Being a girl in STEM

When I was 5 years old, my dad (a Geophysicist with an affinity for computer devices) would let me play “Hunt the Wumpus” on his calculator. His calculator was a very primitive version of the later graphics calculators, which eventually became PDAs, which eventually evolved into what is now a Smartphone. But back then, in the late 70’s, what I got was a digital display that could (revolutionary!) scroll text across block windows that made 8 look like two squares, so I’ll leave it to you to imagine what the font looked like for alphanumeric text that is scrolling. Programs were stored on a small magnetic strip that you pushed through a slot — I knew exactly how to get the “Hunt the Wumpus” strip, feed it through the reader, and then play a text based game that had me hunting around an imaginary maze trying to use the clues to figure out where the monster was before he ate me.

When I was 8, my dad decided that his children should learn how to use computers, because he very wisely foresaw that these were the way of the future. He got us a TI99/4a, and taught us how to program in BASIC on it. Also, how to touch type. I started writing my own programs right away — I wanted to make programs that were like my old favorite, “Hunt the Wumpus”. So I very quickly graduated from the “HELLO WORLD” program (though, at 8, it was probably more like, “HELLO BOOGER FACE”) to figuring out if/then statements. I remember the joy I had when I discovered how to use the GOTO statement to create a loop that could cycle me through the if/then statements until it came to the conclusion desired.

When I was 13, I was in a computer class, and I was very clearly already well past the curriculum starting out, which assumed that most students had never even seen a computer. So my own curriculum was to make a text based game on my own time. I wrote one that had the player navigating the school, meeting the teachers in each of the classrooms (and they would introduce themselves with something that personified them in a stereotypical way), and then deciding if to leave each classroom with either a “Goodbye” or shooting the teacher. Today, that would probably get me suspended, arrested, and/or in counselling, but then it was a favorite of the entire school as all of my fellow students thought this was hilarious to play, and all of my teachers thought it was cute how I personified them.

But then I hit puberty, and suddenly I was a dateable girl. By high school, I was known as one of the drama/performance people. No one knew I loved math and computers until my senior year. I just didn’t want to deal with the crap of being known for it. Also, I tried the Math Club once, but everyone ignored me, so I left. Instead I was in several choirs (one in the school, 2 outside of it), the All-Class Plays, the Shakespeare Club, the Ultimate Frisbee team, and an independent student paper known as “Allderdice Free Press”. Given that list of activities, I was easily labeled as a performance arts major.

But my senior year I was in another computer class, advanced Physics, and advanced Calculus, so I could no longer hide it. My fellow students by this point in these classes were largely male. And also by this point, I was breaking all of their stereotypes. I was weird, one of the oddballs who wore mostly black or neutral colors, kept to herself, and hung out with an odd crowd (for instance, one of my good friends at the time was known for her self-made t-shirts and Mickey Mouse lunchpail with often oddly shaved hair… she later became Phat Man Dee). I was also a performance arts person, right? So how could I be in this computer class and earning the highest grades on every test. One of my classmates, Sung Jin, and I competed for the highest mark, and I easily bested him every time, much to his chagrin. He was known for being the math genius of the school, you see, so it was impossible that someone could best him, but there I was. I was also besting him at calculus sometimes. But we did become friends. You see, my class was surprisingly female-dominated in terms of the academics and personalities, so that I was a girl wasn’t as much of an issue at this point. It really was more that I didn’t want to conform to the usual stereotype of being a nerd. This was the 80s, understand, and I was Ally Sheedy becoming Anthony Michael Hall. Why would I want to come out of the weird status just to become a nerd? It made no sense to anyone.

But then I went to college, and not only that, I went to college in Utah. It was there I was introduced to the phrase, “Oh my god, a girl who thinks!” That was flattering the first time, but then when it was stated so very frequently, it became much less flattering. I also lost a lot of weight (I was anorexic), so learned what it was to be desirable. And that’s when boys started “helping” me.

It wasn’t like that at first, I spent a lot of time in the UNIX lab at school because it was a good way to get away from my insane roommate. I spent many nights there reading the UNIX help files, learning how to program in FORTRAN (which is why I had access to that lab — FORTRAN class), and playing NetTrek. At the dorms, I was one of three girls on the floor who even owned a computer, and the only one with a Mac (I had a Mac Classic). I think I might also have been the only one with a modem. I got a job ostensibly to aid with some Geophysical research, but really I spent most of the time doing systems work trying to keep the computer running and online.

So, the next year, I discovered BBSes. Especially local BBSes. And I met a lot of guys who really really wanted to help me learn computers, because OMG A GIRL WHO THINKS and OMG A GIRL WHO LIKES COMPUTERS. And I don’t think I immediately turned over to letting them do it for me all the time, but the more they wanted to “help” me, the easier it was to let them. And besides, I was also young and exploring dating and sexuality, so it was nice to have that kind of attention, and to learn how to flirt.

So, flash forward a few years. I was back in Pittsburgh by this point, and I had my first real non-school related job at a computer company that ran FreeBSD. My Mac Classic was now very outdated, and I was pretty much just using it as a terminal server into whatever UNIX systems I had access to. It was time for me to run my own FreeBSD server at home. This would have been in 1998, and I decided that it was time for me to build my own computer for the first time.

My little brother and his friends were going to a computer show to beef up their computers (my brother is also a computer person, he now programs robots!) and they suggested I go with them. Or perhaps they wanted the ride since I had the car… well, whatever, we went together. I got there and asked what I needed to build a computer. Ross rattled off a list of parts verbally and quickly. OK! I said. Then he said, “Great, see you later!”

I was floored. I expected him to come with me and help me get every part. Then I had a startling moment of self-awareness and realized, WHY WOULD I EXPECT THAT??

I consider this a pivotal point in my life. This is where I learned that as a girl, especially a dateable girl, I got really used to having boys constantly try to aid me with my tasks — and by “aiding” me, they were actually doing it for me. It’s shocking that when you think of yourself as being more like Daria, you find out you’re actually Quinn. So I resolved at that moment to not accept that kind of help from boys anymore.

Although, I did need help remembering that list. Fortunately, another of my brother’s friends (Les) took pity on me and did help me remember what I needed so that I could get all of the parts for the computer.

When I got home, I pulled out the parts and put them all over the floor. This is it! I am going to learn how to put these together myself, no boy is going to help me! And would you believe that a boy did actually come up and literally tried to do it for me? I LITERALLY HAD TO SLAP HIS HANDS AWAY.

After that point, I stubbornly decided that I had to learn things on my own, accept no help. I went and read a great deal of O’Reilly books, and I ran my own FreeBSD server at home, complete with webserver and other items, and I absolutely learned how to do things. For the next decade, I was a UNIX Systems Admin.

But this attitude also came with a cost, especially since I was now aging and was no longer the hot young chick who was utterly dateable. I would accept no help! But this also included the help we really do need — the collaborative help we all use when learning new things. I was too proud to ask for help when I needed it. I was too scared that if I let go of anything, it would just be done for me. Further, boys were less and less wanting to help me anyway. I mean, this actually did help when I went back to school as a returning student for my computer science degree — I could be “one of the boys” very easily as an older undateable woman. But in my field, I was having a harder and harder time of it.

The best, most concrete example I can give is when I almost took a position in Philadelphia. I was good friends with the other employees and could work with them very easily. I had a Computer Science degree (fresh), and had all of the programming AND SysAdminning skills they wanted from a new hire. But they pushed off talking salary.. and when they finally did, it was two-thirds of what I had asked for, half what the male counterpart there was making, and a third of what was average for the position and location. I had to refuse the job offer because of their lowball salary, I didn’t even negotiate it was so insultingly low.

At this point I’m no longer working as a Systems Admin, nor am I programming. I am a Technical Support Engineer. I am third tier, so I am doing some fairly high level support, but it is not the path I imagined I would be on given my past. Mind you, I am not sad… turns out I’m good at this, as I know how to talk to both the SysAdmins who are our clients and the development staff at my company.. but I do wonder how different my life might be had I been male.

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