Systerhood and Feminism

By Ellen Spertus

Ellen Spertus

Ellen Spertus

Although I’m a computer science professor at a women’s college and have been an advocate for women in computing for more than twenty years, I wasn’t always a feminist. I used to be a male-identified misogynist. My transformation occurred because of, and on, Systers.

I grew up in a family intellectually dominated by my father, an MIT graduate, and my older brother, a math prodigy. WIth my precocious intellect and passion for computers, I identified with them rather than with my unintellectual housewife mother and mathphobic older sister. I felt that my status with my family and peers was an honorary male — not able to equal the best men but certainly better than other females. I felt that women’s underrepresentation in the sciences was due to their own lack of interest and abilities in the “hard” (therefore “better”) sciences. Nevertheless, I hoped to find girls like me at computer camp and college, but I was unable to find or befriend the few such women, even when I entered MIT.

I don’t remember how I found out about Systers, but I joined it as a junior or senior in college, back when the list had only a few hundred subscribers, including the two female MIT CS professors, Barbara Liskov (now a Turing Award winner) and Nancy Lynch, if I remember correctly. It became immediately clear to me that women had made and were continuing to make tremendous contributions to CS, and I began reading about the unique problems women faced.

Like most MIT students, I resented the few non-technical electives that were required of us and took the classes most similar to my major. Second semester senior year, I took Sherry Turkle’s “Women and Computers” and chose as a term paper a topic I had long wondered about: Why are there so few female computer scientists? I posed the question to Systers and received a torrent of valuable information, including personal histories, stories, and valuable references. (This was in 1990, before search engines or even the Web existed.) I shared a draft in which I argued against affirmative action programs on the grounds that they caused people to doubt women’s qualifications and was told by someone who attended MIT back when it was harder for women to be admitted than for men (because of limited housing) that their qualifications were still doubted. At the beginning of the semester, I didn’t think I would be able to write the required twenty pages on the topic; I ended up writing over a hundred pages. I also rewrote the narrative in my own brain about women (and, by extension, myself), realizing that (as Ann Richards once said) women had been dancing backwards and in high heels.

I put the report online, sent the link to Systers, and word spread wider and faster than I could have imagined. Department heads distributed it to entire CS departments. Newsletters reprinted chapters. I began receiving email from readers whose minds were changed or experiences affirmed by the report. I had feared the report might diminish my status at MIT (where I was now a graduate student) and in the broader computer science committee, but the department gave me an award, and my increased visibility helped, rather than hindered, my career. One of the many invitations I received was to speak at Smith, a women’s liberal arts college, and that opened my eyes to a different mode of education, less harsh and more respectful of diverse fields than an engineering school. After earning my PhD, I joined the CS faculty at Mills College, where I recently became a full professor, and I still occasionally hear from people touched by my report. A few asked me to write a follow-up on how things have changed for women in the past twenty years, but I think that’s a job for the next generation.

Some ways that you can begin or contribute to write the narrative of women in technology today: are by telling your own stories on Systers, reading others’ stories and looking for common themes, or reading past reports, such as the 1983 MIT Barriers to Equality report or my own and writing about what has or has not changed.

2 thoughts on “Systerhood and Feminism

  1. Kathy R says:

    I just did a brief read of both papers.

    The 1983 Barriers to Equality report is really a must reed! It personally gave me a much better context for thinking about and justifying small, subtle situations that make me uncomfortable. It is an easy read.

    Ellen’s 1991 paper cites many references for scholarly works on stereotypes, perceptions, language, social and biological.
    It is a very in-depth and useful read to gain a better understanding of “Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?”

    I think one way that many of us, myself included have dealt with some of these issues is to make sure we belong to some group of female technologists. In an all women’s group the issue of gender disappears. When I’m surrounded by amazingly bright, committed women technologists, I see myself in them, I see many different ways to interact, and am more easily heard for what I have to say. I can then carry over these attitudes, engagement model, and perceptions into my more male professional environments.

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