One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about working in computing education is having a chance to collaborate with people from around the world. Meeting new people is already fun, but it’s even more enjoyable when you get to learn something about a country or culture with which you were unfamiliar. My newest collaborator is from Finland, and prior to our work I knew almost nothing about the country. In the time we’ve been working together I’ve learned a lot, both about our work and about his culture. The cultural characteristic that has come up most often is a desire to blend in and not stand out from the crowd. While I don’t doubt that this is a Finnish thing, I suspect that it’s also a personality trait of this particular collaborator. After all, I know plenty of people from other countries who share that desire.
In one recent exchange with my collaborator I mentioned the fact that I don’t share the desire to blend in. At times I’ve even worked to stand out, for example, by shaving my head in graduate school. But no one likes to think of themselves as a spotlight hog, so I’ve been thinking a lot about why it might be that I don’t have a problem with standing out. When I woke up this morning, I had an answer that makes perfect sense. As a woman in computer science, I don’t stand a chance of blending in. My mere existence in this field makes me stand out. In fact the few situations in which I’m not in the (small) minority are so memorable that I always take note of them, for example the current situation on the SIGCSE Board which only has one elected male member. If I were uncomfortable standing out, I would have never chosen to be a computer scientist.
Standing out has been a part of my work life for so long that it no longer really registers with me. I, like my female students do now, noticed it a great deal more when I was an undergraduate. As a graduate student I gradually grew accustomed to it, which helped when I moved up the pipeline and the number of women around me decreased further. Now I only notice it when the gender balance in the room is dramatically skewed (like in one of my classes this quarter where I only have a single female student or in committee meetings where I’m the only woman) or, more often, in the rare circumstances in my life when the gender balance is even or shifted in favor of women (see the SIGCSE Board comment in the previous paragraph). Standing out is so much the norm for me that blending in has become a rare and noticeable event. Like all unusual experiences, it’s something I appreciate. Blending in brings with it a calm comfort, and I enjoy it every time it happens. But it’s not something I seek out or have to have, which is good since I love the field of computer science and can’t imagine myself anywhere else.