By Andrea Baumgartel
Elizabeth Zak ’18 is one of the co-leaders of the Women-in-Computing club (WIC). When she wanted to advertise a meeting, Zak did what one would normally do: she wrote “Women-in-Computing, Tuesday, 7 p.m., CS Commons” on a white board on the third floor of Noyce.
The next day, the “Wo” in women had been erased, the board read “Men-in-Computing, Tuesday, 7 p.m., CS Commons.”
Thinking it was just an accident, or perhaps a dumb joke, Zak re-wrote the “Wo” in “Women”.
The next day, the board read “Men” again.
This has occurred not once or twice but every single time Zak has attempted to advertise a WIC meeting.
So last week, Zak took a white t-shirt, wrote the time, day and place of the meeting on it, and wore it to the dining hall. “If anyone tried to erase that, well, that’s Title IX,” she said.
“Honestly, who has time to just sit around and think, ‘hmm, how can I be an asshole today’,” joked WIC member Elise Brod ’20 at last Tuesday’s WIC meeting.
The other women and a few quietly listening men laughed in between slices of pizza.
When the group complained to a faculty member about the recurring incident with the whiteboards, the faculty member “basically told us to keep our head up,” Zak said. There has yet to be further action taken on the issue.
Zak and Gemma Nash ’19, another co-leader of WIC, are familiar with the challenges of being a woman in computer science.
“It’s a real test of self-esteem,” Nash said. “When you’re starting out, you really have to earn people’s respect. You never automatically get it.”
“Being a woman in CS is like getting a sandwich made at the deli. Depending on any given day, you might get a sandwich that has enough meat and cheese. You might get a sandwich that is 90% bread, or too much mayo. But every single day, you can’t go and expect the same thing or the same kind of treatment,” Zak said.
“Or they call you a ‘bitch’,” Brod said. “I just try to swap around partners as much as possible so that I always work with women.”
Still, the attendees at the meeting emphasized that overall, the Grinnell CS Department, especially the faculty, is supportive of women computer scientists. Many professors use random name generators to call on names and avoid implicit bias in class; the Department Chair, Professor Sam Rebelsky, supports WIC and has sat in on a meeting; next semester, the male-dominated Department is hiring an additional woman professor.
Men are welcome at the meetings.
“We don’t think that the men create such a disturbance that a safe space can’t be established,” Nash said. “Most of the time, the men who come just sit in the corner, eat pizza and listen.”
For the rest of the meeting, the group went on to discuss t-shirts, the upcoming Grace Hopper conference for women in computing, their days, frustrations and goals.
Despite the instances of misogyny and erasure, the computer science women are even more resilient, even more determined to foster “a supportive network of awesome, powerful network of women in computing and their allies,” as WIC aims to do.
But by getting rid of the ‘Wo’ from Women-in-Computing, some Grinnellians are sending an implicit message.
“That message is: ‘I do not care about women in computing and I do not want a safe space for women in computing,” Zak said. “And that is wrong.”