Next week I am meeting with a bunch of young women in our department‘s CS and CIS programs, so I’ve been thinking about how I got into computer science, and why I stayed.
Here’s my tale of how I got into CS.
I’ve been at it for a while now. I did my first degrees in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The CS department where I did my undergrad was still pretty new, and was a place full of incredible enthusiasm. They were very collegial and had a lot fun. This created a real sense of community, and they shared it freely with graduate students and undergrads alike. That was key. They included me like I was one of them right from the very first course that I took. The sense of community was one of the most important factors for me, perhaps because I had so rarely been a part of a community in any school I’d been to before.
Most of the women faculty that I knew in CS were not viable role models*, but it didn’t seem to matter. There were a number of female grad students, and many of them were pretty good role models.
I had viable male role models – and they seemed not to be put off by the fact that I was female – some even LIKED that I was – they made me feel female & desirable AND they made me feel that my intelligence and ability was part of that. None of them seemed to have much time for pretty and dumb, so, after several years in retail (where pretty was really all that mattered), this was a refreshing – and inspiring change.
Some of the faculty were very important role models for me – not only for how to be a computer scientists, but also for how to be an academic. There were also three others who were instrumental in my decision to go into computer science. Understand that I took my first CS course in 1977. I am still in contact with all three. I married one (and I’m still married to him). These were the first guys my age who ever treated me like I was smart. Even weirder – they actually liked the fact that I was smart. The grad student who was my TA in my very first CS class went out of his way to tell me he thought I was good at this. Now, this guy was known as somewhat of a curmudgeon – and one not to suffer fools gladly, so when he told me I had potential, it really meant something.
I had already decided that I liked programming. For me, programming seemed to have a lot to do with sorting and organizing – activities I have always enjoyed. That, and the friendship, support, and confidence of these people were why I got into CS. They are also the reasons I stayed. In the end though I’m pretty sure that if it hadn’t been for the people around me, I would not have made it.
So, forgive me if I forget anyone, but let me end this by thanking the people who are in no small part responsible for my going into CS, and for the many happy years I had while there:
Jim Parker, Neal Reid, Bob Bramwell, David Scroth, Anton Colijn, Mike Williams, Harry Baecker, John Slater, Bill Pulleyblank, and Doug Robinson.
There are plenty of others who were great mentors and friends – many of whom I am still in contact with – but the ones named above are my top 10. I wouldn’t be here without you!
*I have never had much time for strident women who raise themselves up by putting men (or others) down, AND I have little respect for women who feel the need to hide their femaleness (by being frumpy or vulgar). We need to get past the notion that women need to be men in order to make it. Now, truth be told, this is an attitude I have only managed to embrace in more recent years. While I was young, I was willing to compromise on many fronts in order to get the recognition/respect I felt I deserved, so I will not fault young women who do the same. One thing I found was that the more I began to act true to myself in my department, the more people attacked me – especially the women (but more on that in the Why I Got Out post).