A couple of weeks ago in my Java bridge class we ended up having an interesting digression during class. We were talking about the debugger in Eclipse, and it suddenly occurred to me to ask them if they knew where the term “bug” came from. Making me proud, one person did and that led to a brief conversation about early computers and programs. I mentioned that the earliest programmers were nearly all female and said that the process by which the field became male-dominated was an interesting one. I wanted to return to the subject of Java, so I invited anyone with an interest to talk to me about it offline.
As it turns out, one of my students wrote her seniors honors thesis on women in computing, and she stopped by to talk to me about a week later. After a reasonably long conversation, she asked me why I liked to talk about women in computing. I was a little surprised because no one has ever asked me that question before, but I answered that it’s a subject that is both of interest to me personally and in terms of my research. She seemed happy enough with the answer, although I have to be honest I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my own answer. Why do I like to talk about the subject so much? Is there any benefit to doing so?
Then today I was reading the Facebook commentary on a blog post Mark Guzdial wrote about men in STEM who when presented with hard evidence of gender bias fail to believe that it exists. Several of the comments noted that bias only becomes real when someone knows an individual who has experienced it, rather than being presented with aggregate data. It was further suggested that we might want to find ways to make the bias stand out in individual cases. Both the idea that people need to know someone who has been impacted and need to care about that person made me realize that speaking about my personal experiences as a woman in computer science is important in a very real way.