I started the class full of hope despite the dire expectations the instructor level set. “The class average is 65, and around half will drop out before the end of the quarter. Many will attend to the end and fail anyway.” About a third of the class was female, primarily Asian. It makes sense to me. It’s a parent-approved major in the community.
Since I invested my $700, I doubled down. I would learn this if it was the last thing I do. (Yes, those were my exact thoughts. As you can see, it was not the last thing I did.) I raised my hand every time I was confused. To clarify, except for another Caucasian female, I was the only female to ask questions. She was either incredibly intelligent or had a tutor because her questions were on point, while I tried unsuccessfully to grasp basic concepts. I felt stupid, but I never let it stop me before.
After raising my hand once again, probably for the fifth time, the instructor, who avoided calling on me during the class, stopped. “Victoria, what’s your question now?” I don’t remember the question, but I do remember his response, “Read your textbook. All of the answers are in there.” Always happy to clarify, I responded. “I did, and I still don’t understand.” For some reason, this angered him. “You’re slowing my class down,” he retorted. He wasn’t wrong, but I also paid my $700. He told me to get out of his class and waited for me to leave. As a single mom, who often would focus on my goals to others’ dismay, I asked, “If I leave, am I gonna get my $700 back?”. (Remember, I was broke, at the time, it was a lot of money for me). “I’m not sure. You’ll have to take it up with them.” I did, and the school wouldn’t refund my money due to “policy,” so I kept showing up and “disrupting” his class with stupid questions.
I understand his perspective on it.
Instructors have to keep on schedule with their course planning. Computer science instructors also work full-time at their day jobs for the community college level. The pay for public service is nowhere near what they command in the private sector.
As a gifted child growing up, I appreciate not wanting to slow a class down for those possibly left behind. Growing up, I was all for tracking (having different classes for different abilities) because the general classes left me bored as they taught the average student. I would do my homework, which would irk some controlling teachers. Disruptive was a term I heard often. Just an FYI, they also don’t like hearing it’s a “them” problem since you’re not hurting anyone by getting your homework done early. Now, the word “disruptor” holds a certain cachet after proven success. Disruption is quite uncomfortable until then.
Programmers usually have certain personality traits which make them good at their job: introverted (socially awkward), efficient, logical, and a certain amount of ego. Programming is hard. It requires a level of frustration, patience, and a desire to outsmart a computer. Good programmers usually have issues with control, not in a bad way, but control and programming seem to go hand in hand.
My instructor didn’t like me throwing off his schedule and probably thought I would be one of those who dropped or wouldn’t make it. I, too, didn’t think I would make it, but I spent $700, so I would get my money’s worth. He wasn’t expecting it, but it was what he would get.
After he told me to get out of his class and I refused because the school wouldn’t refund my money, it became a test of wills. I would raise my hand, and he would call on everyone except me. Several female Asian students stopped attending the class after our confrontation. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, I would be remiss to ignore the timing of their drop.
Some of my male classmates volunteered to study with me because “what he did was wrong,” in their opinion. I’m so grateful for the free tutoring. Others would raise their hand and “donate” their question to me, much to the instructor’s annoyance. What I learned that day was that all it takes is a few people to change the course of someone’s life completely. We’re talking about a handful of people who were willing to step out. The majority either kept silent or agreed with the instructor. Some classmates were openly hostile to me. I don’t blame them for their behavior. In terms of self-preservation, it doesn’t help them to support me. I was and still am impressed by the men who chose to speak up and be the change they wanted to see when they had nothing personally to gain from it. They did it hoping that someone would do the same for their <insert woman they care about here>.
I ended up with a C-, which was passing. As in C’s get degrees passing, I retook the class anyway. Somehow everything came together in the finals, and I was like Neo discovering he could manipulate the Matrix and that normal rules no longer applied. (It’s programming. I had to throw in a Matrix reference. If not, would you still respect me? ) While the instructor and I could probably agree that I was not likely to be a talented programmer, we somehow managed to develop a working relationship throughout it all. He told me he thought I’d make a great PM (program manager). Apparently, being cheap enough to go through hell and high water to see something to completion makes for talented PMs.
I wish I could say this was the exception rather than the rule, but I kept running into issues like this in subsequent classes (even though I finally understood programming. You take the wins where you can get them.) I had several instructors and classmates who were openly hostile, with a much smaller subset of both instructors and classmates who showed determined allyship when they had no reason to. I love those people.
In a way, it prepared me for the working world. I had other not-so-great experiences in the work world, but they were much more subdued. I also didn’t run into the brazen allyship I found with my classmates, either.
It’s been a while since I’ve taken a Compsci class. I hope the tide is turning. I hope women studying hard sciences find more support and more allies spring up as our male counterparts realize how much even just one person can enact change.
I wrote this piece because every time I saw how low the numbers are for women in programming along with a resounding, “Why?” It’s been clear as water for me. Putting aside the gender roles and training, it’s an unnecessarily more difficult path. It can feel like a gamer’s club where girls aren’t allowed. It’s why I don’t believe in brute-forcing anything anymore. Someone has to do it, though, or we risk not hacking diversity and getting it right. Frankly, that’s something that America can’t afford if it wants to maintain its leadership in innovation.
Two trends that give me hope:
- Diverse candidates are speaking out and supporting each other publicly. Building coalitions with each other can only help, as our greatest strength is in our numbers. When I look at the Asian community and from what I know of the Jewish community, they follow similar models. They do business and build strength within the community. Doing so has provided these communities with a certain degree of success. I’m no expert on it. It’s just my observation.
- Allies in power positions are walking the walk and being the change they want to see, probably for the <insert the woman they care about here>, which I am all for.
It doesn’t take everyone to make the change (although it sure would help). It just takes a few. Hopefully, that includes you.