Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cloudy with a chance of iPhones

I was ... the first full-time woman faculty member in my department.
There really was difficulty among my male colleagues in associating
with a woman as a colleague. I think they literally did not know how
to talk to me, and as a consequence often just did not talk to me.
They would ignore me. They would not invite me to have lunch with
them, which was a very ordinary experience there ... they would walk
past my office and ask the next person and never ask me. [Years
later] I asked one of my colleagues why this was so. And he said,
`You know what would happen if I asked you to lunch ... People would
talk' ([Clark et al 1986, pages 36--37,] in [Sandler 1986, pages 7--8,]).

Ellen Spertus quoted this passage in an MIT tech report she wrote in 1991 on the topic de jour in various tech circles, "Why are there so few female computer scientists?" One part of the article I liked was the section entitled, The Masculine Environment: Behavior Due to Sex-Correlated Differences. Here she discusses how difficult it can be for women to talk with men about non-academic topics as their interests often do not overlap. She also points out that many of the "team-building" activities intending to foster communication among colleagues often involve things that tend to appeal more to men than to women. (In general).
Photo by Adam Crowe

For example, in my department, some recent events purporting to build camaraderie have been: World Cup viewing + drinking beer, happy hour, visiting a bar, some video game events, and recently a long string of XTREME sporting activities. Of the very few female faculty and students in my department, I don't think any participate in these activities. Several come from religious and cultural backgrounds that strongly prohibit drinking-related activities.

While we do have a great mentoring scheme set up for women coming into the department and supporting them while they're here which includes some social events, it's not really the same thing. In fact, while I applaud the efforts, sometimes going to these women-focused events makes me feel like I'm sitting at the kid's table at Thanksgiving. By trying to help us fit in, we are further made separate. I've suggested to various people in my department that perhaps there might be other group activities more amenable to helping us intermix a bit more, so perhaps things will change in the future.

But in the meanwhile: What can a lone woman do to fit in with the men?

The answer lies within the thing that got you into this crazy field in the first place - a deep love (or hatred) of technology. Think of this topic like the weather for computer scientists. I guarantee you that most people in your department are following the latest drama regarding Apple and Flash, Facebook's latest privacy fail, or what neat things the new Kinect will do. And if you're not up on the latest, I strongly suggest subscribing to the ACM's Tech News. It's only three emails a week which you can quickly skim to get an idea of what's happening.

Talking tech is a great way to break the ice and start to develop the rapport that is essential to being accepted into (and thus feeling comfortable in) a male-dominated department.


  1. I find that sometimes I have to do the asking out to lunch/coffee the first time, but once the ice is broken, future socializing is easier.

  2. Oh yes, the team building. I am also an Only Woman. We went away for 2 days to do planning and get to know each other and what not. After lunch a colleague made sure the sauna (yes, this is Europe) would be on in the afternoon before dinner.

    After the afternoon meeting we all headed off to the sauna when they Suddenly Remembered Something. And had to hurry to their rooms. Anyway, I go to the sauna all the time, no big deal. And my eyes are so bad, I can't do any measurements without glasses on.

    They finally trucked in, and we sweat (swat?) together. I then announced I was going for a dip in the lake. They had to come (see, it was a dare), and I had a lovely time (while freezing my butt off), because they all felt they had to come in after me and stay a microsecond longer.

    Whatever. Since then we can even talk about computers or politics or the weather.