Geek chic

By
September 20, 2001

Q: You won an award for being the “Sexiest Geek Alive” this last summer. Why do you think you won over all the other computer science geeks?

I argued that I was the sexiest because sex is about reproduction and I’ve “reproduced” the most geeks.

What do mean by “reproduction?”

I’ve taught dozens of girls and women to be techies. I haven’t had any actual children. In the talent round I showed photos of girls and women whom I’ve taught with their electronic projects to the song, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, by Cyndi Lauper. The contest included both men and women so one of the reasons I entered was to make sure women were visible.

You wore a very interesting and sexy outfit when winning the award. Do you want to tell me about it and what it means to you?

First of all I wanted to wear something geeky and glamorous, not just a t-shirt and blue jeans because I’m trying to say that you can be both geeky and sexy. I wore a PVC corset with a printed circuit board pattern. In the movie Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock wore a slit skirt with a gun strapped to her thigh. I had a slide rule strapped to mine.

You received your Bachelor’s , Master’s, and Ph D in computer science from MIT. Was this difficult or you or does computer science come easily?

A Ph D is difficult for anyone. At MIT 15% of the Ph D students were women so we really stood out. I played down my femininity because the women who dressed nicely were stalked.

I know that in any environment I share with men, I’m afraid of being defined as a sex symbol first and a peer second. Did you fear that might happen to you at MIT?

At MIT men are considered normal and women, deviant. Therefore, it was best to play down my femininity. I sometimes joke that I went from being unusual for being a woman at MIT to being unusual for being into computer science at Mills.

So you feel more relaxed and free to be yourself here at Mills.

Definitely. I wouldn’t have entered this contest if I were working at a co-ed institution.

Why not?

Because I’d be one of the few female Professors-especially in computer science-so competing would have made me stand out even more and not in a good way.

How long have you been at Mills and what courses do you or will you be teaching in the future?

I started in 1998 so that would be four years. Right now I teach Computer Architecture where students build a computer from scratch and really understand, all the way down, how it works.

I can’t imagine doing something like that. I thought only incredibly skilled computer geniuses could build a computer from scratch. Is this difficult for students to accomplish?

It’s not an easy class, but we give lots of support and guidance and students can do it. I’ve also taught an Advanced Computer Architect course where we recently built robots. I’m creating a new interdisciplinary course on robots scheduled for the Spring where students with no experience will build robots, read stories about robots, and analyze predictions of the future of robots, both past and present. I also teach a course for computer science majors on operating Systems, which also looks at social issues such as the open source software movement.

How do you feel about the status of women in computer science today?

Very concerned. Every year since 1985, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees to women has gone down. This is not the case in any other field. For the past ten years I’ve been very involved in efforts to increase the number of females in computing so I’m just delighted to be at Mills. I’m involved in the Tech Bridge Program which organizes science clubs for girls in the Oakland schools. The girls from my video from The Sexiest Geek website are from that program. Last year I organized a conference on Pioneering Women in Computing. The speakers included two of the world’s original programmers-and these were women, not men.

Why do you think the percentage of women in computer science has gone down since 1985 when in every other field it’s gone up?

Nobody really knows. The percentage of women in computer science went up in the 1960’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s. Women’s decline in computer science occurred at the same time as the rise in the personal computer. Before that women and men were equally ignorant about computers when they entered college. Once there were computers at schools and homes, boys hogged them. Also, girls generally don’t like violent computer games that tend to be so violent that they really only appeal to boys. And lastly, I think girls are more repelled by the geek stereotype than boys are. To me, that’s the reason behind the contest; to reclaim the word “geek.” At MIT we had the Nerd Pride Movement which was consciously modeled off of the Gay Pride Movement. We reclaimed the word “geek” as positive and something to be proud of.

What do you think of the computer science program at Mills?

It’s very exciting. Mills has been teaching computer science since 1960. We were the first women’s college to offer an MA in computer science. We’re the only school to offer an MA in Interdisciplinary Computer Science for people who want to incorporate computers into their own areas of interest. We have a new five-year program where students can get a BA in another field and an MA in Interdisciplinary Computer Science

Oh, wow. I can see how getting an MA in Interdisciplinary Computer Science along with my BA in English Literature could be very useful.

Very much so. We have a new web site about the program at: www.ICS.Mills.edu

if anyone’s more interested in checking it out.

What did you win form the contest?

A special geek cruise for two-one week in the Western Caribbean with speakers discussing computer topics. (I’ll be missing class to go to that). I also won a new computer from Gateway.

Is another computer even very useful to you? I would imagine you already have a very up-to-date computer.

There is always a newer version coming out. I have plenty of computers already though, so I’m going to turn one of them into a game machine for Mills students.

Will women want to play computer games?

Oh yeah!


Geek chic was published on September 20, 2001 in Features

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