Being a Woman in Computer Science – A Cautionary Tale, Part 1 of 3, The Student Years

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

I no longer consider myself to “in” computer science, although I will always consider myself both an academic and a computer scientist.

(There’s an older version of part of this story here.)

A1LWMNA0I grew up at a time when women TV role models were primarily women who’s job consisted of looking after their husband. We had shows like “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched“, and although I recognize their subversive non-compliance now, I don’t think I did when I was a kid. Of course, we also had shows like “The Avengers“, and Emma Peel was an important role model for me. I even got beat up once by Bradley, the neighbourhood bully while pretending to fight like Emma Peel. That’s when I realized that pretending to have martial arts fighting skills wasn’t the same as actually having them.

Fast-forward to my university student days. In the last post, I talked about how I go IN to computer science, and although I owe my career in no small part to the friends an mentors who supported me, I should also add that my own determination combined with an ability to ignore things helped a great deal.

I got into CS when I was 19.

Me with my brother shortly before starting university.

Me with my brother shortly before starting university.

I was quite pretty in those days and rarely had any trouble getting guys to ask me out. In fact, it was rare for me to become friends with a guy who didn’t ask me out.

That also included people I worked with and people I worked for. When I got my first job out of high school working at the Calgary Humane Society, it included the “Special Constable” in charge of complaints who used to like coming in on Sundays when I was working alone. He liked to sneak up behind me, wrap his arms around me and tell me he’d always wanted to be a cross-your-heart bra. He was a big guy, and I was only 16 (yes, I graduate high school when I was 16), so I would just smile and try to squirm away. It also included the owner of the gas station / sporting goods store where I worked after that who fired me for having a ‘bad attitude’. Apparently, refusing to sleep with your short, fat, old boss constitutes a bad attitude. It also included a long list of co-workers – married and not – who would occasionally ask me out or just corner me in the back room of whatever place I was working. I knew it was wrong, but I also knew it was futile to say anything about it. (I’m so glad things are changing in that regard.)

Back to my student days. Given what I was used to out in the “real” world, the kinds of harassment I faced once I was a student was mild by comparison. At least none of the TA’s ever tried to corner me anywhere, and many of them actually treated me with a fair amount of respect, as did most of the faculty. Of course, there was that one professor who called me into his office one time and closed the door. I’d had him for a class the previous semester, so I did kind of know him. The reason he closed the door, he said, was that he wanted to offer me a job, and he didn’t want anyone else to overhear. This professor told me he traveled a lot and gave many talks. He was looking for an assistant. He was actually kind of polite about the whole thing, but I figured out pretty fast that what he was really looking for was an “Assistant” – you know, someone to help him with lots of OTHER things too.
I said no thanks.
Fortunately, by that time, I was already pretty comfortable talking to my department head (he was one of my mentors), and I asked him about this “deal”. He seemed quite well aware of this professor’s antics. He’d never been called on it, and he wasn’t called on it this time either. We just all continued on as if nothing had happened.

CMBIZ078I’d never used a computer before I started university.

I didn’t plan on going into CS. I was going to become an ethologist. Jane Goodall was my role model (still is). I had no plans to continue school beyond my B.Sc.

Around the time I took my first CS course, I was beginning to realize that my chances of doing what I wanted to do with a Biology degree were slim to none. Probably the closest I could come was to be a park ranger, and that didn’t sound fulfilling to me, so I started considering other majors. I took a Psych course and was smitten, but then I took a subsequent course on motivation and lost all of mine. I also took a Geology course. The instructor was fantastic, and I considered becoming a geologist. That summer I worked for an oil company. I spent most of the summer colouring maps and it wasn’t until the last two weeks that I got to try my hand at plotting well-logs. That was fun, but I still couldn’t see myself doing that sort of thing for the rest of my life.

I had actually had me very first experience with a computer (EVER) in a Physics class as part of a lab. We were to run a simulation of a spring. There’s more on that part of the story here.

I became a TA when I was in the 2nd year of my undergraduate degree.

This was very important. This was a monumental thing for me. I’m an introvert and I was always painfully shy in front of crowds – any time I had to give a lab report in biology, I would stutter, my hands would shake, my face got all read and my eyes would start to water. It was awful! And that was when I was allowed to sit at my lab bench and only had to present my report to 5 other people. I’m sure at least some of this came from the fact that I was often picked on and made fun of in school. I was accelerated in grade two (It’s worth noting here that my male principal took six girls and put them in an accelerated program because he thought we were all exceptionally bright. There were no boys in this program.) As a result, I ended up being a good two years younger than my classmates for the rest of my school career – I don’t recommend it. I also got very sick the summer after my dad died and ended up missing a lot of school in high school. It made me stand out, and not in a good way.

Back to university. Here I was in a group of people who thought I could teach a class. I’m sure their confidence in me had a lot to do with my ultimately becoming a CS instructor, and even though the thought of standing at the head of a class terrified me, I tried to remember that even though I didn’t know much, I DID know more than the people in the lab I was teaching, and I would do what I could to help them learn what I knew.

I’ve heard it said that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

My most important course was “Coffee Lounge”.

The CS department where I was taking courses was VERY friendly and welcoming. Faculty, grad students, and undergrads were all part of the same community. This was before the Internet allowed people to work at a distance so everyone had to do their work on campus, in the labs. There was a grad student workroom where grad students AND faculty worked. The door was usually open. There was also a big ‘terminal’ room filled with dumb terminals (a technical term, not an insult) that were connected to mainframes housed in the basement.

We spent a lot of time together. We socialized together. We went to dinner together and had parties together. The department hosted an End of Term party twice a year – paid for by the faculty, and all students were invited – including undergrads. AND, the faculty coffee lounge was always open. I would often go in there, initially with a grad student, but then also by myself. I’d get a coffee (I never paid for it – and was never asked to) and just sit and listen. There were often several faculty members sitting in there having some sort of discussion, and it was more often than not something to do with CS.

I probably logged more hours in that room than I did in any other course I took, and I’m pretty sure I learned more there too. No exams, no assignments, just people passionate and excited about their field having conversations, and sometimes arguments.

I went straight into a master’s after graduating with my BSc.

1981-jnk_wm1981-katrin-81-1I also got married at that time – to one of the guys who had been instrumental in my getting into CS. Because I was already so much a part of the department by the time I got into the masters program, I really didn’t notice much difference.

My years as a student were among the best times of my life, and as an instructor I have always tried to foster the same kind of culture and environment with my students.

More on that in tomorrow’s post.

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Being a Woman in Computer Science – A Cautionary Tale, Part 1 of 3, The Student Years — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Being a Woman in Computer Science – A Cautionary Tale, Part 2 of 3, Working in the Field | The Becker Blog

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