Computer Architecture Today blog. Her post included details about her own experience with discrimination, along with other anonymous accounts of harassment and discrimination.

“CARES has definitely responded to this need and become a useful resource for our research communities,” Adve said. “We know people use it. It’s sad that people need it, but it’s uplifting to know that people now have such an outlet.”

“The recent blog pieces and activism have been painful for our community. But things are definitely changing. We have now heard many wonderful conference keynotes given by women. We have recognized amazing work by women through awards at all levels. And we have strong mentoring support for women. I believe the community has definitely woken up to this issue and has stepped forward to address it. That makes me feel proud.”

As SIGARCH chair, Adve also gave talks and advocated at the ACM level and at other Computer Science events to promote such activities in other ACM SIGs and organizations. Now many SIG communities have adopted CARES. Adve is particularly moved by the fact that women in those communities now have a resource from their own communities to address harassment and discrimination.

Yet, Adve feels this work is nowhere near done. Over the last year, she worked with colleagues to advocate with ACM to broaden the mandate for CARES to include support for other ethical violations. She is now looking to use her work with CARES to impact her Illinois CS community.

She is working with Nancy Amato, CS head, to set up a Illinois CS CARES committee to enable a welcoming and supportive community for all members of the department.

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This story was published September 21, 2020.