Wednesday, September 07, 2005

I find myself needing a little push.

It's 11 pm and I've just started my work day. This morning I worked with my father to clean up the five truckloads of yard debris from the previous day's tree pruning. The afternoon was spent in meetings. The evening was spent at day one of a conference. I'm sitting in front of my computer with three different projects to work on, two of which involve writing, but my brain is stuck on processing the days events. Pardon me for the blatant clearing of my cache.

I hate conferences. Ideally, they should be a place where smart people gather to talk about a common topic. Sometimes that happens. The benefit that I've gotten from conferences aren't in the big rooms where an author stands in front of everyone describing the vision he wanted to impart in his particular conference paper. It's in the little conversations in the hallways between two people. That's where I find the regular people who don't have all the answers to all the questions, and are interested in finding answers. These are the people who offer their e-mail address with the genuine intent of keeping in touch to discuss domain models or component-based system architecture. Little conversations aside, I usually just feel like a glaring zit on the face of a teenage beauty queen. This conference is no different.

I'm one of the student volunteers for the conference (translation = 10 hours of work for registration fee waiver). As one of the volunteers, I was in charge of helping with registration, mostly because I'm especially good at making eye contact and smiling while talking to strangers. I handed out name tags and t-shirts, signed people up for conferences, and chatted about the drives and flights that helped attendees arrive to the conference. One particular gentleman was new to this conference and found talking to me easier than mingling with a bunch of strangers who all acted like old friends.

"Everybody checked in?" he asked.

"Nope. That's why I'm still standing here. Once everyone checks in, then I can..."

"And then you can..." Yep, he's going to do it. He's going to indirectly reveal to me that he thinks I am just a secretary, or maybe affiliated at the hotel. I'm so embarassed for him right now, "...go home?"

I reply, "No, I'll attend the rest of the conference."

Then the look comes. The same look I got when I said "Noam Chomsky" to the webmaster at the swing dance. It's a look of surprise, confusion, and, with this particular gentleman, a sudden understanding that I am not who he thought I was.

I work every day in a place where I'm the only woman in an entire wing of a building's top floor. I don't mind that there are so few women in my field. I mind all of the stupid crap that results from not having many women in my field. I mind that these are some of the reasons why other women aren't joining the field. And the reasons are all very small when examined independently, but when summed together paint a very patriarchal picture of computer science.

At the conference, one of the attendees was talking about one of the papers he had read. He was explaining that Section I seemed very introductory and that Section II was more technical. He referred to the subject matter as having a "hairier chest." To describe it in this way me feel that only men can understand this technical material. I felt like I didn't belong. I would have liked to pose a question to the speaker. What if I had said that Section II was "boobier" or "titty?" I remained silent, mostly because I've been in a male-dominated world for over a decade, and my skin has thickened to these frustrating comments. Still, they remind me of how far the computer science culture has to go if it really wants to have 50% women instead of 9%.


Tony said...

If it's any consolation, I don't think I'm allowed to understand the technical "hairier chest" section either.

If the person had said "meatier", would that have been a marginalizing term? Maybe, maybe not. I'm going to think about that some more.

Laura said...

Mr. Geeky hates stuff like that too. Course he teaches CS at an all women's college. :) I'm also in an office with only men. 2 of them totally get that I know technical stuff. I stop at programming, but they keep telling me they believe I could do it if I put my mind to it. The other guy, not so sure. But if any of them make those comments, I call them on it. And I have seen them call others on it. There's lots I could say about this. By the way, some of Mr. Geeky's research involves the state of women in the field. He works to try to find better ways to attract and retain women in CS programs.

RussianViolets said...

Gah!!! "Hairier chest" indeed.