The year is 2012 and I just transferred to Texas State University. I was as excited as any other Category 5 Nerd for the first day of class. I was officially a computer science major. Just saying that out loud made me feel smart. You could walk to the CS building and other students would go "oh you're smart if you have a class in there". I navigated to the class with ease having cased the building the day before. I sat next to a brunette and bounced my knee nervously trying to pull up the syllabus on my laptop before the professor arrived.
Unlike many of the freshman around me, I was a junior in college. After a disastrous freshman year in a small town in Texas, I spent a year and a half studying film in Austin, a 3-hour drive from my parents home. I loved what I was doing, I excelled in film editing and could see myself directing dramas and music videos. The only problem was when reality hit. When I was looking for film work I stumbled on $8/hr gigs that wanted you to work 16 hour days with few benefits and often only paid at the end of a 3-month shoot. This was not the lifestyle I could take on considering I didn't have a large savings to live on.
I decided after unsuccessfully trying to find work in film to continue my education and landed on computer science. I had always liked computers. I was spoiled my senior with a pretty silver MacBook to apply to and go to college with. Despite my pleas for a Dell with a pink flowery back cover the MacBook was perfect for my needs and had minimal issues. I blame my dad for making me an Apple fangirl before I held an iPhone.
Our professor finally arrived to class 5 minutes late. He looked like he was in his late-30s and carried his laptop tightly in his armpit. He connected to the projector without a word to us then scanned the room slowly. His eyes fell upon my section of the room and he quickly walked over to the whiteboard, wrote out his name then turned to face us again. "It looks like we have two girls in here this semester, don't feel bad if you fail. I'm Dr. _______ and this is Computer Science 1". This was my first introduction to tech, no, this was my first introduction to misogyny in tech.
After 'don't feel bad if you fail' left my professor's mouth I felt all eyes on me, I looked around taking in the faces of my pale male classmates. Some were confused some badly hid their amusement. I was one of two women and the only black person in the room. So I resolved to not wanting to seem stupid. You can't come off stupid if you never say or ask anything. Now I had 20 boys waiting with a joke for when I failed. Weeks later I was doing poorly, as my professor expected. I scowled noticing the flyer on the bulletin board adjacent to the shitty professor's room.
"Are you a girl interested in Computer Science? Apply for the CS dept Scholarships for girls!"
I thought "Why the fuck would anyone want this?" The courses weren't set up so we'd learn, but copy how our instructor coded. We started in C++ and did so many tests by hand I spent more time writing than typing. My willingness to ask questions was at 0 the whole semester. I feared failing my gender or my race and nobody in that room would think I just sucked on my own merits after our Professor calling us out. It didn't take long for the semester to come to a close with my grade sitting at a C. I met with my professor during after hours where he berated me for not attending office hours earlier (gee, I wonder why) and that he could tell I was putting in genuine effort, but "if this part is hard for you it's unlikely you're going to get it. You're very bubbly though, you look like a Communications major not a Computer Science major."
Let's take a trip down memory lane to 1998. I was 7 and sitting in front of a big box TV watching Star Trek: The Next Generation after school. When my dad got back from work he lugged in a massive desktop computer and what seemed like a larger than life satellite dish. I was lucky to have parents who were early adopters of tech and apparently, he got a good deal for signing on early. He got to work setting up a big stake in the backyartd to secure the dish. He brought home our first family computer and I was hooked from day 1. I wish I could say I was a coding wunderkind or took the thing apart just to put it back together, but that's not the case. I was your average kid, an internet consumer playing flash games on the Nickelodem websote. You see my dad is a lover of all things new and techy from big screen TVs to Xboxes, Smartphones, the lot of it. I understand that my experience using technology is unique compared to most of my peers and especially most black people. As an only child, I benefitted from my dad's love of gadgets and disposable resources.
We soon had a dedicated computer room with a desk for my parent's shared computer and a desk for mine. My mom was a nurse who spent time in community college coding in COBOL and FORTRAN. My dad was a security freak with networking and TC/IP books strewn around. Tech was a quiet omnipresent influence in my life. Through my teenage years, I'd spend hours posting on Xanga, updating my top 8 on myspace, and writing fanfiction on what's now a quiz site. To say I feel like a digital native is an understatement. However, my math skills were lacking. I voluntarily took summer school math in high school to catch up with my advanced and AP math friends. It just didn't click for me long before I knew there was a stereotype about black people and mathematics. My parent's invested in after-school math tutoring to make sure I was college ready. I felt just as insecure in my college classrooms as I did answering questions in private tutoring sessions.
I wanted to give it another shot, wanting to believe I could do it. I was a 5th year senior studying digital media in Pittsburgh and had the time to take some CS courses as electives. I even had my first female professor. She was an awesome teacher and actually broke down the problem and how to translate it to code. I was the only woman in the Intro to Python course and would often go to office hours to talk about career paths. She went above and beyond to explain logic concepts that helped me with projects. Turns out being able to communicate is important. Once when we were getting coffee and chatting about front end vs back end she opened up to me about the harassment she'd been facing in the department. I wasn't blind to how her male student's treated her. I was concurrently in a web design course with most of those guys and they never talked back to our male professor. They never made jokes about his boobs or how attractive or unattractive they found him. I found myself handcuffed with fear in those moments. I thought they'd direct the vitriol towards me next. It was my professor and I in a room of 25 white guys spewing unnecessary anger. I didn't get why they hated her. Why they made fun of her voice or why they'd make comments if she'd bend over to do ANYTHING. Trust me, if Deep Nude technology existed when I was in school, the guys around me would have been using it.
She was in the middle filing another complaint with the department (the right thing to do right?) and she needed a witness to what was going on as her previous complaints had been met with "you should learn how to control your class". I enthusiastically filled out the necessary emails and spoke to the dean of the department personally. Within a week we had a new class "monitor", a male admin in the department offices. Of course on this day the guys were on their best behavior. With that singular male opinion, there was no problem and her complaint was dismissed. When she found out the department had no intention in doing anything about it, it was a cold, cloudy day and we stood outside the CS building chatting for nearly two hours. She felt like she wanted to quit. She admitted she felt no reason to continue teaching before thanking me for taking the class and having her back.
My third encounter with sexism in tech was at my very first "big girl" job. It was hardly that, working for a 1-person startup at $12 an hour, but I had experience in SEO from some internships I had done during my undergrad. I was dressed for the job every day and so excited to show my boss I was going to work hard and have kickass ideas. It was perfectly fine at first, we brought on a social media manager and the three of us felt like rockstars. I'd ace client calls and they'd compliment the level of detail in my work.
One day I was fired unexpectedly. I came into work to find the doors locked. I called my boss and he explained how he just didn't need my services anymore. I was confused, we got along, I was doing a good job, I even went to dinners with him, his wife, and our other coworker. In the end, I got no explanation. A few months later while I was on a business trip to Minneapolis for my new company my old boss texted me out of the blue. After I picked up my last paycheck we hadn't communicated at all. He asked how I'd been and I bragged about the fancy hotel being comped for us. He took the conversation to an inappropriate level and even went as far to send me nude images of himself, before casually admitting he had to let me go because he felt like he couldn't control himself around me. I blocked his number and told his wife what was going on.
Since then I've done social media for a hotel marketing agency, app analytics for a lottery app company, videography and marketing for a cannabis startup, social and analytics for a cannabis website, data science for a cannabis startup, a drone startup, a fitness software company, and my current role at SambaSafety.
A harsh reality we need to confront is that 22-year-old cornballs coming fresh out of CS programs that allow them to harass their professors are making tech that impacts human beings. They're seen as the archetype, the ideal, the standard. Truth is, people of color have been in tech, used tech, retrofitted tech and we need to tell our stories. Homogenous groups are often at the helm of tech startups and can't guide companies to success without mentorship, legal guidance, or a basic concept of the very complex ethics software engineering entails, and yet. If we don't fix this early, we can't fix tech.
To my computer science professor that told me I looked like a communications major, I'd like to give a middle finger to you. I have a degree in Communications and went on to get a Master's Degree in Data Science. You can do both.
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