Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Back when I was an engineer, I developed operating systems. I wrote a lot of very low-level code. Sometimes I worked in the depths of the operating system, as when I implemented the memory manager. Sometimes, I worked on device drivers. At one point I was assigned to write a device driver for an ethernet card. The ethernet card is what allows a computer to access a network and receive data from other computers. There are three modes. In the first mode, "loopback mode", the card can hardwire its output to its input. Loopback mode is generally used for testing purposes for the developer. In the second mode, the card will only listen to data intended for its computer. This is the standard mode for most cards under normal use. In the third mode, it will listen to all of the data being transmitted on the network. The third mode is known as "promiscuous mode."

Though Webster's third definition for the term promiscuity is "not restricted to one sexual partner," promiscuity is associated in different ways with the two genders. There remains fierce debate as to whether male promiscuity is innate--and thus normal--and whether female promiscuity is abnormal or wrong. In all the times I've heard the word used, it's been attribute to women, and generally in a negative way. I'm pretty sure that when my step-father called me a promiscuous bitch when I was 17 years old, it wasn't a compliment.

This is another example of the little things in computer science that, when examined individually don't mean a lot, but when summed up point to a male-dominated field whose internal and external attitudes can often make women feel uncomfortable.

My first experience with "boys do math, girls cook" was when I attended a city-wide TECHNICAL job fair in Portland in 1996. I was just finishing my sophmore year at the University of Portland, and I was looking for a summer internship in electrical engineering. I approached the woman in the Tektronix booth and asked, "Do you have any internship openings." And the woman, at the TECHNICAL job fair replied,

"I'm sorry, we don't have business internships."

I smiled and gently corrected her. "Engineering," I said.

I, personally, can deal with having to correct people in this way. Sometimes it's gentle. Sometimes it's not. Certainly, I never feel like I'm allowed to get angry when stuff like this happens. I never feel like I can voice my concerns in a legitimate way, except with other enlightened men and women in quiet corners of the building. And why? Because of promiscuous mode and all the other little things that point to the fact that I don't "belong" here.

This must change.


DC said...

On an only-somewhat-related note, Ramona seemed surprised yesterday when I told her I thought she would pass the HCI qual.

Tanya said...

While I agree that on the whole the CS field is still not quite there when it comes to treating woman as equal.. it may be a bit far fetched to assume that promiscuous mode was meant as an insult to women.

On a positive note.. after being out of industry for 5 years and returning.. I have found it much more inviting and respectful to women.

Oh.. greetings from CA btw :)

Pablo said...

As far as the different gender's application of promiscuity, this is an interesting read:

Pablo said...

Please excuse my terrible writing, I'm doing too many things at once...

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Promiscuous mode was not intended as a insult to women, I agree. Like I said, it's a little thing that's not too insulting. However, it is when it and all of the other little things are examined with a feminist's eye that I begin to object.

Hello CA!

Whimsical Monkey said...

You convinced me! Of course, I had to blog it: Sexist terms in computer science?