Maybe I used some artistic license for this title (thank you Weezer). Maybe there is even more truth behind the taboo than most realize. We don’t want to talk about discrimination. We don’t want to mention that instances of sexism exist. It just isn’t comfortable. Well, get ready to squirm, because I’m going to write about it… now.
I am a female in computer science. I help represent the twelve percent of us in my major at school. In an age where STEM fields encourage more women to join, I am in the field that is currently declining in representation of women. More of us are leaving rather than being retained, which is the source of the problem.
When I view my colleagues on a normal day, I think nothing of being part of a minority group. I’m one of the few thousand people who walk in and out of the programming lectures. No big deal. I tend to notice the sticky keyboards in the labs way more often than I notice that I am one of the few women sitting in them. There are those few instances of sexism I have encountered that would make being in the major difficult for anyone. Yes, those instances happen rarely, but they need to be mentioned. Drawing attention to them is more likely to make future instance go away. When my goal is to make the computer science community more welcoming for people of different backgrounds, a blog post like this becomes part of that mission.
I have dealt with direct and indirect moments of being singled out for my gender. Once a boy, who happened to be a tutor for one of my introductory programming classes, told me that perhaps I should consider a different major because he thought the work was too difficult for me. He said I didn’t have the right mind for computer science. On several occasions, while programming in the computer science labs, boys have, out of no where, offered to help me on my assignments; this was more of an excuse to get to know me because they thought I was cute. A simple, “Hi, how are you?” would have been preferred.
While most of my encounters of sexism have come from peers, on one occasion, I was taking a class in which I had struggled passing the tests. I went to the professor before I dropped the class to ask for advice about how I could better prepare for retaking the class. He told me I needed to get a private tutor and study the prerequisites for the class material better. While this story sounds just, my problem was that I was more than prepared for the class. I had taken classes that reached beyond the prerequisites. Curious. It wasn’t until then that I realized my problem. I was too intimidated by the professor to ask for help. I had tried going to his office hours, only to feel too scared to return. Structurally, the class felt too “masculine” for me and I was scared of the professor and his teaching style.
The story of the tutor who told me to change my major can be countered by the story of my manager last summer, who announced in front of the group for which I presented my intern project that I was an asset to the team because I thought of solutions to problems differently than most. For every boy who tried to pick me up as the damsel in distress in the computer labs, there were boys who sat next to me and asked me to help them. For every teacher who intimidated me, there was a teacher who encouraged me to raise my hand in class by telling me I had good questions and that the only way I was going to learn the material is if I challenged it head on.
The good stories need to be acknowledged here, too. I’m not pointing fingers or naming names. I’m describing the landscape as I see it. Take it for what you will.