At Wired, Elena Glassman, Neha Narula and Jean Yang tell us what happens when women in a STEM field talk about…oh, whatever.
“We’re 3 female computer scientists at MIT, here to answer questions about programming and academia. Ask us anything!” we wrote for our Reddit Ask Me Anything session last Friday. And then, boom:“WHY DOES IT MATTER THAT YOU’RE FEMALE?”
“WHY DID YOU PUT GENDER IN THE TITLE?”
“WHY SHOULD YOUR GENDER MATTER IF YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT RESEARCH?”
Dozens of questions like these were interspersed with marriage proposals and requests to “make me a sandwich” in our AMA. We had intended for the AMA to be a chance to answer questions about what our lives are like as PhD students at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), and what we could do to get more young people excited about programming.
So, naturally, what they got was what women do get, because that’s how life is now.
They wanted to talk about their work – programming, academia, MIT CSAIL – and how they got into it. They also wanted to talk about what it’s like to do that as women in a male-dominated field.
We decided to actively highlight the fact that we were three female computer scientists doing an AMA, to serve as role models in a field that’s less than 20 percent female.
As it turned out, people were extremely interested in our AMA, though some not for the reasons we expected. Within an hour, the thread had rocketed to the Reddit front page, with hundreds of thousands of pageviews and more than 4,700 comments. But to our surprise, the most common questions were about why our gender was relevant at all. Some people wondered why we did not simply present ourselves as “computer scientists.” Others questioned if calling attention to gender perpetuated sexism. Yet others felt that we were taking advantage of the fact that we were women to get more attention for our AMA.
Uh huh. Professional victims; gender feminists; radical feminists; cultural Marxists; ideologues; yadda yadda.
The interactions in the AMA itself showed that gender does still matter. Many of the comments and questions illustrated how women are often treated in male-dominated STEM fields. Commenters interacted with us in a way they would not have interacted with men, asking us about our bra sizes, how often we “copy male classmates’ answers,” and even demanding we show our contributions “or GTFO [Get The **** Out]”.
That’s “get the fuck out” as of course you know.
The dynamics of our AMA reflects gender issues that lead to disparities in who chooses to pursue careers in STEM fields. People treat girls and boys differently from an early age, giving them different feedback and expectations. There is strong evidence that American culture discourages even girls who demonstrate exceptional talent from pursuing STEM disciplines. For those few young women who continue to study science or engineering in college, there is still a good chance that they will leave afterward. There has recently been much discussion about how tech culture causes women to leave “in droves;” the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon of females choosing to stop pursuing careers in STEM is a well-known problem.
That’s why we wanted to talk about it. Head on. We made gender an explicit issue in the AMA to engage our audience in a discussion about both the existing problems and potential solutions. And in that way, it was a success. We were able to raise awareness about technical privilege, implicit bias, and imposter syndrome.
Good. (I look forward to Christina Hoff Sommers’s debunking of the whole thing, preferably in a video.)