Friday, March 26, 2010

Computer Science and Institutional Sexism

My senior thesis was a rather pathetic grasping towards a concept that never ended up fully coalescing over the course of my final year at school. What I wanted to write and what I was writing were so completely different that I gave up trying to reconcile the two.

To make it clear: I'm very bitter about my actions during this period and am frustrated at my pure, unadulterated failure to produce something worthwhile.

The man who mentored me was a typical thesis adviser; Distant, busy, and overawing. Credited, he tried to steer me out of my directionless flailing, but the suggestions only heightened my stubbornness (Woo. I love it when my Contrariness kicks in.) and left me scrounging for data and digging through research barely related to my desired thesis. The paper ended up being a short, thinly-veiled rant about my educational experience.

As an example of how vague I ended up being was how dealt with the question, "Well, WHY do we need more women?" I had a proto-answer, but it wasn't clear, firm, or easy to articulate. Of course now, when it no longer matters for my thesis, I've got an uncomplicated answer that I firmly believe in. We need more women because men don't have a monopoly on good ideas. Every individual able to contribute means a bigger pool of good ideas that might solve problems in ways that someone else might never think of. The top 1% of a larger group is a larger pool of talent to draw from. With the future in the hands of technologists, we need all the pool we can get.

That I could not answer that question says a lot about how hard I worked when I was writing my thesis. The results of my flailing were that I had no thoughts on curricular improvement, nothing to show for my research except an ambiguous hand-waving solution of 'teacher reeducation' (to what purpose I could not say) and the goal of further data acquisition. Not my finest hour. I admit that I was lazy - pure and simple - and there was so much more I could have done.

Coulda-woulda-shouldas aside, I have been continuing my research in a haphazard fashion since I graduated. I can only imagine that this preoccupation is an attempt to salve my bruised ego by rectifying a failure, if only in my own understanding of the topic.

My original concept of my thesis was this:
"Women - as a group - have such a goddamned hard time forcing themselves over the learning curve because the theory and books and logic for most institutionally taught CS were written for men, by men."

Self-indulgent, pretty narrow, and not precisely true. With the proper background information and framework around it, it would be a fascinating thing to study in and of itself, but I had neither background information nor framework to even contemplate a study. Before, my understanding of this topic was just some nebulous 'wait- I think... er-' and there was no supporting evidence. I did find papers about the physical and mental differences between genders, some interesting research about spatial vs. relational learning, and gender differences in how students connect to material, but I had no idea how to use the information in them to clarify my point.

My thesis was rooted in the disconnect that I experienced in what I wanted out of my CS degree and what was available to me, similar to how the thesis I wanted was not the thesis I wrote. Because of my lack of knowledge, I conflated my disconnect with the constant sexism I experienced.

I would like to believe that attributing my frustration with the structure of CS to gender is understandable considering that, currently, CS curriculum is directly related to CS culture, which is festooned in sexist trappings. However, curriculum can be separated from culture on a structural level, if not an individual level, so the tendrils of sexism can be severed, with time and effort, once they're identified. A sexist culture can be hard to change, but modifying the method of transmission can make it equally hard to perpetuate.

I've been to Grace Hopper all of once, and at the conference I don't remember hearing the world sexism. It is very possible that the conference did tackle this topic over and over again and that I was still self-absorbed enough to ignore mentions of sexism and feminism 'cause they were scary *isms. I do remember, however, that I was very focused on my thesis at the time and I went to every panel/discussion/lecture even remotely related to how to improve CS so that women were more comfortable there. No mention of feminists and the substantial work done to chart and define sexism.

Instead, we talked about how rough it was to be part of a work community because we're disrespected, how important it was to educate girls early to show that science was cool, and what kind of effort we put forth to support women who don't leak from the pipeline. Every single inspirational story had a woman kicking ass and taking names and conquering a male field because she was the BEST at what she did. I am in awe of the sheer tenacity and obstinacy it took for every single one of the panelists or keynote speakers to become the amazing women they are today.

Sexism, if it was mentioned at all, was never discussed but obliquely even though every topic was related. Since I'm oblivious to reality, I never picked up on it. (I am pretty oblivious most of the time.)

Women working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) deal with carving out a space and getting results through action. Every counter-move is a practical, algorithmic approach to systematically subverting sexism. Without referencing feminism, however, there is a significant lack of shared definitions except for the above-linked 'pipeline'. Since there is such a focus on the 'How to Fix' - we are scientists and engineers, after all, and sometimes the stereotypes have the ring of truth - there is very little emphasis on 'How to Talk About It'. It's hard to come up with feminist language without the benefit of a feminist vocabulary.

All I had was the everyday, ongoing, low-grade, and omnipresent enemy that I had no name for, while the people on the other side of campus were talking about *isms and the history of *isms and how they're viewed today. Every thought I had that touched upon sexism was along the lines of, 'My goodness, I'm the only girl in my class and my teacher is surprised and gratified that I'm not asking him to do my homework for me'. Or, 'we lost one of the three freshman girls this year'. There were no words for this, only an unease that had no outlet other than to prove that I can do it just as well as the boys can.

I had to wrestle with how little I cared about my own degree, bogged down by being financially unable to justify a switch out and no longer having a passion for the field. I wish I could say that my fire was never smothered, but it was. Thoroughly and without conscious malice.

I even envied some of the foreign students in a passive, frustrated fashion. English was their second language and if something was lost in the translation it wasn't a fault of their gender, but merely that they hadn't learned that vocabulary word yet. My failures were blamed on being female; my successes were blamed on being a fluke of my gender. When I was not feminine, I was intelligent.

There was no crossover between the floofy feminism of Women's Studies - the only view I had of Women's Studies and feminism. Convenient - and the sharp discrimination that I had to deal with on a class-by-class basis. It lurked, silently underneath the curricula and the assumption that I would treat the discipline how it was meant to be treated according to the culture established by a very small slice of tinkerer-type men. I spent my share of 3am lab nights in laughing camaraderie, always with the underlying knowledge that it was /3am/ and I was on campus and, at some point, I would need to walk home in the dark, alone.

There was no crossover. No way to explain even to people who knew about feminism that this is what was going on for me every single day that I walked into the classroom. I could share my experiences, but there were no words to describe why it was happening and no solutions but to tough it out. All the ones who made it have run the gauntlet before I did and I wanted to be one of those who made it.

In the end, I didn't quit. I gave up instead. I rejected both the box and the labels. One one side of campus, coasted through a theatre double-degree with great interest and little effort, acing most of my classes. On the other side of campus, I struggled to care in most of my CS classes and walked away with 'c's. Not as good as I could do, but about as much as I was willing to do. I began to deliberately remove myself from the path of opportunities. All of this and I am still fascinated with the concept of artificial intelligence, and natural language processing, and the zillions of ways that humans can interact with their machines. My passion, however, is now reserved for writing speculative fiction and following the development of new technology at a spectator's distance.

My boyfriend wanted to know why I went to school for something that I didn't want to do. The problem is that I did want to do it. I just didn't want to do it their way. Everything got complicated in ways that I did not know how to deal with, both because of my immaturity and the complete left-fieldness of such blatant sexism to someone oblivious like me. This starts to sound like an excuse. In a way it is an excuse, because I could be pursuing my computer-related interests right now and I am not. I also stopped caring about them years ago and once you stop caring it is hard to start again.

My conversations about sexism until this point have been swapping incidents like vets swap war stories. Beyond the stories, however, we just kind of look at each other and tentatively suggest that we can form organizations. Then we do social things, enjoy being women in CS, and generally try and give ourselves a culture to replace the one giving us so much shit. That only works so far, I'm afraid, and I want more permanent solutions that address both the structure and the culture of CS.

My ultimate goal is to find a way to educate both male and female CS students early about the language of feminism and how it can - in very practical ways - benefit everyone learning and studying one of my favorite topics, computers and technology. Being able to tell a young man, "do not disrespect me by insinuating that I'm only here because my gender was needed to fill a quota," and having him understand what I am talking about would have made my college years so much more pleasant. Education is key, in both sexism and feminism, and dispelling damaging inaccuracies benefits men just as much as it benefits women.

This isn't so much about dismantling the pervasive sexism (though it could help), as much as it is me desperately wishing that I had known and been exposed to this so that the wheels could have started turning earlier. I was a senior or a super-senior before I was ever sat down and educated about racism, and it still has taken me three or four years after finding the related subject of sexism to reach this point even though I was well-acquainted with the concept through experience. The earlier this formal introduction and education happens, the better. I want to take the work done in one field, Women's Studies, and apply it practically to the steps that STEM women are already taking.

If anyone knows how to design a class, I'd love to any advice you might be willing to give. :)

1 comment:

bella0109 said...

I just got done reading your article. There were times when I just felt like crying. I am currently a senior majoring in Computer Science, attending my final semester and just feel like giving up. I have had many head on collisions with sexism this semester, and it's only been 4 weeks. I've had many issues happen in the previous semesters, but I am now just so raw. Today I walked out of class crying because the teacher humiliated me in front of the entire class. Saying that I was lazy and that I have a poor work ethic after I put so much of my time into the assignment. Just because I finished the assignment before anyone else it automatically meant that I was not “thinking outside of the box.”
My work ethic is something I take pride in. So for him to belittle me in front of a class where the guys already make discriminating comments about women, it was disheartening. I only have 11 weeks left, but it feels like the end is never going to come. Also, my team for a web project was whispering about me when I was just sitting a couple seats away. I have never had to face anything like this before; being treated like I'm stupid just because I am a female. The guys admit it too. I wish there is something I can do. But anyways, I just wanted to let you know, that you are dead on with this topic, and it still applies to today. I'm living it.