JAWS Diary: Kim's Impressions, Perceptions, and Major Enjoyment

by Kim Allen

I love conferences. I'm not shy about this fact. Even when I was a physics grad student, I actually enjoyed going to the mega-physics meeting every year-- which was inevitably held in some god-awful place like (well, I'll be careful here)-- just because I love meeting other people who are excited about their work. I love going to a new place, not just the same old office, to share ideas and create ideas and just generally remember why I am doing what I am doing.

So naturally I was thrilled to be invited to attend JAWS. Not only will I get to meet a whole new group of people who are doing something I don't even know that much about-- these people will all be bright, accomplished women, and we'll be meeting in the fall-color-bespeckled mountains of Utah!!

I was not disappointed. JAWS was a blast. Smart women of all ages, political stripes, and journalistic career paths coming together to talk about progress, solutions, jobs, and life.

The Highlights

Janis has done such an excellent job outlining and commenting on many of the sessions we attended, I'll stick to what I perceived as the highlights for me.

Anita Borg's talk. As a physicist, I have long known that technology (and indeed, science/engineering itself) is not gender-neutral, but Anita Borg makes this point more eloquently than I have heard anyone make it. Her down-to-earth challenge for nonscientists, and particularly nonscientific women, to speak their opinions about technology is desperately needed in our techno-infatuated world. Engineering does not have to be a priesthood; it is that way partly because we allow it to be so. I was quite inspired by Borg's analysis, action plan, and proposed solutions to getting women involved in technological design. If we ignore "geeky tech stuff" as a male domain, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

Martha Farnsworth Riche's talk. Riche is a demographer. She actually has all the numbers behind that ubiquitous phrase we're all sick of, "the aging population." Yeah, yeah, yeah, so the Baby Boomers are feeling their years. As usual, they're dragging the rest of the world into their personal hang-ups, right? Well, not quite. This time, there's no crying Wolf. Worldwide, people really are becoming older on average. There's no mystery, because all of the people who will be "old" in 50 years have already been born, and many of them are having their kids now, or have already had them.

Riche uses a vivid image: "from pyramids to pillars." This refers to the age structure of the population. Instead of the usual pyramid structure we imagine, with many children and young people, fewer middle-aged people, and even fewer elderly people, we are seeing a shift to a pillar, in which there are roughly equal numbers of people at all ages.

The first thing everyone thinks of is Social Security and health care spending and other issues related to how we will pay to support all these "old people." But in reality, these are not the primary concerns. Because people stay healthier longer, "the aging of America" is not about more and more elderly people who need support-- it's about having an extra 20 years in the middle of your career that you hadn't really thought about having before.

This is vitally important. You don't need to retire at 60, 65, or even 70. You can start a whole new career at age 45, and still advance to the top of it. You can have your kids, then get your PhD, and still have decades of good health ahead of you to pursue that dream research project. Suddenly the possibilities are wide open. The only things holding people back are their own preconceptions about how to structure their lives and the inertia of the educational and corporate institutions they will work at. (These are big problems, of course, but as soon as we recognize them, we can get to work fixing them).

Women have always been more flexible about their career paths than men. We had to because of child-rearing. Riche's speculation, and I concur, is that women will benefit from the extra 20 years, not just in terms of financial gain, but in terms of personal fulfillment. "The aging population" is a liberating phenomenon for women.

I'm not so sure about men. They tend to have a more rigid gender role, and tend to think less creatively about how to advance in their careers or change careers. They tend to define themselves through their work, and may have trouble adjusting to an extra 20 years. I hope they can take a cue from women, and accept a more nonlinear path through their adult lives.

One thing Riche didn't address occurred to me later. If the population comes to resemble a pillar, then a smaller percentage of the population will be in the "risk-taking, entrepreneurial," young years at any given time. We'll have fewer 20-somethings compared to 40-somethings and 60-somethings than we do now. It seems natural that such a state will lead to slower economic growth and more conservative politics. The dampening of the Internet-driven growth economy may come about quite naturally as more people move into their "settled" years in a few decades. I'm certainly not relishing this! But demographics are hard to argue with. Remember, you heard it here first.

As you can tell, I love this sort of stuff. Riche really got my future-thinking going, and I suspect her ideas will churn in my mind for some time longer as I sort through their implications.

Meeting so many inspirational women. Besides the organized talks and discussion sessions, I had great fun just grabbing people on the walkway and chatting for 5 minutes about what they do, what I do, and what we are planning for the future. The cross-fertilization at conferences is what draws me to them. Already I have looked up the websites of several women I met, read material I picked up at the JAWS info tables, and formulated some ideas for new essays on our own 3rd WWWave site (you know, the one you're reading right now). So thanks again to JAWS for inviting us, and we hope to attend again next year in Seattle!

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Copyright Kim Allen 1999.