Being a Woman in Computer Science – A Cautionary Tale, Part 2 of 3, Working in the Field

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

 This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. It picks up where the other left off, at the end of my student days.

I defended my Master’s Thesis and just continued on where I was.1983-078

My thesis examined the introductory CS curriculum in an effort to define what it was and identify tools that could be used to help teach that. Even though I designed a built a number of the tools I proposed, I still got flack for doing a thesis that wasn’t hard-core CS. My supervisor quit the university half-way through my studies and so I had to switch. I ended up with a pretty tough committee for my defense – my new supervisor was also the department head and wanted to make sure there would be no question about my earning my degree. I guess in retrospect, I have to wonder if I had had the same level of scrutiny if I had been a guy. I know for a fact that there were a number of mediocre theses that got accepted around that time.

It was a great time to be in CS and I’d had several job offers before I graduated. I wasn’t even looking. Companies would come to us to recruit. In the end I took a position as an instructor in the very same department where I had just graduated. Calgary was my home, and I had loved my student years so much, I really didn’t want them to end. Plus, I had discovered that I was a pretty good teacher and I liked teaching.

Then I got Pregnant.

While some of the faculty continued to treat me as they always had, a number of them simply assumed that getting pregnant meant the end of my computer science career. It was odd for anyone to ask me about my plans. It bothered me at the time, but starting my family was more exciting than stressing about the attitudes of my colleagues.

I became a Part-Time Sessional

I took a year off with each of my children. Because I was a sessional, that meant I got NO benefits. I wasn’t even eligible for unemployment insurance.

I did do some consulting along the way. I remember one consulting gig where I mostly worked after regular business hours so I could bring my then 5-month old son with me. I have fond memories of sitting at a workstation with my baby beside me, and of trying to type while breast-feeding. The place I consulted for never complained – in fact they continued to hire me on and off for many years.

From the time my first child was born in 1984 to the time my youngest was four, I only ever worked part-time. It was a decision my husband and I BOTH made because we felt it was important to raise our children rather than to let some daycare do it. I realize that some people have no choice but to work, but as far as I’m concerned, if you have a choice, and you decide to leave your children in someone else’s care for 80% of their childhood then you are not doing right by your kids. I know this is an unpopular position to take these days, but children are far too important to let strangers have more influence on them than you do. Leaving them with family members is different. I fully realized what that would mean to my career, but that is the price of having a family. You can’t have it both ways. We decided I would be the one to stay home primarily because I had less earning power. It was in large part an economic decision.

Eventually, I started to teach full-time again.

1998-005_wmAlthough I began to work full-time again in 1998, my department head was considerate enough to make sure that I only had classes two or three days a week. That meant I could work from home the other days. My older two children were in school full-time, but my youngest wasn’t in school yet. My and my husband’s schedules (he’s an academic too) meant that our youngest would only be in daycare three days a week. The academic schedules and responsibilities were very important to our being able to spend time with our children. I know many people like to talk about “quality time” with children. “Quality time” is a lie. When it comes to children, they need TIME. Lots of time. I’m not sure we would have had this option if we had had full-time ‘regular’ jobs.

When I became full-time, I took on the role of 1st Year Coordinator in 1998. It involved a complete re-design of the first year program as well as managing all the teaching assistants, which during the peak years totaled 22 people. The first year program became one that encouraged a lot of students to continue on. It was a great program and I was quite proud of it. The fact that I was a girl though was rarely far from people’s consciousness. I had a dept head who, while supportive, insisted on calling me “Little Lady” or “Gal”. I also had to fight to get ‘promoted’ to full-time instructor from sessional.

It was really great for a while – LOVED it.

Then we got a new department head, and things started to change.

Leadership is everything, and organizations invariably go the way of their leaders. This one changed the entire culture of the department. There were many changes, not the least of which was that students were no longer welcome in ‘faculty’ areas. In particular, undergrads were left in the ‘old’ building, while faculty and grad students moved into a brand new building.

2003-beckerfunivcalgary-003_wmI stayed behind in the old building because I wanted to remain accessible to my students. While I considered myself a computer scientist, it was teaching that I really found fulfilling.

The more competent and confident I became, the more push-back I got from the dept head and his pals – including most of the other women faculty. Those who didn’t actively support the head in his efforts to make my life miserable simply kept quiet. I discovered that some of the people I had been calling ‘friend’ for as much as 25 years, actually weren’t.

Curiously most of the women faculty in the department were among the most hostile towards me.

In 2003, I became a student again.

ac-009I applied to the PhD program in the Education Faculty. I didn’t quit my job – I was going to do my PhD by studying part-time. I also applied for a sabbatical as I had been full-time faculty long enough to qualify. I was told by my Dean that I could not use my sabbatical to do any work on my PhD. Since my PhD was going to be in Education, it wasn’t of value to the Faculty of Science.

How’s that for support?

Also, due to the extremely stingy university policies – I had to pay FULL tuition – at the SAME school where I was tenured. Makes you feel all grateful and wanted, no?

I applied for and was granted tenure in 2003 before starting on my PhD. By that time pretty much everything I had built in the department to help and support undergraduate students has been dismantled, and my department head was so hostile towards everything I did that I had to get someone else (a former department head) to serve on my tenure committee in place of the department head in order to get a fair assessment.

I won’t go into all of the details (partly because of a gag order, and partly because it’s still too painful), but the end result was that I gave up my tenure. I quit.

I quit a job I had loved for 23 years, and left a place that was more my home than any other home had ever been. I had had an office on the second floor of the Math Sciences building from 1978 – 2006. I was there when I moved out of my parents’ house, when I met, moved in with, and married my husband. I was there through the births of all of my children, our move from the city to the country, and from the country to a farm. It had been my family my entire adult life and they had driven me out.

It almost killed me. THEY almost killed me.

But….. I’m still here, and there’s an epilogue to the story. I’ll tell you that tomorrow.


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