It’s been a crazy summer for me. Between June 10th and August 9th I never spent more than two weeks in a row in Chicago, and the majority of those trips were for work. But one of the most rewarding experiences I had was at the ITiCSE conference, where I participated in my first working group. My fellow working group members were intelligent, hard working, and a lot of fun, and it was absolutely worth the time away from home to start what I hope will be a longer-lasting collaboration with them.
The topic of our working group was computational thinking in the elementary and middle school curriculum, something I hadn’t explored previously. Because of the targeted grades for our work, the letters “K-9” appeared in the working group title. At one point our working group leader contacted me about the title, asking if I felt that K-9 conjured up any associations other than the lower grades. I admitted that once she mentioned it I could see the issue, but that I felt it was clear enough from the context. She took my word for it, since English isn’t her native language, and we kept the title.
It was only once I got to the conference that I understood why she was concerned. More than one person mentioned dogs when we were discussing our work, which was annoying to say the least. I was eventually reminded of the behavior I used to see in my daughter’s classmates, where one or two children find the most annoying thing they can mention about something and then bring it up over and over, stifling giggles along the way. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to tell them to restrain their inner five year old, but I plan to the next time someone mentions it.
Reflection after the fact has led me to a bigger question. Two pieces of information are relevant: (1) All of the people struggling with their inner five year old were male. (2) A majority of our working group members were female. Now I don’t believe that the people mentioning the title were targeting us because so many of us are women. I know all the men involved, and I don’t think that any of them have more gender bias than anyone else. But the behavior of mentioning something annoying over and over is something that disproportionately targets children who can be singled out for some reason: their hair, clothes, name, behavior, whatever is different from everyone else. And women are a small minority in computing. So I have to wonder how often it is that women end up being on the receiving end for these things, simply because they do stand out.