Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December 9, 1906 and December 6, 1989

This year, December 5-11 was declared Computer Science Education Week by the US House of Representatives, with leadership from Congressman Vernon Ehlers and Congressman Jared Polis. The goal of CSEdWeek was to raise awareness of the importance of computer science for every student at all levels. Some understanding of how computers work is absolutely essential for everyone as more and more of our lives move onto the screen and the web.

The week was chosen to coincide with the late Admiral Grace Hopper's birthday. She was born on December 9, 1906-- the first date in the title of this post. She received a PhD in mathematics from Yale University at the age of 28 and six years later she had reached the level of Associate Professor at Vassar College. She took a leave of absence from this position to enlist in the Navy to help with the war effort. Hopper served on the Mark I computer programming staff and was a pioneer in programming and the design of high level languages. She passed away on January 1, 1992. Hopper was a tiny woman-- she needed an exemption when she enlisted because she was only 105 lbs, 15 less than the minimum. But she was an inspiration to us all, through her colorful anecdotes, and lively and irreverent speaking style. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is conference to bring together women in computing from undergraduates and onwards, from industry, academia, and government.

I have attended two of this and they were amazing experiences. The first time that I went, I brought my 4-year-old daughter with me. My intention was to be a role model and to mentor other women. Boy, was I wrong. I received far more mentoring and inspiration that I expected, and provided very little myself. I was reminded that despite the strength of my own beliefs, it is still important to go to the temple and be with other believers. It feels so different to be in a conference room with 1800 women and the occasional man. It feels like I belong, and I say this with no lack of confidence in my abilities or comfort level at other conferences. It makes me dream about what it would be like create other places in the world where I, and other women, felt this way.

CSEdWeek also coincides with the 11th anniversary of the passing of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. On December 6, 1989-- the second date in the title, a man armed with a hunting knife and a rifle went to École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec with the self-stated intention to fight feminism. CBC Radio 1 had a tradition for many years of not naming the perpetrator to emphasize the innocent victims, and I follow that here. The killer went into classrooms and offices, and specifically targeted women. In one classroom, he sent the men out, before lining up the women and turning his gun on them. All told, he killed fourteen women and injured ten other women and four men, before committing suicide.

This occurred during my last year of high school, so I came of age as woman in the shadow of the Montreal Massacre. I, like the rest of the country, struggled to make sense of it. Was it a symptom of general misogynist tendencies perpetuated by society? Or was the killer just a crazy person?

By the time I entered university, there were annual candlelight vigils commemorating the event and December 6 was designated National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. While there was no denying the tragedy of the event, I benefited from discourse surrounding it. There was much greater awareness, sympathy, and understanding of rape, date rape, and domestic violence afterward. Still, this took many years. In the early months and years, it was hard to find a narrative for the event that allowed us to live with ourselves and to look to the future with optimism.

One claim that I heard, liked, and repeated myself was that the gunman was a nut and that his act was the equivalent of someone going into a classroom, lining up, and shooting all the red heads. I wasn't very enlightened at the time, but this explanation felt right to me. The guy was a nut. Even if there were misogynist messages everywhere, you don't see everyone running around shooting women. (Well, they do, but I did say that I didn't yet have my consciousness raised.)

But over the years, I have come to realize that my choice of analogy was more apt than I realized. I chose "red hair" as the category, because it seemed silly to categorize people based solely on hair color. Yet, little did I know that there is a strong bias against redheads, or gingers as the British call them. Jokes are told about them, red-headed children are teased and bullied, and even surgeons fear doing operations on them.

Red hair is just a physical trait, but it's also one that significantly influences life course and has some associated genetic characteristics. It seems to me that sex is similar. As a woman, my physical equipment is different from a man's, and this affects my life course and makes me more susceptible to some disorders. But at the same time, these are just physical characteristics and not determinants of my humanity, ability to feel emotional hurt, or entitlement to equal rights as others who have different hair color or personal plumbing.

Grace Hopper's birthday and the Montréal Massacre anniversary are not just chronological coincidences; I think they are both part of a larger narrative about women in technology. Women still have to seize their own space and demand that there be a place for them in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But at the same time, the status quo needs to make room for them. This goes deeper than numbers and percentages, but also looking at curriculum (why programming first and not design or user studies?), decorum in meetings (unruly), a de facto dress code (jeans and t-shirts), obligatory passage points, and the kinds of skills and contributions that get counted.

The ground was broken for me by other women, including Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, Jean Bartik, Marlyn Meltzer, Kay Mauchly Antonelli, Betty Holberton, and Fran Allen. I feel very lucky to have them as my fore-mothers. But I am looking forward to the day when unexceptional women feel that it's OK for them to go into computers too and when I can feel a strong sense of belonging not just at a Grace Hopper conference. Until then, I too will continue to break ground (not without cost!) as a woman in technology, a researcher, an author, a professor, and a mom.

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