Wednesday, August 31, 2005

I feel compelled.

I finally finished "A Feminist I", Christine Overall's book highlighted by Theory Girl last July. The book is rather dry, written by a philsopher, and reads more like a research paper than the inflammatory yet witty feminist books I'm used to. The book does make a few good points about being a woman in academia. Her first point resonates with me most these days.

Christine Overall makes the point that, because she is a feminist in Academia, she is often asked to participate in conferences, talks, and other activities that fall far outside her usual responsibilities. I have similar requests made of me, as an undergraduate and a software engineer in the nineties, and as a graduate student today. I often make the joke that my name is written on a bathroom stall somewhere, because I'm always getting asked to helped with mentoring, showing students around campus, moderating panel discussions, and other work that is geared towards attracting girls to computer science. Generally, as Christine Points out, feminists are happy to do this work. However, when we have to say the horrid little word, "No," we are often victim to some kind of guilt trip, either by the requester or internally.

I did not come to GradShitTownVille to make the field of computer science a better place for women. I came here to get a PhD, but because I am a woman in a field dominated by men, I am compelled to contribute to an additional, though implicit, piece to getting a PhD. I am compelled to advocate. I am compelled be an active member of the female engineering societies. I am compelled to be visible in the department, including assisting the department with recruiting new students so that they see a female presence. I am compelled to say "Yes" to any requests about helping with Freshman, Girl Scouts, High School, and Middle School students. I am compelled to be the "liberal bitch" who is visibly offended by idiotic sexist jokes, and must vocalize my offense to the appropriate parties. I am compelled to defend my entire gender entirely by myself in meetings, offices, hallways, conferences, and buildings of 93% men.

Some days, I am happy to do all these things. The entire field of computer science will benefit with an increased diversity in its population. Generally, I enjoy getting away from my desk and helping people to see what a fun field computer science is. For me, this isn't just about attracting more women and racial minorities, it's about making a group of computer scientists more fabulous and more interesting because we have a melting pot of different perspectives.

Other days, I just want to do my work and go home. On those days, I wonder if what I am doing is even improving a situation that seems so hopeless, and if I really could graduate and get out of GradShitTownVille if I just stopped helping out altogether. And there are days, even worse, when I feel like I need help more than the younger girls. Where is my mentor? Where is that guiding hand to pull me out of tight situations and stop me from leaving the field? Those are the days when I have to avoid helping out, because I'm so angry at my own situation that I would never want any other woman to go through it. I could see myself singing a song very much like Willie Nelson might sing,

"Mammas, don't let your daughters grow up to be geeky. Don't let 'em play teris or hack the xbox. Make 'em be doctors and lawyers and such."


RussianViolets said...

Great post, and I love the lyrics at the end. -)

Jane said...

Hee hee! Love the song at the end.

As the only woman faculty in my program, I feel your pain. On the one hand, yes, outreach is important....but so is getting tenure, and it seems so unfair that my male colleagues get a free pass while I have to do all of this extra, unacknowledged work. Plus, it appears that once I arrived, the few male colleagues that were doing anything to help "the cause" stopped doing anything....because, you know, now we have a woman here, and so we don't have to waste our time on that piddly little stuff anymore! (although now I do wonder how much was actually getting done and how much was just talk, from how I've seen my colleagues behave.....)

Sorry I don't have any words of encouragement....just keep up the good fight; one day we *will* make a difference....I hope.

Jane said...

oh, and one more burns me up that my male colleagues get major props for just saying *anything* that makes it appear like they are so on board with outreach. Even if they don't follow that up with any actions at all. Whereas I have to, you know, actually *do* something, and then it usually gets ignored or minimized. Kind of like the dad that brings the kid to the office is lauded as a hero, while the mom who does so is criticized. Very annoying.