mansplaining, manˌsplāniNG (n.)

The explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.

Kaitlin Lim

“No, yeah, I think I understand more computer science than you do,” he scoffed. I immediately froze and slowly turned to look at him. “I’m taking CS 500 right now anyways, so yeah.”

I blinked. Even with the loud din of different group conversations echoing around the classroom, I could only hear his words ringing in my head. He began to list off his past experiences with computer programming and gave me a thorough, unsolicited explanation of why my comments about the coding language Python were incorrect.

There was a gamut of replies that flashed through my conscience, ranging from a retort like “Well, I took that course last year? So I don’t really need your help?” to mild obscenities. But the gears in my mind refused to turn. “Cool, thanks,” were the only words I could muster. My eyes scanned back to my computer screen, displaying lines of code that I was working on minutes prior. I closed the tab.

While I was aware of mansplaining, I always imagined that I would experience it in college or in the workforce, never in a classroom during an innocuous discussion about biological data analysis with my classmates during my Upper year. What soon ensued was a hurricane of internal conflict. Although I had spent the past three years developing my knowledge and skills in computer science, I immediately felt my confidence shrivel, retreating deep within myself. My passion and reputation as a coder—one that I prided myself on and dedicated most of my academic studies to—was stamped out and trivialized in just a few minutes of conversation.

But this was not an isolated incident. Once I began taking more advanced computer science courses, I was embroiled in conversations where male students tried to best each other with their computer science knowledge: one student would make an observation about server management, another would immediately follow with a retort about multithreading, and then someone else would chime in about I-don’t-even-know-what. If the teacher were to ask me about my thoughts, I would only gurgle out a half-assed response that clearly showed that I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. In a room full of remarks like “Yeah, that assignment was so easy” and “I aced that test,” I struggled to ask for help and to find my own comfortable space and role within the classroom.

Unfortunately, my experiences are pervasive and relatable to many other women in computer science and are important obstacles that bar many women from exploring the field. According to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, computer science research jobs will grow 19% by 2026, but women only earn 18% of computer science undergraduate degrees in the States, and the majority of these women are either white or Asian. While more women have begun entering the computer science industry on both the collegiate and industrial levels, there is a disparity between the proportion of women who enter college with the intent of majoring in computer science and those who graduate with a degree in it. 

One longitudinal study that featured survey responses from female students attending a wide range of private and public universities revealed that 32% of the female survey participants had taken an introductory computer science course, but only 16% of female respondents actually graduated with a degree in computer science. This same study cites that the main reason why women never further pursue their interests in computer science is because of a constant need to prove themselves, to rise above the male majority and demonstrate their coding capabilities.

This implicit need to constantly validate oneself is a feeling that I’ve identified with too closely since that incident. More often than not, I’ve experienced moments of acute self-doubt and inadequacy, as well as a hesitant, involuntary growing resentment towards computer science. 

But my relationship to computer science is like my relationship to MarioKart on mobile: one of unadulterated excitement and love sometimes, and an angry, hotheaded frustration other times. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, but I do hope it gets better. In the meantime, though, this is me, reclaiming what voice, what power I had lost during that conversation. This is me, taking back the confidence I had lost and letting go of the anxiety that I had grappled with ever since. I am a coder. I am a programmer. I am a computer scientist—and a damn good one at that.

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