content warning: misogyny & reference to a sexual act
It was my first Linear Algebra course of my second year at the University of Toronto. I was sitting with three friends that I had met the year before in class and, I was the only female sitting in the row. About ten minutes into class, I heard my friends laughing as they passed around a phone to one another. As it reached me, I saw what the joke was about and my heart dropped.
Someone had taken a photo of me among the row of males I was sitting with and had captioned it:
“How many blow jobs for you to do my assignment?”
I was mortified. My friends could immediately tell that I did not find the photo funny. I wanted to leave the lecture right away, but I was sitting in the middle of a small classroom. Trying to keep it together, I continued taking notes but I could not get my mind off the picture. I felt that the hours I had spent studying and stressing were demeaned by a single Facebook post. The more I thought about it, the more upset I grew. The notebook in-front of me disappeared into a blur as the tears swelled in my eyes. I became so distraught that a stranger on my left asked if I was alright, while my friends on the right reassured me that it was only a joke and I had no reason to be upset.
It bothered me even more that my friends did not understand why the situation was upsetting to me. After I spoke to them about the picture later on they said that the photo was probably meant to be about two other males in the photo as it seemed like they were talking to each other. Immediately, I began to doubt myself. Did I overreact in this situation? Was I being too sensitive?
Over the course of these past couple of months I have been in avid pursuit of more information regarding how women feel in computer science. The people I have spoken to have been split, responding either that gender does not matter because, ultimately, it is the quality of the code produced that is the most important, or that there is an imbalance, but they cannot explain how.
Some women I spoke to told me about subtle instances of their ideas not being heard in group projects, or initially being stereotyped as people who may not know much about programming. When I told them about my experience with the Facebook photo, most people were very surprised that someone would do that, and my friends from class still maintain that the photo was not about me.
My first year had been filled with anxiety and uncertainty about whether I deserved my place in the program. Surrounded by a predominantly male population that had been learning programming since high school, I felt miles behind. Every conversation I overheard about tech increased the anxiety I felt from the lack of knowledge that I thought I had.
There are several gender disparities in computer science when we first start off in university:
The first being the knowledge gap. This issue stems from toys and games that we are exposed to from a young age, and from society’s expectations of which occupations each gender is supposed to adopt. Most of my peers came into university knowing a bit of Java (a programming language taught in second year). In first year, we start off learning Python, a very welcoming language that is more straight-forward to manipulate for beginner programmers. In class, I would often hear people around me exclaiming how easy all the class exercises were, whereas I would struggle with them on my own time. When people picture a programmer, there is a generic image of a man wearing glasses and a t-shirt in a dark room coding away. I think this is the stereotype we need to steer away from most. The issue of the knowledge gap is a social expectation that is based on the stereotype of who a computer scientist is supposed to be.
The second is the lack of mentorship. I remember walking into the computer science frosh day to find almost only male frosh leaders. They were great leaders and extremely welcoming, but it would have been reassuring to see more female frosh leaders, and in general, female role models in the industry.
The third is the online culture of outspoken people, predominantly males, on social media and forum pages. People hide behind their screens and keyboards, where their online personas are vicious and bold compared to who they are in person.
The photo posted about me at the beginning of last semester falls into this issue. Whether the comment and photo taken were about me or not, the photo was inappropriate and vulgar. The photo and caption were posted into a group on Facebook created for students in my linear algebra course. No one should ever feel so uncomfortable in a classroom during their lecture.
Most people are ignorant to the fact that sexism continues to exist and that situations like mine arise constantly and frequently, whether it be subtle or in a direct Facebook post. Because of male dominance in computer science, many outcries of sexism and misogyny are argued against or silenced, partly because they, themselves, do not experience systemic sexism. Thus, the gender disparity in this field perpetuates, making it easier for sexism to be dismissed.