Alysha, 21, was born and raised in a Dallas suburb, and is now a senior in college, double-majoring in Computer Science and English. She was generous enough to talk to me about being a woman in CS, what’s wrong with feminism today (you’ll never look at feminism the same way), and living with Celiac Disease. I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did!
How did you get interested in Computer Science?
I took a computer science class in high school to fulfill a credit, and that sparked my interest.
Is that what the kids are learning these days, or did you go to a fancy high school?
I went to high school in a relatively wealthy city, so we were fortunate enough to have a pretty good computer science program.
But the forecast for high school CS education is grim. I was just speaking to someone at my college about high school CS classes in Texas, and she told me that since school budgets are linked to standardized test performance, that’s where schools are putting most of their money.
In addition, curriculum requirements have changed in Texas so that students are no longer required to take ANY computer-related classes in high school—not even classes on typing or basic office applications. I personally think all high school students in the US should be required to pass an introductory course on programming, but that is not at ALL the direction schools are going.
What’s the hardest part? (It all seems hard!)
Adjusting to the fact that computer science isn’t just programming. During my second year, I got bogged down thinking that some of the difficult classes in formal mathematical logic, transistors, and computer architecture were not what I wanted to be doing and weren’t relevant to my career.
It took me a while to understand that even if I never plan to design a chip, being able to understand how a certain chip is designed is totally relevant to understanding how to write code that will run efficiently on that chip.
Does being a woman in computer science confer any advantage or disadvantage?
I think it’s a disadvantage.
Professors tend to think more highly of male CS students than female students. For this and plenty of other reasons, women tend to have a much lower opinion of their own capacity to do well at CS than men do, which naturally affects their performance and their willingness to stay in the field.
I fortunately haven’t had any professors demean my abilities, but a couple of male students have done so. I remember a few friends from freshman year who’d attribute every academic success I had to the fact that I was “one of the guys”—one of them even decided to endow me with an “honorary penis”—but every time I messed up on a test or didn’t understand a concept, it was “because you’re a girl.” I’m not even exaggerating; it was so blatant!
I’ve only had to cut one of those guys out of my life, though. Once I called them out on it, the rest of them figured out how to respect me as a woman.
Another problem is that women hold disproportionately few powerful positions within the field—last time I checked, about one in four people holding jobs that require CS degrees are women, but a much smaller percentage of women are CEOs of tech companies.
Also, the number of women entering tech fields has dropped enormously. When universities started offering degrees in computer science, in the early 70’s, about one in three computer science grads were women. Now it’s about one in nine.
Why don’t you think women are interested in this?
There’s not a lot of consensus on this, but I have two pet theories. First, it’s—very accurately—perceived as a guy’s field, and I think that popular images of who computer scientists are has had a pretty negative impact for women.
The stereotypical computer scientist is an unattractive, nerdy dude. There aren’t many prominent women role models in the field to balance that. If I were to ask anyone to name some famous computer scientists, they’d probably think of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs first.
What’s the last movie you saw with a lady coder? I can’t think of any, except for (maybe) The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, although Lisbeth was more of a researcher than a coder. I don’t think that women picture themselves as coders the way they dream of futures in which they are astronauts or doctors or teachers—because we have famous lady astronauts, you know? We see lady doctors on TV all the time. CS is not a career anyone who isn’t a white nerdy dude is socialized to feel at home with.
My second theory has its roots in one of the most memorable moments I had freshman year: my professor asked the class to raise your hand if you eventually wanted a career making video games. At least half the class raised their hands. But girls don’t play video games as much as guys do - study after study has shown that girls play with computers, smartphones, video games, et al., less than guys.
And this is significant because, if wanting to make the technology you enjoy playing with is such a big factor in a person’s desire to major in CS, we need to understand why women don’t play with technology as much as men do.
I’ve read only one study—it was so simple it blew my mind—that attempted to address why that happens. The study examined how college-age men and women interacted with websites designed by other men and women, and what they found was that women interact more with websites designed by women, and men interacted more with websites designed by men.
If design is the issue, then no wonder women play with technology less: nearly all the technology we have is designed by men. From Microsoft Office to iPads, from the Tumblr user interface to our keyboards.
I cannot emphasize enough how necessary it is to research this connection more. We tend to think of something like an iPhone as a gender-neutral device, and if this study is on to something, that’s just not true. And if women aren’t interested because technology is just not being made to appeal to them, the solution is so simple: make product design teams 50% women.
And we have not even discussed your English degree. Two majors in a totally different field? Sounds like you have a highly developed right and left brain!
I was planning on English for a long time—probably since middle school, if not late elementary school. I didn’t start out studying both, but after a hellish semester sophomore year in which I didn’t read a single book, I was so emotionally drained that I knew I needed something to change. Once I figured out that I could add English and still graduate in four years, it was a no-brainer.
I don’t see the two fields as being totally opposed, though. In fact, there are many really important intersections. Modern computer languages, for example, are structurally based almost exclusively on English grammar, and they’re mimicking natural English more and more closely every year.
A big question in artificial intelligence research is “how do we make computers understand natural language?” I was speaking with an Expedia.com employee the other day, and he brought up the example of searching for “Paris hotel.” Well, are you looking for the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, or a hotel in Paris? Paris, France, or Paris, Texas? We’ve already got three completely different possible results, and we’ve only done a two-word search. Getting a computer to comprehend an entire sentence is orders of magnitude more difficult.
There’s also “how can we use computers to detect plagiarism,” which is much more complicated than you’d think, since once someone is clever enough to change a few words after copying and pasting, you’ve got to be able to detect words that are grammatically interchangeable and have similar meanings; and that’s not even touching on the question of significantly changing the sentence structure when you paraphrase someone else’s idea but fail to give proper credit.
And then there’s the question of “how can we use computers to understand literature?” There’s a professor at my university who’s trying to use large sets of data about Shakespeare’s plays (looking at things like the number of syllables per line of poetry, for example, which changed over the course of his career) to date the plays, since we’re not sure right now what order some of them were written in.
Right now this data has to be gathered by someone trained in Elizabethan English pronunciation, by hand—obviously an incredibly error-prone process. Can we write programs to do that work for him? Can we write programs that help us learn new things about literature in other ways?
I’m intrigued by the fact that you’re dissatisfied with feminism, because of its focus on privileged white women at the exclusion of other women. What role do you think feminism should play in the US? Or is the term “feminism” outdated entirely?
I’m not convinced that the movement is beyond salvaging, but I’m convinced that the movement is corrupt in some fundamental ways and would take significant effort to turn around.
First, there’s the consistent exclusion of women of color in the movement. This goes back at least to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s and Susan B. Anthony’s refusal to support the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments because they didn’t include language that allowed women to vote, to the deliberate exclusion of African-American women from membership in National American Women Suffrage Association in 1890.
It has never gone away, although it has gotten more subtle. Most professional white feminists working today probably would not acknowledge how exclusive the movement is now to women of color and their issues.
Is there a modern example you can share to illustrate this?
The example I like to use is the wage gap. We hear all the time about how women in America make about 77 cents for every dollar men make. This HuffPo article is a classic example of the problem: the writer gives lip service to the fact that African American women and Latina women make less than white women, without even quoting the numbers. Which isn’t surprising, because the numbers alone make the rest of the article look dumb.
White women actually make about 80 cents for every dollar white men make, but black women make 69 cents, and Latina women make 59 cents for every dollar. White women are doing better than black men, who only make 75 cents, and Latino men, who make about 65 cents, for every dollar white men earn. Let’s be real clear: THE EARNINGS GAP BETWEEN WHITE WOMEN AND LATINA WOMEN IS LARGER THAN THE GAP BETWEEN WHITE WOMEN AND WHITE MEN.
But this articles goes on to give a bunch of advice that only really applies to women with college degrees, a group in which African American women and Latinas are very underrepresented.
She doesn’t address in any meaningful way the fact that the numbers make painfully obvious: employers discriminate against African American and Latina women in a way that is both different and more severe than the way they discriminate against white women. She doesn’t research these differences or attempt to offer advice that would help women who are discriminated against because of race and gender.
That is the kind of erasure I’m talking about—the kind that assumes that the way in which white women experience misogyny is universal, and that the solutions that might work for middle-class white women apply to everyone.
What can be done to improve the movement?
White feminists can take a couple of steps in order to move forward on this: first, they need to understand and admit that feminism as a movement has almost exclusively been for and about the needs of white women. This is essential to rebuilding trust with the women who feminists have marginalized.
Second, they must familiarize themselves with the work of feminist activists of color and of womanist activists: For starters, there’s Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker.
Then they need to start doing intersectional analysis of how misogyny works. Intersectional analysis is essential because it’s aimed at understanding the ways that various kinds of oppression intersect to produce a unique form of oppression that is not the sum of its parts.
An East Asian trans woman, for example, isn’t oppressed because of her racial identity one minute and her gender identity the next.
American stereotypes about gender in East Asian people (emasculated or un-sexual/unsexy men, submissive women, etc) are going to affect how someone perceives that person, and that perception is going to be complicated by American stereotypes about people who are trans (for example, the pre-op trans woman that “unsuspecting men” must “watch out for.”)
The goal of intersectional analysis is to understand and explain how oppression isn’t cut-and-dry. It’s difficult, but if feminists are going to be serious about inclusivity, it’s necessary.
Third, white feminists should be taking supportive roles to womanist leaders. I don’t trust the leadership of white feminists like Naomi Wolf anymore (what’s so feminist about deliberately getting yourself arrested at Occupy Wall Street so you could sell an article about the experience? I’m still mad about that.)
And race is just the oldest example - in many ways the movement has failed people who are trans*, who aren’t straight, who are disabled, who do sex work, and others. The steps I outlined for dealing with race issues would apply to any community mainstream feminists have marginalized.
[Ed. Note: Alysha explained to me that trans* is often written with an asterisk to be inclusive of people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth but aren’t necessarily trans men or trans women.]
Another point: I’m so tired of seeing feminist leaders focusing on education, raising awareness, and journalism instead of practical, grassroots-level organizing to meet practical needs. Those tactics are just not very effective. Like, I have no idea what Slutwalk accomplished. I don’t feel any safer looking sexy in public than I did before.
Closer to home, there was a huge PR effort this summer from Planned Parenthood when Texas was about to defund one of the most important women’s health programs in the state. It accomplished NOTHING. The program was defunded, and the state has not found the funds to make up the loss in federal dollars, despite promises that they would do it if they lost federal funding.
And now, it’s much more difficult for poor women in the state to access gynecological health care, cancer screenings, birth control, and so on - especially Latina women, who made up around 60% of the program’s membership. This kind of organizing is not effective, but they keep doing it.
Are you saying that they focused their efforts on marketing the cause instead of funding the cause? Just want to be sure I’m following!
Yes! Marketing the cause boils down to loudly demanding that people who are not feminists start being feminists, or at least do a feminist thing. And, to return to the previous example, anyone who lives in Texas who knows the first thing about our governor and legislature knows exactly how ridiculous that was when they tried it this summer.
Rick Perry’s career BENEFITS when he doesn’t bow down to that kind of public pressure, and that’s true of most anti-feminist public figures. It’s a colossal waste of time and money to try and convince them otherwise, because almost every time, their self-interest is going to take priority over women’s needs.
So changing people’s minds about feminism is just not interesting to me. I don’t care if a man is sexist if his sexism doesn’t have the power to hurt me. I want to take away men’s systemic power to hurt me.
For example, Texas requires that I pay for an unnecessary and invasive trans-vaginal ultrasound before I get an abortion (which costs over $500 in Austin, where I live). If I got pregnant next week, I almost certainly couldn’t afford an abortion without outside financial help, even though I’m taking a medication that causes serious birth defects. Your difficulties are compounded if you’re a mom, if you work hourly jobs and can’t afford to miss work, if there’s nobody to watch your kids, if the nearest city where you can get an abortion is a 9-hour drive away… What is the point of having a right, if you don’t have the power to exercise it?
I’d love to see feminists forming and supporting local networks that help fund abortions, watch women’s kids while they get abortions, provide free or reduced-cost housing if they have to travel to have an abortion, and so on. I’d love to see prominent feminists agitating for federal funding for abortions.
The movement needs to start making radical demands again; they’ve gotten complacent, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that most feminist leaders are white, middle-to upper class women. They have it relatively good, and I think that has left them out of touch with what the most disadvantaged among us need.
You mentioned that you have Celiac, but find the Paleo/gluten-free trends annoying. Can you tell me about this?
Well, to list the most self-centered reason, they get to cheat on their diets without consequences, while if I cheat I get really sick for a few days and my risk of stomach cancer increases.
To list the second-most self-centered reason, treating it like a health trend means there’s not enough gluten-free junk food. The day they start making GF cheez-its will be a beautiful, beautiful day for me.
My serious complaints: it’s based in some faulty dietary science (my favorite misconception: some Paleo dieters think fiber is bad for you! Enjoy being constipated, y’all.)
In general, they seem to think glutinous grains are practically a poison. I’d happily agree that most people eat too much wheat. A lack of diversity in your diet is never good, but the solution is diversifying the grains you consume, not eliminating glutinous foods entirely. Unless a doctor tells you to, there’s just no need.
Also, health trends like these are marketed to the relatively wealthy, which means the increase in demand hasn’t driven down the price of the gluten free products I need, and by no means am I relatively wealthy. Sandwiches are a luxury item for me. On-the-go food for less than $7 is a pipe dream, and for a student who’s running around campus all day, that can become a significant problem.
Also, labeling GF food in the US is poorly regulated, especially in restaurants, where the owners and chefs are often have no real clue whether there’s gluten in their food or whether there’s a significant contamination risk in their kitchen. The fad dieters can ignore these issues with impunity; I can’t. (I also think that any fad diet that’s oriented around eliminating a certain food group is harmful to those with eating disorders oriented around dietary restriction.)
And for the record, I spent my first six months living gluten free subsisting primarily on ice cream and potato chips. Needless to say, I did not lose weight. Cutting out gluten will not magically make you skinnier.
You were born and raised in Texas. What’s that like?
I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, so it wasn’t too different from any other suburban upbringing. I wouldn’t tell a tourist to go to Dallas to see what Texas is like.
There’s a pretty significant difference between urban Texas and rural Texas, too, and our major cities are all very different from each other. This clip from the recent movie Bernie has a great description of the regions of the state. It’s a classic slice of what Texans think about Texas. That whole movie is a flawless piece of Texana, actually, and I highly recommend it.
(Just watched the clip. “People’s republic of Austin… Where women have hairy legs.” Ha!) What do you think people get wrong about Texas?
Oh, the list is really long. Nobody rides horses to school. Texas is not a desert. Many Democrats live here.
The most irritating one is the general ignorance of how polarized the political process has become since Ann Richards left the Governor’s office in 1995. Our voting districts have been gerrymandered to the point where almost all of them are majority Republican, and if you only look at election results maps, you won’t necessarily see the fact that about 45% of the state or so votes Democrat reflected in the results.
Despite consistent Supreme Court intervention, there’s been a pretty successful effort to disenfranchise anyone who isn’t likely to vote Republican. Favorite example: the most recent voter ID law, which the courts recently struck down, allowed you to vote with a gun license, but not a student ID. Gee, I wonder which party gun owners tend to vote for?
You’re right. I had no idea there were so many Democrats in Texas. I also have a stereotype that many people in Texas don’t believe in evolution. Is that inane?
Well, it’s true of every state in the US. Gallup’s 2012 poll on evolution beliefs found that 15% of Americans believe in evolution that wasn’t guided by God, while another 32% believe that God was involved in the process of evolution.
Texas gets a lot of attention for it because we play such a major part in setting textbook standards that end up affecting many states in our region, and—well, I’m sure you’ve heard about how extreme those standards can be.
But this Texas Tribune poll shows that Texans don’t stray significantly from the national average: 12% said evolution happened without God, and 38% said that God was involved in evolution, while the rest were creationists.
You mentioned that your parents are moderately-conservative Christian, but you stopped believing at age 15. Was there an inciting incident?
The event that tipped me over the edge was meeting a bisexual student during my sophomore year of high school who’d had a really rough time in middle school after he came out and was clearly in a lot of pain over it.
I didn’t want to be associated with the Christian kids who did that to him. They used a lot of slurs, and I think he was in a couple of physical fights. He went through tons of harassment, to the point where he entered high school having no friends, and he was so angry and hurt that he would lash out at everyone as a defense mechanism, even if they were trying to be friendly.
People weren’t as cruel to him in high school, and It was both wonderful and awful to see how sweet he was when people treated him like a person instead of a verbal punching bag. (Awful because to see his kindness, and to compare it with how he’d push people away when I first met him, revealed how little he had trusted others to not hurt him.)
But I’d been falling away from it for a while. My family had been attending the sort of evangelical church that strongly emphasizes a personal relationship with God, “feeling his presence in your heart” and so on, and I hadn’t really ever felt that connection.
I was starting to feel like church camp, which I attended most summers, was intended to manipulate you into this emotional high that made you feel connected to God at the end of the week, but which never resulted in a long-term change in the way I lived, and which never built the sort of friendships/community that could have supported me as I struggled with my faith after camp was over.
There were also the usual philosophical problems teenagers often encounter with church doctrine on evolution, God’s decision to not intervene when humans suffer, etc.
I’m definitely not in the same angry place as I was when I was 15, though - being a nonbeliever isn’t an important part of my identity, and if my parents ask, I’ll go to church with them. Even if I don’t actively participate, it’s still an important part of my heritage.
Their conservatism wasn’t as much of an issue for me until I started leaning further left than liberal, which was about a year and a half ago. But I don’t want to paint my relationship with my parents as particularly fraught - most of the conflict was more teen-angst flavored than anything else. We still fight about this stuff sometimes, but I don’t think it has damaged our relationships as a family.
What’s next for you in terms of career, life goals, etc.?
I’m graduating next May, so I have to find a job. I’m trying to find work with a smaller company than the one I’m working at now, doing something software-related. (I’m not interested in anything on a lower level of computing than an operating system, and even that would be stretching my limits.)
If that doesn’t work out, I’ve already got an offer to stay on at my current job.
That’s the big task. The small one is to finish knitting my Gryffindor scarf by the time it gets cold in Texas.