I just got back from another great SIGITE (Special Interest Group for Information Technology Education) conference, and I had a lovely time as always.  It was wonderful to catch up with colleagues I’ve come to know over the past few years and to have a chance to meet new people as well.  There were loads of great talks, chances to discuss research, and even some fun conversation about opera in an Irish pub after hours.  But I also found myself with the strong urge to walk out of two sessions, an experience I’ve rarely had.

The first time I felt like standing up and leaving was during the keynote.  While the abstract seemed interesting, I wasn’t connecting much with the speaker.  And then he asked the crowd about a name, commenting that he doubted that the “ladies” in the audience would know it.  It turns out it was from the Lord of the Rings, and while I’m not personally a fan I know plenty of women who are, including my mother.  I decided, however, that I may have been overreacting and waited until the question-and-answer period to leave.

The second time I came much closer to leaving.  The last panel of the conference was on Canadian outreach efforts, and the speaker from Alberta rubbed me the wrong way early on by rudely contradicting one of his fellow panelists.  My outrage came though when he commented that women don’t have the same spatial reasoning skills as men, and perhaps this explains the difference in enrollments in computer science.  I was stunned and angry, but politeness kept me in my seat.  It also led me to an article aptly entitled Is Culture Behind Men’s Better Spatial Reasoning which discusses a study that suggests that spatial reasoning abilities may be influenced by culture.  Should I ever have the misfortune of meeting that panelist again in person I will point out that we can examine the impact of spatial reasoning skills on information technology enrollments as soon as we fix the blatantly sexist culture that is getting in the way first.

The two incidents did help me to appreciate all the years that I’ve enjoyed the support of my colleagues, male and female, none of whom questioned whether I have the ability to succeed in computer science.  I plan to walk out the next time I encounter a sexist speaker at a conference, because life is too short to tolerate ignorance and prejudice.