Pat Drummond :: life & technology

November 25, 2008

Women in Science

I just read that between 2002 and 2007, the proportion of women graduating in computer science and engineering fell from 19% to 12%. Everyone is wringing their hands about fixes to bring the numbers back up and trotting out all the old trash about why women do/do not go into science careers. It has always annoyed me that people forget that maybe individuals (like me) don't fit into what they assume "woman" can do. Sexism is alive and well. Women are not supposed to want to be good at science or actually be good at it. Well surprise -- I am good at science, I like science, I am not pale, fat or antisocial. I like people and love music/art/sports. Some women are good at it, some not. Park your stereotypes.

Admittedly, my experiences are a bit antique, but when I went to University of Saskatchewan in 1964, it never entered my mind to register for engineering. In the 60's it was unusual enough for a girl to study math and physics, never mind engineering, agriculture, and medicine. I ignored "Do you want to be a nurse/secretary/teacher?" when I said I was going to university. I was raised by depression era people who revered education as a way to get ahead - what they never had. I had straight A's in high school, and had won a medal in music and made money with my drawing. It was just assumed I would go to university, even without money, so I opened a bank account. I was small, and didn't do well at sports, but kept fit, spending winters skating and summers swimming with my friends - and running to school because I always slept in. Like my sister before me by 8 years, I went to university. Unlike her, I had enough money to finish, plus the assumption that I could. She told me that was the difference. Her high school marks were better than mine without studying (I knew so MANY smart women back then), but she quit university by Christmas because she had money worries and had fallen behind.

I had read Betty Friedan's book "The Feminine Mystique" a few years earlier and it resonated with me (I read a lot). I did not want to have a life like my mother, divorced with three young children, and few choices. I decided at 12 that I wanted to be a computer programmer and wrote the closest IBM office in Regina asking for advice. They told me to study mathematics. I jokingly tell people that I chose math because it was the only subject I could beat my friend Christine (she got 100% even university biology, and became a doctor).

When I went to university, I was eager to experience everything the school had to offer - meeting new people, some from other countries, newspaper work, getting elected to student council, learning to play the guitar, and taking electives in art and astronomy (I wonder if a math major can do that now). I remember getting jibed as teacher's "favorite" when I got a particularly high mark in a physics test. I suspect I might have been offered scholarships to continue if I had been a guy. I just assumed you got a job after graduating, and had no idea you could continue study for a masters without gobs of money. I travelled to Banff to work for my last summer and met people from all over Canada. We played guitars and sang constantly - I knew far more people who rode horses and hiked in the mountains than smoked pot. I had a great time, didn't get pregnant and saved enough for my last year at school (others weren't so lucky).

With no encouragement and nearing the end of my year, I went looking for a job at the university office that arranged interviews. They had told me I probably couldn't get a job with "just a B.A.". I was able to get several attractive interviews. While at a third interview with IBM, the 'executive' told me to my face that, although they had many women working in their company, they had poor experience with them staying and progressing, so likely wouldn't be hiring more. I was so taken aback, I probably didn't say anything, much less the right thing. Until that day, I had no idea there was anything I couldn't do. Having never failed, I had also reached 19 years of age completely ignorant of sexist attitudes!

After I graduated, I accepted a job in a federal government agency in Ottawa. Even in the easy economy of 1967, I realized I was lucky to have found a good job. I actually received (and turned down) a job offer from Atomic Energy in Chalk River, even though I had missed my interview and all they had was my application form! Hard to believe, but true. I was hired because of my grades by a interviewer who at least seemed to be gender-blind. To this day, I wonder what happened to all the women in my math and science classes - I rarely saw women in my work.

Still, discrimination against women was obvious by their large numbers in lower-level jobs but tiny numbers in management (the glass ceiling). Sexist attitudes were common in the workplace (I don't have time or energy to list examples). I worked with men who still assumed women worked only until they married - even though surrounded by married women and working mothers. My independence as a women in a male-dominated society was enabled by a few amazing women decades earlier, but the workplace and "life" changed completely for us after "the pill". By the 70's we could finally control our own reproduction or even choose to have careers without children. (I still joke about the fact that we came of age between the pill and AIDS, making us the luckiest, and randiest generation in history!)

In my first full-time job, I was referred to as the "blond mathematician" behind my back. When my employers discovered my ambition to be a programmer, I was able to transfer to the engineering lab and was given top-notch training and got to work on cutting-edge computer projects. Unlike most others, I would say later, I loved the "work" but disliked the "people". Well, most anyway. Engineers at the time went to school with other guys and didn't develop many social skills. (I hope they are different today.) I frequently ended up working with military people -- now there's a field with even fewer women than computer science. Some military men accepted and respected me as a computer specialist. Unfortunately some did not - the military seemed to attract the worst of these. An officer once hissed under his breath just before a meeting, so only I could hear, "Maybe you should stay home in the kitchen." I had the last laugh. The meeting had been called by my boss to resolve the problem caused by that officer obstructing our work (well, ok 'my' work) at the military base. I had phoned my boss to tell him about the problem, that there was no way I could continue the work, and "I'm leaving". This caused a panic back at the office, since he thought I meant I was "resigning", instead of simply leaving the military base and returning to my office.

A few years after this, I was the second women to travel to our Arctic military base - as part of a working team that is. By the number of undies framed on the walls of the NCO Mess, I gather they had many female entertainers visit previously. (I declined to contribute to the single remaining space on the wall!) I was invited to the cockpit (one of the few perks of being the sole woman). I was asked by one of the flight crew if my husband minded me travelling like this! I was a bit startled, but told him I wouldn't have married any guy who minded me travelling in my job. I was surprised to find another woman on the transport plane, part of a training crew, but they continued on, leaving me in the last outpost before the North Pole, being the only women for a thousand miles. I was billeted in the officers mess far from my travel mates, since there were two communal bathrooms in that building, one all for me. The first thing I did was bundle up in Arctic clothing and go for a walk in the -30 C permanent night (at noon there was a red glow on the southern horizon). I took photos, not realizing this was not allowed. I was passed by a guy who was totally startled when he looked at my face, the only part of me showing, and realized I was female! It was an experience I shall never forget. I had at least one proposal on the local radio station, but still had to drink my white wine alone in the officers mess after work.

In the 70's, military women were not sent to isolated postings, so there was resentment against women. They didn't seem to realize that meant military women couldn't hope to even get their particular jobs because of these restrictions, but I held my tongue around this sea of testosterone. One guy even told me he had discovered that women "smell" different than men, which he hadn't noticed down south. I liked their openness, even though some of the things they told me made me uncomfortable. Still, I felt completely safe - if any guy had made a move towards me, a dozen would have jumped on him.

As for my career as a programmer and analyst, I can honestly say, I completed projects on time, under budget and with no bugs. I had learned software techniques called software design by "step-wise refinement", or "structured design" if you prefer, which resulted in code that was bug-free. Really. That was unheard of in the 70's. For that expertise, I got a big salary,but I expected at least a shot at a promotion. I was surrounded by engineers who couldn't write good software - they worked by the seat of their pants and produced programs that "broke" easily and was impossible to "update". Comments? Documentation? What's that for? (I wondered why schools didn't teach software design techniques in their "computer engineering" courses.) I "burned out" before they had a name for it, and quit to take a year off... Two years later, I tried to return in the middle of a recession, but no one would hire me. I never returned to that world.