What Women Want

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Any one of us only knows those in a small slice of this environment. How else? We can’t spend all day and all night reading weblogs. That way lies madness.

As an example of knowing only a small selection of the voices, I was only recently made aware of the strong community of women academics in computing, engineering, and other sciences. Among these are Rants of a Feminist Engineer, who introduced many of the webloggers; FemaleCSGradStudent, who writes about the bubble bursting when realizing what it means to be a woman in the field:

My own bubble burst at the age of 26. It was the year I came to graduate school. Until then, I knew that there weren’t that many women in engineering and computer science, but I chalked it up to, “Well, we’re just catching up after the feminist revolution. It’s only been…50 years.” Despite evidence from the other fields that had been male dominated were now more equal, like family medicine, pyschology, and biology, I held firmly to that idea. I had been the only girl in my electrical engineering class. The only woman in my product group. One of four women on the plane to San Jose for the Embedded Systems Conference. But everyone had always been nice and supportive. I had friends and mentors. I had the support structure I needed to be successful. I worked in fun programs for girls in science to do my part to boost the numbers, to give back. The gender disparity hadn’t really punched me in the face yet. Not like it has in graduate school. Again. and again.

My hope for now is that I can return to a place where those support structures exist. Where the diverse contributions of many are appreciated, and folks are generally just nice.

Am I a woman scientist? who writes on the higher bar for women’s paper submissions, and See Jane Compute, who was recently interviewed. Among the questions and answers was the following:

Q4. You blog a lot about women’s experiences in an academic computing environment. How do you think those experiences are similar or different from women in other science/engineering/medicine disclines? Or even non-science fields like law or business?

Great question! I imagine that there are universal threads that run through the experiences of strong women in any field, whether it’s a more gender-equitable field like law or medicine or a field like CS or engineering that’s still struggling to achieve anywhere near respectable gender numbers. Things like not being listened to, or stereotyped because of the way one dresses or speaks, or not given a chance because “you’ll just run off and have babies”–these are universal parts of the experience of being a woman in our society. I think what makes the computing fields different, and from what I understand some of the “less enlightened” engineering and science fields (electrical engineering, physics), is the whole “macho culture”. Women are still made to feel like they just don’t belong in these fields, whether it’s because of the media images (the antisocial hacker, the almost total absence of women and their contributions in discussions of technical innovations and innovators) or the things we emphasize in the CS classroom and lab (bogging our students down in details and syntax, rather than focusing on the benefits and applications of computing) or even what we focus on to praise (“my code is faster/bigger/better than yours”). And it’s not just women–men who don’t fit the mold experience feelings of not belonging, too, although to a lesser extent. And that’s unhealthy for everyone. What I try to do through my blog is expose this culture, in all its unhealthiness, as a way of adding to the dialogue (hopefully) of how we can start to change this. I want to highlight, through my own experiences, why we should all be invested in changing the computing culture to something way more inclusive than it is now.

The academic and the applied in any field don’t always share the same concerns, or even the same understandings. However, as I read through these women’s posts, I realized that there is something we all share that reaches across the ivy: we’re women in fields where being such adds an extra element of challenge.

I’ve read in the last week, in daunting frequency, that the only reason women aren’t in computing is that we don’t want to be; that we women aren’t interested in computing, or engineering, or any other field where men are overrepresented (as one woman wrote).


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