Education and Technology -- A Woman's Perspective

While reading the comment threads in the Yahoo workforce diversity article, there was a debate on the preferential treatment of women and minorities trying to earn a degree in Computer Science. The vibe I was getting is that those who were against it did not understand why it needed to exist, and furthermore a sense of confusion to the nature of 'there are scholarships, there are programs encouraging girls, what more do you want?'. I'm not sure if this will help those who are confused on the issue, but I'd thought I'd leave a little story here on one of my early personal experiences of my journey in earning my education in Engineering.

I was 13 years old, and just finishing up Middle School in an American public school system. This was the first time in my education when I had the opportunity to choose electives, which would be applied in High School in the following fall. My middle school teacher encouraged us to select courses that we were interested in, but not be surprised that the more interesting classes wouldn't be available to us till our Junior or Senior year. I always had an interest in technology/mechanics/electronics, which was further encouraged by both of my mechanically minded parents and signed up for an electronics class. A month later and to my surprise, I found out I made the class for the first semester. Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised, but it didn't cross my mind that my gender would push me to the front of the list.

The first day of high school was terrifying. I went from a student body 500, to a 2,000+ student body and the sheer number of students twice my height was intimidating. The first period class for me was the electronics elective and when I felt like I found the right classroom I peered inside. Along the several rows of drafting tables each sat 17-18 year old boys, who, as soon as I walked into the entrance turned around and glared at me. Looking back on it, that shouldn't have been as upsetting as it was, but I bolted out the room. I immediately went into denial, 'Nope, wrong room, definitely the wrong room' and proceeded to wander up and down the hall way trying to figure out what to do. About 10 minutes later and after the bell, the teacher leaned out and called my name.

'Yes?' I called out.

'What are you doing out here? Class has started.' Asked my bewildered (male) teacher.

'Is that Electronics?' I asked

'Yes' said the teach, puzzled.

'Are you sure?' stilling freaking out

'...Yes, come in, nobody's going to hurt you' Great, now he's amused.

After a few minutes of coaxing, I finally went in, but it didn't get much better. Those boys were clearly pissed , and I didn't understand. When the teacher walked out for a few minutes (damn him!), they let me know. Why did a freshman get in just because I was girl? What made me think I was so special? Needless to say, it was a rocky start. Eventually they got used to me and when the other boys realized I knew my way around a circuit board and knew how to use a soldering iron we were cool.

The problem was the process, the requirement that I had to prove myself off the bat, and this was repeated for every shop class, every lab even through college. It was always subtle, never anything concrete enough to report to a teacher, but the feeling of judgement was there. Sometimes I've wondered, if I was a little more timid, if I didn't have a bad-ass role model in my mother would I have bothered?

So in my roundabout, long winded explanation, I'd like to say: discrimination, bias can be very subtle and very insidious. You may even be a part of it and not realize it. And finally it starts early, scholarships can't help with that.