CompSci critique


A while ago, due to an attack of unbridled masochism, I went back to university to pursue a degree in computer science. That field is male-dominated, and the demographics at school were depressing; for every woman, there were eight or ten men. I knew that I was fighting an uphill battle, and was afraid that I would be viewed as a gender first and a talented programmer second. Many of the guys were welcoming and open-minded, but some bought gender stereotypes at wholesale prices.

I briefly dated someone in the program; like me, he was older than most of our classmates. We got along quite well, but it quickly became apparent that I didn’t want to build a relationship with him. There were a host of reasons, but the most disturbing was the fact that on more than one occasion, when I asked (and then told) him to stop doing something I didn’t enjoy while we were fooling around, he continued doing it. I told him that I thought this was offensive, and he showed no remorse; at one point, his response was, “Let me do my thing.” I started to suspect that he didn’t respect my wishes and would not be a good partner, and I broke it off.

Somewhat later, I received an e-mail that was full of invective. That was fine; it’s never fun to be dumped. However, he made sure to tell me that I’d only shown interest in him so that he would help me with my homework. I’d thought that we were sharing ideas and working together, but apparently I was just using my womanly wiles to get through my classes. I never knew that I was an academic whore; he made sure to inform me.

A few months after that, someone I considered a close friend suggested that I was selected to do independent projects and assist with school programs because I was “a girl, and they’re desperate to keep [me] around to fill quotas,” rather than because I took the time to show interest and ask my professors about available opportunities in the department.

Recently, a new acquaintance heard about my experience writing iPhone applications and immediately offered me a job. I was excited until he continued talking: “We’re writing a fashion application and the whole department is male. We really need a woman on the team.”

These experiences have really made me feel comfortable about my career choices. Are my future coworkers going to share these opinions? Am I an intelligent software engineer who just happens to be female, or am I a woman who (somehow, against all odds!) possesses some meagre programming abilities?

Oh well, #MFIF.

S., Toronto, ON


33 Responses to “CompSci critique”

  1. Flutterby Says:

    There are statistics out there that show how, in several countries, the tech industry is balanced among men and women, and there are places where it’s even a female-dominated field.

    Can’t find the stats right now, but I’ll come back and post some links if I do dig them up.

    • Flutterby Says:

      Whoops, forgot my point: you could shove that info down their sexist bullshit-spewing throats.

    • Trix Says:

      Um, I would be VERY INTERESTED to see these statistics, because my experience of working in three different countries is that women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are VERY MUCH the minority.

      I’m a systems administrator, not a programmer, and there are even fewer of us. I’ve not had any hassle from co-workers, but that’s because I won’t work with fuckheads.

      I definitely would suggest for a programmer to get into female-friendly opensource projects, like Drupal or Dreamwidth, so as to at least feel you’re not the only female out there.

    • Trix Says:

      Oh, and regarding these places, I’d be very wary about how they’re categorising technology work. I’m afraid I wouldn’t consider reading a script in a call centre to be any such thing.

  2. Maria Says:

    There are work places out there where this attitude continues but there are also many workplaces in software development where you will be respected for your work. I’m a CS and know from experience.
    Still this is the attitude that you will need to fight for most of the time while in IT.

  3. pascal Says:

    In our CS department, a lot of students are very liberally adjusting their genitals in public, because the they think it’s practically impossible a woman could see them. The atmosphere is so boy’s-club-ish, the 2% female students usually don’t use the same rooms anymore but study elsewhere, a negative reinforcement loop that will only end in more flatulence.

  4. Salma Says:

    I’ve been working as a s/w engineer and consultant in automation manufacturing for 15 years and found that yes there is prejudice but it’s not the norm. The people I work with (99% male) accept me and respect my work.

    In my experience any negative responses and sexist comments quickly disappear once I’ve proven my competence.

    I believe that you need to develop a thick skin but it’s worth it so that you can have the career you want. And of course if we stick with it someday maybe it won’t be such a male dominated field.

    • JVLN Says:

      Wow. You’re using your particular experience(tm) to completely dismiss and belittle someone else’s lived experience. Do your male colleagues have to “prove their competence” in order for negative responses and sexist comments to cease? WHY NOT?

      That whole statement about you ‘proving your competence’ ignores the underlying problem that those negative, sexist attitudes exist in the first place – growing a thicker skin to become ‘just one of the guys’ is not going to do a damn thing to solve the problem.

      • Salma Says:

        I’d be sorry if my comment came across as dismissive or unsupportive. That was definitely not my intention.

        The OP ended her post questioning her career choice. There are many reasons for changing careers but I feel that a sexist culture should not be one. So I posted my experience(tm) to let her know that she’s not alone and to offer encouragement.

        I’m an emotional person but getting mad at sexist comments would only perpetuate the myth that women aren’t suited to such work. Instead I’ve found that by forcing myself to stay calm I can address negativity rationally and explain why such behaviour is unacceptable. It’s got nothing to do with being “one of they guys”. It’s simply one way to change the current climate in technology fields. Yes it’s my way but I didn’t realize I couldn’t offer opinions on this site.

        Women are a minority in this field and I believe that by refusing to accept this as the norm I AM doing something to solve the problem. Through my work I’m showing that women are equally capable of doing technical jobs. Ok so it’s not a giant statement or solving the whole problem but it’s a contribution.

  5. Marie Says:

    Don let them ruin this! If you’re still at Uni, can’t you start a support group for the women and feminsts who do exist?

  6. Pau Says:

    Don’t let them make you unsure of your career choices. Even though is a male-predominant field you will find not all of them are so sexist and there are a lot of women out there also. I recommend the anita borg mailing list, it is great to find support in those difficult times when you regret chosing this career.
    Hold on there!

  7. Steph Says:

    Horray, another women in comp sci in Toronto! 😀

    I haven’t had any sexist experiences yet in my field, either in school or the workplace. I wasn’t hired because I was a woman, and I don’t feel like I’m being treated differently because I’m a woman. The crap I do get is from people outside the field. Hopefully what you’ve experienced isn’t the norm, and you’ll be free of sexism in the workplace. You’re definitely a software engineer who just happens to be a woman.

  8. J Says:

    My mother is a computer programmer, and she’s had to deal with morons too. When she was in college in an advanced math class, the teacher asked a question and called on her. Before she could answer, he said, “You don’t really like math, do you, [her name]?” Also, my mom will help someone, but they’ll ignore her or refuse her help. This isn’t always sexist necessarily, because sometimes people just refuse to learn new things or they just want her to do all the work. But one time, she was helping a mail clerk (or something like that), and he ignored her and thought he knew more than her. Also, she never gets invited some computer science retreat thingy they have…but she attributes to that to her not being social and friendly.

  9. j Says:

    as a fellow software engineer, i won’t say it’s not a problem. however, i’ve found pretty much any people whose expertise i respect, pretty quickly catch on to the fact i know my shit. i find i have more of a problem with the people that aren’t technically competent and are trying to overcompensate.

    as for the the “using your womanly wiles” to get through your classes, this always pisses me off. there were definitely a couple girls like that in my program (arguably the best in the us), but there were also a couple guys that guy by because their frat brothers carried them. actually, i even knew a girl that did her boyfriend’s homework. so, the fact you’re a girl makes you more likely to be coasting than anyone else.

    the one thing that’s great about a cs environment, you can get away with a slightly less socially appropriate response. i was always pretty abrupt with people that were not acknowledging my abilities and contributions. i many have once told someone “your dick doesn’t write your code”…

    • Maria Says:

      “so, the fact you’re a girl makes you more likely to be coasting than anyone else.”
      Ok that’s just reverse truth and sexist.
      Women in academia need higher scores to get the same recognition as men. They need more publications than men to get into academic positions etc. To become a professor a woman needs on average a third more than her male competitor to get the position.

      Affirmative action in Academia, (and not just science fields) is something like:
      — ok I have a female applicant and I have triple checked she is more qualified than all the male applicants so I probably should, to be “politically correct”, consider her first, despite her being a female and thus not a possible genius material. Although it is of course not fair against the guys that are genuinely applying and their work is probably a lot more innovative and accurate although I couldn’t tell that from their work even when I was really trying to find evidence of this. —

      • j Says:

        sorry, i meant to say that “the fact you’re a girl makes you NO more likely to be coasting”, i just mistyped. i totally agree with you.

      • jj Says:

        As a woman in academia, I can’t emphasize enough how far from this comment my experience has been. The professors in my male dominated field have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that I was being included and encouraged. The academic hiring process has, in many cases, only sought female candidates – not even considering male candidates. Martyr syndrome much?

      • Maria Says:

        Dear jj
        Although I did make my comments a bit provocative they are still based on research rather than personal experience. Simply google “tenure women”
        first one up is ‘How the Tenure Track Discriminates Against Women’, By Joan C. Williams,
        Then ‘Women Without Tenure’, By Cathy Ann Trower,

        “The academic hiring process has, in many cases, only sought female candidates – not even considering male candidates.” That is blatant discrimination and I hope you objected!

    • cv Says:

      “Your dick doesn’t write your code” is awesome. You are my hero!

      • Pavlov's Cat Says:

        We need more catchy lines like that. I frequently meet the assumption that girls can’t do maths. I tell my students that if they’re doing maths with their penis, ten out of ten for creativity but they’re probably doing it wrong. It seems to get the point across.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Women just CAN’T program.
    Programming needs logic, and women don’t have ANY.

  11. Krischan Says:

    My wife does not have any problems in CS. Although I had to finish one of her C-assignments (beeing in CS myself) in the first semester, she has gotten along fine on her own in the business world for five years 😉

    So, in short: no, you mostly won’t have problems. And if you will have, it won’t be due to the fact of being in CS. Idiots exist everywhere.

  12. Amanda Says:

    I feel for you 😦 When I was in sixth grade, I was brought to a seminar with my parents where a university pretty much offered me a scholarship — because they needed girls. And in 9th grade, my high school offered a computer repair elective. I was the only girl and happened to get paired immediately with a jerk who thought I was only good enough to hand him tools. I dropped the class, but all of the other guys (including the teacher) tried to get me to come back. I wouldn’t, because I liked free time better at that point.

    Some people are just jerks 😛

  13. Miranda Says:

    My husband works in CS and is very aware of gender differentials (partly due to my prompting perhaps…) – we are English but live in California and he has definitely noticed that there are far more women working in the field here than in the UK. His company recently fired someone for making sexist comments regarding a woman heading up a meeting, and the guy in question was literally walked off the premises. So though I think there are still a lot of issues I also believe things are changing, and so long as you look for the right employer you will be ok. Although I do not work in CS myself I have three small daughters so am personally invested in fostering equal opportunities for whatever they end up deciding to do!

  14. Katherine Says:

    A resource for the OP and others like her:

  15. cv Says:

    As a mechanical engineer, I’ve gone through the same crap. Dated a boy in my grade, and when we broke up, he told me I was only using him to get through freshman year.

    The fun thing about engineering is that it gets exponentially harder with each year. Since this guy was known for being the smart one, I was kicked out of the study group I had worked with my first year. After all, bros before hos and all that. So I was stuck studying thermo, statics, statistics and differential equations without anyone to bounce ideas on.

    Thermodynamics had notoriously tough exams, and the fact that they were open book didn’t help raise the average. My ex didn’t have a textbook, since there was a shortage that year. He used copied charts instead.

    The day we got our last exams back before the final, I received my 3rd A, along with a note from the professor that said “Fantastic job this semester! Don’t worry about taking the final, you already aced this class!”

    That afternoon I heard my ex talk about studying for the final exam, and I went over and offered him my textbook for the final, since I didn’t need it. I walked away with my head held up high as I heard someone say, “What a bitch.” With that I just walked a little bit taller.

    People give you shit in this field because they are assholes. I have no doubt in your mind that you are a fantastic programmer. The smarter and more intimidating you are in this field, the more people will try to knock you down. Keep kicking ass, and just take each negative comment as a notification that you are doing well.

    Also, any time you get stressed out, remember, we’re doing this for the girls that come after us. For each intelligent girl there is, we make all these insults hold less salt. Keep up the good work!

  16. Pavlov's Cat Says:

    The quotas thing was partly what pushed me out of my chosen field. I hated that however much I achieved, people would always be able to turn around and tell me that I got where I did because of ‘positive discrimination’ and not on talent. They, and I, didn’t understand that where action is taken to correct an imbalance, it doesn’t mean untalented people get through, it means that talented people who would otherwise have been overlooked get through. People who snipe about quotas are generally making the assumption that there isn’t a pool of talented women out there in the first place. I know that now and I do wonder if I should have made the choice I did, but I’m very happy where I am now.

    You already know this career choice isn’t going to be a picnic, and I sympathise with your uncertainty. Ultimately, if there’s enough you love about it, you’ll get through. Try to shut out anything that tells you what you ‘ought to do’, and go for what’s going to make you happy. And don’t feel it’s a choice you can never change.

  17. Meg Says:

    I am a new computer science major, and fortunately I have been blessed enough so far to work with students and professors who don’t even think twice about the fact that I’m female. Whereas other men may have a problem with it, the two male classmates I sat with every day collaborated with me as an equal and asked me for help just as often as I asked them. However, I fear that when I actually enter the field, people will not be so considerate. I may very well have some stories of my own to share in a few years…

  18. Ron Maxwell Says:

    Ada Lovelace
    Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper
    Joanna Hoffman
    Sandra “Sandy” Lerne
    Sophie Vandebroek

    The List goes on.

    Tell those sexist non-comp-oops to have a coke and a smile and STFU!

  19. Anon Says:

    Yes, you will have to put up with stupid things on the job. However, that will be true even if you leave computing.

    Would you rather people make sexist remarks because you are really good and working in a field woman typically aren’t in, or to make sexist remarks because you are really good and working in a field women typically are in?

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