Swept Under the Rug: Sexism in Computer Science

4 years ago

I think I lulled myself into a sense of security about being a woman in computer science –- I can handle the awkward guys, and the ones who think they know more than I do, simply because they’re guys, and I honestly thought that that was all there was to it. You get used to the comments and brush them off and prove them wrong and call it a day. I’ve even been trying to propagate that attitude in the women in my local WICS chapter, convinced that half of the problem is that women make too big of a deal about being a minority. And now, after pushing that attitude for the last year, I’ve come across a situation where I work that is the exact opposite. And I found out that my department would rather hide these small issues than bring them out into the open and confront potentially uncomfortable issues in the department.

I work as an undergraduate TA, or, as my university likes to call us, a “section leader” for the department, and for the most part, I genuinely like my co-workers and haven’t had any problems with any of them until a few weeks ago. The last day of classes, all of the introductory section leaders go to help out with final projects in the lab, and students could come ask for help by writing their name up on the whiteboard, along with the name of the class they’re in. Since the lab gets pretty busy, that means students can go back to work at their desks while they’re waiting for a section leader to be free to come and help them. I came in at one point to see if I could help and noticed that there was a student’s name on the board. I also saw a section leader for that specific class, we’ll call him “James,” sitting in what we call “The fishbowl,” where section leaders hang out when there are no students on the board. Figuring he’d be better able to help out since I wasn’t familiar with the assignment (I am a section leader for a different class), I pointed the student’s name out to him, simply saying “Hey, did you see the student up there?” and he immediately went off to help. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.




Credit: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner

Apparently “James” took offense to me pointing out a student on the board. He’s an older guy and a non-traditional student, so I’m not sure if it was my age or my sex that offended him more or if he was just having a bad day, but something about me very clearly irritated him. He came back from helping the student when another section leader (we’ll call him “Patrick” for clarity’s sake) and I were in the fishbowl waiting for more students and soon “Patrick” noticed another student on the board as that student was putting his name up and remarked that he should probably go help –- I offered to go, but he waved me off. “James” agreed, saying that he better go before I told him what to do, because that’s my job, apparently. He didn’t appear angry, so it didn’t register with me immediately, but after “Patrick” walked out of the fishbowl, “James” repeated his comment directly to me, only this time, he changed it to “don’t let the bitch tell you what to do.” It took me by surprise –- “James” has a reputation for being a really easygoing guy, no one’s had any problems with him before, and I’ve worked with him myself with no problems, so it took a second to sink in that he’d actually called me a bitch. I immediately apologized and he did as well, trying to justify his comment by saying he really hates being told what to do. But it bothered me the rest of the day, especially because of his word choice.

It ended up bothering me enough to go to the faculty sponsor for the section leader program and let him know about the incident. I didn’t really have a clear solution for how to handle the situation, and I went to him for advice, since he is the faculty head of the program, and also the professor I report to. “James” is a senior, so repercussions for him would be essentially useless at this point. But it happened while he was on duty as a staff member of the CS department in a lab where students were present, and it was a derogatory term specifically addressed to a woman. To me, that’s an issue (especially in a department that has already acknowledged that its male-to-female ratio is incredibly disproportionate, I think we’re sitting at about 10% women now) that needs to be addressed publicly in a way that makes it clear that the department does not support its employees calling women “bitches” or any other derogatory term while on duty. How to do that, I have no idea, which is where I was hoping my faculty sponsor would help me. Unfortunately, other than a few half-hearted suggestions and an apology, he had no help for me. He suggested a mediation, but then dismissed his own idea, saying that as “James” is a senior, it wouldn’t really do much. Neither did the student head of the section leader program when I brought it up to her. She seemed more surprised than anything, but said that she couldn’t think of a good solution for me. I even suggested bringing it up at the very least to the section leaders next year to hammer the point home that we have a responsibility while teaching students to make sure that we don’t pass on or accept that attitude, but my idea was pretty much ignored. I think the excuse they gave was: “It’s an isolated incident.” Since I had finals to deal with, I ended up leaving it there, and the incident was swept under the rug.

To me, there are two problems here. First is that section leader’s attitude. And second is the attitude of the department, which was largely unhelpful in figuring out how to address and protect against incidents like this in which a woman is belittled simply for trying to do her job and help students. I went to the two people in charge of the section leader program, both on the faculty end and the student end, and neither had any ideas of how to address gender issues in a department in which females are already incredibly rare. To me, this is a significant problem represented by this small issue. I’m starting to wonder how many other small incidents like this have occurred, but I don’t know how to go about getting this issue addressed, especially because the last thing I want is to make a huge fuss when there’s a better way to handle it, and I'd definitely rather avoid becoming the next Adria Richards. I don’t even know if making this public is the best solution. The incident doesn’t even bother me personally; my problem is more that as president of WICS and as a female in the department, I should be standing up against problems like these for the women who would feel extremely bothered by the use of “bitch.” So that’s my question to you, internet –- how would you handle this? Would you even try to force the issue? 

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