News flash: Female computer-science professor good with computers

Lillian Lee, May 29, 2014

I had this interchange with a freshman early on in the semester. The background is that at some point I was fixing an installation issue on their laptop via some command-line stuff.

Student: Wow, you're really good with computers!
Me: Oh, that's because I'm old.
Student: That's what makes it even more surprising.

I told some colleagues about this afterwards, as an amusing the-terminal-window-is-so-old-it's-new-again slash I-used-to-think-of-myself-as-young-but-those-days-are-over anecdote. But a friend in the humanities responded, “Imagine you knowing about computers...with just your PhD in computer science and all.” I was going to say, “no, you don't get it”, but upon thinking about it, the student's “even more surprising” phrasing is indeed really telling:

News flash: female computer-science professor good with computers.

And in certain respects, why isn't this an understandable reaction? Students who have never encountered a woman who is competent with computers may unconsciously decide that such women have a 0% chance of existing. I myself, who, after all, grew up in the male-dominated field that CS in the US has been to date, didn't notice the real oddness of the conversation until it was pointed out by my humanities friend, who, by the way, is a male in a field where, at least relatively speaking, authoritative and highly visible women are much more frequent.

So, while sometimes, in the dark of night in the middle of a long semester of teaching intro programming (or, sometimes, more heart-stoppingly, during lecture when I'm in the middle of a live programming demo and suddenly encounter a bug I can't immediately resolve), I wonder, “Why did I sign up for this?”, it's good, in such moments, to remember, “There need to be some examples of Women Who Can At Least Demonstrate Semi-Competence at Programming On The Fly On Those Rare Occasions When They Get Enough Sleep”.1 And we all would do well to encourage (or at least not discourage) those women we meet who are good at programming, and to make sure other people know that such people exist.

By the way, what eventually happened with that student whose conversation has stuck in my mind this whole semester? Well, she did great in the class and overall hit a cumulative GPA of over 4.0.

With maybe luck and more work on all our parts, in the future she and her classmates won't find that surprising.

1. I am not one of the world's great programmers, and I am a _really_ terrible typist even on the best of days. I also quite visibly experience incapacitating rage/panic during lecture when encountering annoying bugs in an IDE, or --- needs it to be said? --- Powerpoint. (I can only hope that perhaps some students find this part of my charm.) On the other hand, I do have some inspired moments, and over the years have accumulated some cute tricks here and there, and I sure as hell can get an A+ in frickin' intro programming, fer crissake.

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