Women in CS: One Unit Experience

(repost from Jean Hsu)

Jean Hsu is a software engineer. I stumbled across a segment she wrote about her experiences being a woman in computer science, and I though it was nicely written, so I’m sharing it here.

Most of my classmates were not that extreme, and from my experience, most mean well but are just socially awkward. They can say something so simple as “Oh don’t you know that command?” but in an inadvertently condescending voice that makes you feel like you’re the only person who doesn’t know it. As someone just testing out the CS waters, that type of experience in every class can be very daunting. I think women are more susceptible to these feelings of inadequacy, and it can deter some potential CS concentrators from the department. From my limited experience, the ones that stayed with it were pretty strong-willed and generally kept to themselves.

One of my professors, Kai Li, had a profoundly positive impact on me. There were only 4 girls in my Operating Systems class, and at first we were pretty quiet. Professor Li would ask questions about the reading material every day in class, but would often say “Let’s hear from some of the girls” and wait for one of us to answer. I can’t speak for the other females in the class and how they felt about being “singled” out like that, but for me, it was very encouraging. He once told me that even though the females are fairly quiet, and the boys in the class showed off a lot, when it came down to projects and exams, the female average was often higher. When I walked by a departmental career fair, I paused to look at some of the companies I might want to apply for next semester, and he told me to sign up for some interviews for that day. I said I didn’t feel prepared and wanted to wait a semester until I felt like I had more of a basic foundation. He turned to a professor next to him and said “Jean doesn’t know how good she is.” He probably would not remember that exchange, but for me his support was eye-opening. I realized that while I did decide to major in CS fairly late in the game, I really was good at it, and my harshest critic was really myself.

I’ve always hated being singled out as a girl in computer science. It’s really frustrating for someone to constantly remind you that (at least in their eyes) you are an anomaly in their group, especially because it often comes in the form of being either a trick pony or being asked to verify your existence or defend your credentials. Because it really seems like there is nothing that signals you shouldn’t belong to a group more than being singled out as different and then having your membership of that group questioned. Also, it signals (to me) that I am being seen primarily, the most important thing about me, as ‘a girl’ instead of ‘another one of my students/peers/coworkers’. And that annoys me.

My experience in industry has been very positive in that I have never felt any discrimination or judgment based on my gender, and people seem to be less condescending (I don’t know where those people ended up…) in general. One of the challenges for me while I was at Google was to speak up when I didn’t understand something, as I often assumed it was common technical knowledge and that people would pass judgment. Up until recently, I could strongly relate to the Impostor Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which you feel like an impostor, and that despite concrete accomplishments, your success is just based on luck. As I grow as a developer, I realize that hey, I am really good at what I do and I’ve gotten to where I am because of that.

Impostor syndrome is an especially bad thing. And I think it’s particularly relevant to CS because 1. of the disparity in access to computers and engineering toys girls are given as children, 2. the if-you-didn’t-already-know-this-obscure-command-you’re-a-n00b culture in CS, particularly in kernel hacking (besides the directly sexist remarks prevalent in the asshole of the internet), and 3. the disproportionate number of women who are effected by impostor syndrome. If you are a woman, you statistically (more likely) didn’t have much experience with computers or engineering when you were younger, are being told that if you don’t already have a good deal of experience you are incapable of CS, and are most likely to drop out because of it (than average). That sounds like a recipe for low numbers of women in CS to me.

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One Response to Women in CS: One Unit Experience

  1. Jean says:

    Thanks for posting =) I didn’t realize how common experiences people had in CS were until I wrote that and got so many people saying they felt exactly the same way.

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