Did you not see?

A woman writes to her daughter’s high school programming teacher.

First, a little background. I’ve worked in tech journalism since my daughter was still in diapers, and my daughter had access to computers her entire life. At the ripe old age of 11, my daughter helped review her first tech book, Hackerteen. She’s been a beta tester (and bug finder) for Ubuntu (Jaunty Jackalope release), and also used Linux Mint. Instead of asking for a car for her 16th birthday, my daughter asked for a MacBook Pro. (I know, I know … kids today.)

My daughter traveled with me to DrupalCon in Denver for “spring break”, attended the expo at OSCON 2012, and even attended and watched me moderate a panel at the first Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC ’12) conference at USENIX Federated Conferences Week. Thanks to my career, my daughter’s Facebook friends list includes Linux conference organizers, an ARM developer and Linux kernel contributor, open source advocates, and other tech journalists. My daughter is bright, confident, independent, tech saavy, and fearless. In fact, she graduated high school last May — two years early — and is now attending high school in India as her “gap year” before heading off to college.

So what’s the problem?

I bet you can guess what the problem is.

Daughter was the only girl in the class. Daughter did well, helped other students. Then they started harassing her.

Did you not see her enthusiasm turn into a dark cloud during the semester? Did you not notice when she quit laughing with and helping her classmates, and instead quickly finished her assignments and buried her nose in a book? What exactly were you doing when you were supposed to be supervising the class and teaching our future programmers?

Um…don’t feed the trolls? If you don’t like being harassed, don’t take a programming class? Stop being such a drama queen?

She added an update:

Update: Thank you for all the great feedback on this post! For those of you wondering why I chose the USENIX blog as my platform — instead of another tech publication or my personal site — it’s because the USENIX membership and community have a long history of working toward increasing diversity in IT and supporting women in tech. Many of you suggested immediate action is needed to help combat this issue. I agree and that’s why I’m working with USENIX on their Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) initiative via the WiAC Summits and the Facebook WiAC page, as well as other efforts within the community. I hope you’ll join us in this effort.

H/t Pieter Breitner.


  1. says

    And here I was thinking that Younger Daughter, who is on her second programming class in community college and loving it, might just have found her calling. *Whimper*

    On the other hand, she’s never cared what anybody thought of her. Peer pressure? What’s that? So maybe she’s got a chance.

  2. Nentuaby says

    David Hart: Yep. (It comes from uNIX USErs’ group, re-mangled to make a better word.) Kind of a fun one, though.

  3. says

    Ugh, this is disgusting. I work as a software engineer for a small startup company (read: we can’t pay a lot), and although we need to hire more SE’s, we can’t seem to find them. The pool of qualified applicants is tiny, and competition for hiring the few who are looking is intense. And without more engineers, we can’t grow our projects or our company as effectively. So the sexism exhibited by the guys in the class in this post is directly affecting my career and goals by discouraging women from entering the field and thereby artificially shrinking the pool of qualified engineeers. Anyone who doesn’t see how sexism against women hurts men too, with this example in front of their face, is hopelessly dense.

    To any women in high school who might be thinking of pursuing a career in computer science (or, heck, any other male-dominated field like it): please give it a shot! There are plenty of men such as myself who are trying to change the brogramming culture–not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s in our career (and financial) interests.

  4. says

    It’s even worse. It was brought to the teacher’s attention. And the principal’s. Who proceeded to victim-blame her.

    Update 2 (wherein my daughter chimes in): As I said, my daughter is in India for a year, so she didn’t see this article until Wednesday, September 11. I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about me sharing her story and all the attention it received. Luckily, my daughter thanked me for writing about her experience. I asked her whether she had any corrections for the article. “Um, maybe tell them that I did actually talk to the teacher and I tried to tell the guys to quit being jerks,” she said. “He told the principal, and it was really embarrassing, which is probably why I didn’t tell you. And I gave up after that,” she explained. My daughter said that, after bringing the problem to the teacher’s attention several times, she finally asked him whether she could talk to the entire class about sexual harassment, he told her he’d think about it, and that’s when he reported the situation to the principal. “And a couple days later I was in the principal’s office being explained to that it wasn’t my place to do that, and I just mumbled answers to get out of there as soon as possible because I was really, really embarrassed and fighting back tears.” Before my daughter signed off our online chat, she asked me why I wrote about her story now. I told her about Alexandra, the nine-year-old girl who presented her app at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, and the titstare app developers who shared the same stage. “Well, I’m sorry that crap happened … to both of us,” she said. I am, too.

  5. says

    Ophelia, I hope so – she’s the only girl in her class this semester. Maybe people here in Southern California are more easy-going, though, because neither daughter has had any problems with harassment in computer classes. So far so good.

    I hope that sort of attitude spreads, because I really would like to see more women in tech careers, and if that’s what Younger Daughter wants, her dad and I will support her every step of the way.

  6. Claire Ramsey says

    Teachers and especially administrators like school principals can be the biggest weenies in the world. This is a disgraceful tale. I wonder if the teacher ever responded. What a load of crap.

  7. oursally says

    My sister got the same at uni. She got a 2.1 and went somewhere else. After getting her PhD in metallurgy she became an accountant. She just couldn’t face going there any more.

  8. screechymonkey says

    Here is an interesting article by Elissa Shevinsky, titled “Why I’m Finished Defending Sexism In Tech.” Shevinsky was a co-founder with dudebro extraordinary Pax Dickinson of a startup called Glimpse, and the article is now published at Dickinson’s former company Business Insider.

    A sample:

    I’d also been in tech since 2001. I wasn’t seeing the problems clearly because I’d been part of the industry for too long. I also wanted to focus on getting things done rather than on feminist-inspired activism. So I made the bros-only atmosphere work for me. I overcompensated by picking a frat boy to cofound a company with me (he was MIT & YC, by the way). I had the greatest time drinking scotch at Google I/O with some of the best CTOs in the media industry. They treated me like a bro. I didn’t want to lose those moments. And I thought that there was room for other women to have a similarly good experience.

    I experienced sexism all the time, but I overlooked it because I was too busy working. My year living and working with younger Silicon Valley startup guys in the SoMA district of San Francisco was an onslaught of misogyny, penis jokes, porn references, and general lack of common courtesy. The oddest part was the inability to switch gears. What made these guys think that I’d want to hear their masturbation humor? That’s what happened at the Disrupt hackathon. Those guys weren’t able to switch gears out of brogrammer mode. One wonders if they ever switch gears.

    Despite all of this, I continued to defened the status quo. I wanted to just drink scotch with my guy friends and build software. I’m done now. I didn’t want to think about gender issues but the alternative is tit and dick jokes at our industry’s most respected events.

  9. yahweh says

    It’s not very clear to me exactly how old this girl was at the time – although obviously this was school not university.

    In which case I think that the issue here is not that a bunch of boys were being pricks but that the teacher and school failed their students (pl.).

    It’s surely much more constructive to demand that (your) school set better expectations of their students’ behaviour than subside into easy generalisations about women in IT. OK, so maybe that means difficult conversations with teachers and governors. And there’s no guarantee of success, but there’s not much excuse for not trying,

    The behaviour of this class of boys clearly doesn’t help but it’s as plain as day that the school is well placed to establish a more level field to the benefit of all of its students.

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