Is there Sexism in Computer Science?
I have worked in the field for over 25 years — and happen to be female. Is there sexism in computer science? My answer to that question is changing, but not as you may think.
Commercialism and the PC: Geek=Male
1984 was a significant year for me. I graduated from high school and entered college to pursue a degree in Computer Science. According to Steve Henn’s NPR article “When Women Stopped Coding”, which was shared by Girls Who Code, it was a bad year for the Computer Science industry in the United States. That was the year when the number of american women entering computer science took a nose-dive and never fully recovered.
Until reading this article, I have never questioned why. I have always worked in a male-dominated field. I just took it as “the way things were.” According to the article, it was the marketing of video games/home computers to boys and lack of female technologists on TV or film that may have taught girls that computers were not meant for them. Looking back, I think this assessment might be correct.
Galaga => Zork => BASIC
As a teenager, my favorite pastime was dropping quarters into Pac-Man, Moon Patrol, Centipede, Donkey Kong, and Galaga. My wise parents fed the fascination by sending me to a BASIC programming for kids class at the local Community College and bought me an Atari 400 home computer. I even created my own Zork-like adventure game. I loved being the controller of my own universe on a computer. Thanks to the support of my awesome parents, I came to know what I wanted to be when I grew up. There was no incompatibility between my new aspirations and being female.
B.S. in C.S.
Acquiring a Computer Science degree for anyone is challenging. My faith, family and friends helped me make it through. In my small school there were about one hundred and fifty students who entered the computer science program my first year. Most thought it was simply a video game major and were discouraged by the required higher-level mathematics. Only twelve of us graduated four years later. Three were women. There were female professors in the Computer Science and Math Departments, so being female did not seem rare.
The Bringing Home the Bacon Equation
I have had ten employers in my career. Some great, others not so much. Being female has helped me in a field which requires good multitasking and the ability to empathize with customers and Quality Assurance. On the whole I have had a rich and fulfilling career as a Software Developer where I get to invent new and better solutions in Aerospace, Logistics, Healthcare, Defense, IVR, and Intelligence. I even had a two year stint in Toulouse, France where there were many female software developers. I now facilitate development of Mobile Software Applications for Modus Create Inc. I experienced no blatant examples of sexual discrimination. Nobody asked me to fetch them coffee or would look for me as the de-facto note taker in a meeting. I have relished moments where I surprised others with my forthrightness, confidence or intelligence. I earned a reputation of “Whatever is on Mary Ellen’s mind, is on Mary Ellen’s mouth” which has worked both for and against me. In the late 80’s I worked for an aerospace company with the typical old-boys network. However, I felt more engineering discrimination than sexual discrimination. At that time I worked with many mechanical, aeronautical and electrical engineers — I was looked down upon as a “software-type”. Guess who was able to easily find another employer during massive lay-offs? The one who had skills transferrable to any industry, me!
Me a Victim? No Way! But then again…
Before I read the article posted on Girls Who Code, if you had asked me if I was a victim of sexual discrimination I would have said “Absolutely not!” On the other hand, I have to face the fact that I am a rarity. I have had several women colleagues, but few were software developers and majority of those were born outside the U.S. However, it is not just me that is a victim, all of Computer Science and our society is the victim.
We have lost a generation or more of possible Computer Scientists whose contributions might have facilitated new discoveries and advancements in technology. Our male-dominated tech culture might have been more balanced than it is today. Would our workplaces over the last 20 years been more family friendly or video games more inclusive? Questions tell us more than answers will.
Now is the part of the blog where you, the reader, may expect me to proclaim a game-changing strategy on how to turn things around. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by preaching, blaming, politicising or promoting some grand scheme. For parents I would only recommend that you talk to your children. My husband Patrick (a dedicated middle school science teacher) and I try to impact our own little world. We have great dinner conversations with our kids (1 boy 2 girls) about STEM — Science Technology Engineering and Math. You don’t have to be a geek like me or a science teacher like Pat. A simple web search on a phone can bring answers right to the dinner table. Those answers may lead to other questions. Before you know it, a full fledge conversation occurs — that’s how we turn things around.
Here I am, where are the rest of us?
Where ARE my sister coders? Are some, like me, out there spinning plates between job, home, spouse, and children — getting giddy at refactoring ugly to elegant? Are others just starting out? Have they followed the traditional path, via university, or through a fast-track/career-switching path? Are you one of them? However we arrived, I am glad we are here — and, even if few, are not alone. #WhereAreMySisterCoders