Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blog against sexism

When people ask me to pinpoint what made me decide to become a college professor, I usually talk about the undergraduate research opportunity during my senior year in college, or any of the fabulous mentors I've had at various times in college and grad school. But while all of these are true, there's one event in particular that, looking back now, really started me on my path to professordom.

It was my junior year of college, and I was taking a class with the Professor From Hell. This professor was the type of person who would call on people at random with the intent to intimidate the hell out of the person. If he asked you a question and you happened to get it right, he would then ask you a much more difficult question, one you were much less likely to get right. I, as did many of my classmates, lived in fear of this man. Needless to say, the class environment was horrible.

Like most of my classes, this class was overwhelmingly male. There were probably 65 people in the class, 5-6 of whom were women. For the most part, though, my male classmates had never given me, or any of the other women any trouble---no snide comments, no leaving us out of lab groups, etc.

On this particular day, the professor was talking about image processing. He often taught off of slides, and today was no exception. It was time for him to show an example, and so up popped a slide, an image which he was going to run through various processing filters.

Let's just say that the image was overtly provocative.

As if the sudden and unexpected appearance of this scantily-clad woman was not enough, the reaction of my classmates was even worse. These same men, who up until now had been largely supportive (or at least not overtly unsupportive), started cheering and whistling and making all sorts of comments. The professor stood up front with a broad grin on his face, allowing the cheers to go on and making no move to move the class onward and make his point.

The few women were trying to make themselves as invisible as possible, slinking down in their seats, turning 18 shades of red, and looking like they wanted to be anywhere else but in that room at that time.

I wish I could say that I was brave, that I stood up and called this asshole on his rude behavior. But I was a scared college kid, outnumbered. And so I kept my mouth shut, and prayed like mad for the class period to end. And my female classmates did the same thing. What else could we do? If we said anything, this professor would make our lives miserable for the rest of the term. If he wasn't in any hurry to stop these shenanigans, and even instigated them, why would we think that he would listen to a reasonable protest?

I still cringe when I think about that day, many years ago now. But that moment was a real turning point for me in several ways. Once I got over my embarrassment, I got angry. Really angry. And the more I thought about this incident, and this class in general, and how this professor treated us, I realized that there was no good reason why this should be an acceptable classroom environment. This was not a good way to learn. Perhaps the field needed people like me, who would be committed to making sure that no woman, or no man, would have to be embarrassed in the classroom in order to learn the finer points of this discipline. This really lit a fire under me, and made me think for the first time, seriously, about getting into academia as a means to change the environment in which my discipline is taught.

The other reason why this incident was a turning point is because it was the catalyst that got me involved in my major. Up until that point, I dealt with the "impostor syndrome" by not hanging out with my classmates, by doing all of the work myself, by not reaching out to the other female students, by trying to make it on my own. After this happened, I realized the importance of "forming alliances" with the other women in my classes. I realized how valuable my female classmates were, and that maybe in the future we could help make the classroom environment better if we banded together, among other things. I wish I had learned this particular lesson earlier, because I missed out on some wonderful opportunities to get to know some truly fabulous women, but hey, better late than never.

Today, years later, this incident still shapes the way I approach my job. I'm uber-concerned about the environment in my classroom, and I think very carefully about how to structure this environment to make my students feel comfortable learning and sharing with each other. I may not always succeed, but I owe it to my students to try my hardest to do so. This incident also explains another reason why I am so passionate about trying to achieve gender equality in this field: because until we achieve equality, until women are present in greater numbers, there will be bozos like this who make the environment for women toxic. It's much easier to stand up to the bozos, to call them on their behavior, if there are more of us to make the call, and more of us with the power to make sure there are sanctions and consequences for such behavior.


Mike said...

It wasn't the Lenna picture, was it?

Oonagh said...

Thank you for this post.

Jane said...

Mike, it was indeed Lena (or Lenna--that's the first time I've seen it spelled that way). I know that Lena is effectively "the" canonical image in image processing, filtering, compression, etc., and I've dealt with this image many, many times since then. But seeing that image that first time, and not knowing what to expect, and having the prof be such an ass about it (and my male classmates be so, er, vocal about it)...that was the hard part, the embarrassing part. There were at least 18 different ways the prof could have handled that situation better, but he didn't, and that's what sticks with me.

(and what does that say about a field, when the canonical image is based around a Playboy centerfold??)

angrygrad said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
angrygrad said...

I took two IP classes and curiously enough, and both the class syllabi explicitly warned aganist the use of this image. Although, I suspect that had more to do with the Indian abhorrence of sexual content than any consideration for the women students.

MaggieMay said...

awesome post. Thank you!!!

Jill said...

Just have to echo Maggiemay: thanks for posting this. And thank you for becoming an academic - and for blogging.

Vicki A. Davis said...

This sounds like the time my Economics professor (at a male dominated college that I loved!) said "Why aren't you women home chopping wood and cooking..." and then later one "Whoever gave women shoes should be shot."

I used that as fuel to prove him wrong and proceeded to make a grade so high on his exam that he retired the test (and wrote me a note in my campus mailbox to prove it.)

I've found that the people who are sexist are usually also racist and many other types of -ist.

I had another professor who said that brainpower was the greatest anti-discrimination tool on the planet. That if you make sure that you're the best that it is hard to argue with that.

The sexists I've come across have only steeled my resolve and made me a better person as I've chosen to prove them wrong with my life rather than my lips.

I will continue to be a computer science edublogger and attempt to stay on the edge of technology as much as I can. Thank you for the inspiration.

Jeff Mather said...

"What does that say about a field, when the canonical image is based around a Playboy centerfold??"

I suspect we all know the answer to that question. From the rosy Lenna story web site: the engineers "wanted something glossy to ensure good output dynamic range, and they wanted a human face. Just then, somebody happened to walk in with a recent issue of Playboy." So the grad students in the 70s were walking around the lab with Playboy. Hmm.

The good news is that when I go to academic/industrial conferences that have image processing and compression aspects, I rarely see this image any more. Researchers understandably use images that are more typical to the researcher at hand (medical, industrial, etc.), which really just makes sense. Perhaps it's because about half of the presenters are women; but I suspect that the field has grown up a bit.

Still, the image shows up in literature more than it should. And images of women make up the overwhelming majority of test images involving people.

The article in one IEEE journal quotes the editor of Photonics: "'It’s not difficult to feel isolated when you’re a woman working in a male-dominated field,' she wrote in Electronic Engineering Times in May 1997. 'Seeing provocative images of women in learned journals can add to that feeling of noninclusion.' In consultation with her publishers, Bains decided to ban Lena from publications that she edits. She reported receiving letters of thanks from women, while no one complained that the policy compromised their work."

Jane said...

Jeff, thanks for the additional info. I had not heard about the banning of Lena in selected journals, but it's about friggin' time! (And thanks, angrygrad, for pointing out that Lena is banned in other places as well--good to know, whatever the ulterior reason is!)

Vicki, I've also used sexist comments as personal motivation, but I have to say I'm getting sick of always having to prove myself. :) Plus I can't help but think of all of the talented women who started out in my major in college but who dropped out because they didn't want to put up with the crap anymore---and who can blame them? How much different this field would be if more of us stuck around and said "enough is enough!"

Jane said...

oh, and thanks for the story, Vicki. Appalling, but I'm glad you were able to put that prof in his place!

Ann Bartow said...

I loved your post; I copied it, with credit here:
I wanted to simply excerpt it and send folks here to readthe whole thing, but I couldn't figure out how to do that effectively - and I do want folks to read the whole thing! If this troubles you let me know and I'll delete it or whatever you want.

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