For my close friends, it's hardly news that I've been having trouble with graduate school. Advisor politics are tricky, and I'm still not sure how to navigate those murky waters. In a total happenstance, I went to an awards assembly with a best friend of mine, and witnessed a female professor given mentoring award for her 41 years of service to the math and computer science departments at our university. I'd met this professor 3 years earlier on a panel discussion, but forgotten she'd been recently appointed to a graduate advisor position. I made an appointment with her the next day.
After telling her about my delicate situation, she asked me about my research. For 3 nanoseconds, I thought, "She wouldn't understand." I checked myself, remembering that she's been doing research almost twice as long as I've been alive. I explained it to her. She joked with insightful comments. The conversation was positive, and I was sent out of her office, knowing how to handle my situation. There's a very good reason why this woman won an award.
But for those 3 nanoseconds, I was a sexist pig. I immediately assumed that, because she's a woman, she wouldn't understand my computer science research. Me! I am a woman in computer science who is constantly on the battlefield fighting for female-friendly improvements to my field, but I still paused with such sexist thoughts, making me no better than Misogynist Bill. If I think sexist crap like this about her, then what do other people think about me?
I've been thinking about those 3 nanoseconds these past few days, basically trying to find excuses for my lewd behavior. The first excuse is easy. I haven't had a female professor for 11 years. The last female professor I had was Sr. Sandra E. Lincoln, S.H.C.J., Ph.D. (a doctor and a nun) at my little Catholic university. She was fabulously throughough at teaching Chemistry, and recently won the James Culligan Award for teaching in 2000. I took Chem 101 in 1994, and I haven't had a female professor since, with the exception of the fabulously edgy, female graduate student teaching my "Programming for Artists" course last Spring in the Art & Design department.
The second excuse is that there just aren't too many women in computer science. Recent studies show that the number women in CS are at an all-time low. If you take a look at the graph, you might immediately ask, "What was so special about 1983?" In that year, the female to male ratio in computer science was 2:1 and the number of women in the field hit an incredible peak. I'm sincerely convinced that pop culture has something to do with it. I've haven't any studies to back this up, I've got only anecdotal evidence. Working with girls in junior high school allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of pop culture. Five years ago, ask a girl in junior high school student what she wanted to be, and it was "Neonatal Nurse" or "Endocrinologist." That same year, E.R. was one of the most popular shows on TV. This year, it's "Ballistics Expert" thanks to C.S.I.
1983 was the year that we watched Ally Sheedy outrun Matthew Broderick in the very tech-savvy movie "War Games." It was one of the hottest years of personal computing, and the year that Apple introduced the Lisa, one of the few "feminine" personal computers. Sally K. Ride was the first female U.S. astronaut, getting launched into space on June 18, 1983, though soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tershkova had been the first woman in space almost fifty years earlier. I don't know if any one of those things is the reason for that peak in 1983, but I can say that it's been awhile since I've seen a female astronaut highlighted in the news, or since I watched a movie or TV show in which a girl programs a computer, excepting the 1995 cult classic in which Angelina Jolie plays a character with the handle "Acid Burn." But cult classics are sub-culture, not pop culture. Instead, we've got crap like 1994 Barbie dolls saying "Math is Hard." and shows about women who wear horridly uncomfortable shoes, talking about sex with Mr. Big week after week.
The third excuse is that I don't really talk about research to women. There are no other women in my research group, and the professors I work with are all men. When my girlfriends and I get together, I don't talk about research, so much so that my awards assembly best friend still isn't really sure what I actually do. I'd much rather talk about other things when I'm off the clock. This makes me quite different from most of my male counterparts, who can be found discussing compilers during a Friday evening happy hour at the local bar. Still, the guys who would rather talk about politics, good beer, books, and movies do exist in CS. They are admittedly rare, and to prove it, I'll happily report that I'm dating one.
No matter how many excuses I name, I'm still a sexist pig. If anything, I have a renewed fervor for getting more women into this field, before I start asking random female undergrads to bring me my coffee and take notes for me.