More about be(com)ing a woman in STEM

This image links to an interesting infographic.

This image links to an interesting infographic.

“STEM” is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. We have a shortage of STEM majors of any gender in the US right now, but the shortage of women in STEM is particularly damaging. Although librarianship isn’t really a STEM field (at least the way most people practice it), I come to it via engineering, and I’m on the tech side of the library house; after all, computer programming is a STEM field, and web development stems (heh) from that. I might still be pushing it to claim I’m “a woman in STEM,” now, but let me at least tell you a little bita lot about my history with STEM.

How did I get here? (The long version.)

When I was in second or third grade, a teacher told me “Since you’re a girl, languages and literature will be easy for you, and math will be hard. That’s OK.” (I’m paraphrasing, probably. And I grew up in rural northwestern Virginia, for the record.) For years, I kind of believed it; my only C’s on report cards came from my inability to learn the multiplication tables, something I still haven’t got down (OK, and I also regularly got x’s for “social talking” and penmanship). Although I was in the slightly-advanced math track (pre-algebra in 7th grade), I was a pretty mediocre math student, who kept expecting to fail; one day, I knew, we’d get to a concept I just couldn’t handle. When algebra (8th grade) came along and I got to start doing math with letters, I suddenly got really good at it. And, sure, after that, geometry was fun, and trigonometry was a surprisingly positive experience, too. But my first math-love was algebra. It was a turning point for me, the moment when I realized I might be good at math, after all.

A few years later, when another student and I each earned a 3 on the AP AB Calculus practice exam (to put that in English, we passed the Level 1 version of the test, which was worth 3 college credits) early*, our calculus teacher let us spend a semester trying to teach ourselves enough to take the BC (AP Calculus Level 2, worth 6 credits) test. Now, I won’t lie: that 3 was hard-won for me. I sat down with a bird on my shoulder and recopied my calculus notes every night, to try to make sense of calculus. It was the first time in my life that I had ever really intensely studied and worked hard for knowledge. And I was incredibly proud of that 3. After a semester of independent study, the other student, a guy, ended up earning a 4, and I earned a 5 (the highest score they give) on the BC exam. Later, I was very surprised when my calculus teacher, who had never voiced a doubt before, said I had changed his mind about women in math. I now wish I had gone back and rubbed it in my elementary school teacher’s face, too. (Incidentally, I also earned a 5 in AP English. So that first teacher was half right: I’m actually not bad at language & literature.)

The next year, as a college freshman, I took Computer Science (CS) 101 and found it pretty tough. I earned a grade that was only JUST high enough to get a job as a TA for the class, the following semester. As it often does, teaching helped make me a better student, so I did well in 201, that semester, and all of my later CS classes. More importantly, one day, a pair of [female] students said I was their favorite TA because I was patient with them. Looking back, some students did go out of their way to get my help, over some of the other TAs, I think because I admitted that I had had a hard time in the class, myself. They seemed to like that I was honest when I didn’t know an answer and would look it up with them. (Realistically, there were probably some students who hated that I wasn’t the very best coder in the room and avoided me. But I can live with that.) It seemed that, by being humble and modeling fallibility, I made at least some of the students feel more confident. This was a valuable life lesson.

One of my co-TAs, an older student I really looked up to, spent most of the semester trying to talk me into switching from the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) to the Engineering School. She wanted me to major in CS, which, in retrospect, might have saved me some time. I ended up only following half of her advice, opting to go into Electrical Engineering after taking two classes to test the waters, my freshman/sophomore summer. And I have to say, making the switch to engineering was not the best choice I’ve ever made. I had a really good situation in CAS**. I didn’t have a passion for engineering, or any particular ambition to do something with the degree, though I found the first two classes interesting enough. I didn’t do it out of love of the discipline; ultimately, aside from the vague idea of “job prospects,” I mostly did it with the words of my teachers ringing in my ears, to prove a point, that women are just as good as men. And in my own little way, I proved it: despite joining the rest of my class late and having to catch up, I was the only electrical engineer in my class to graduate With Highest Distinction. (Also without a lot of proper weekends. I worked awfully hard through college.) And I graduated with a job offer and a top-tier PhD-track graduate school offer, despite the dot-com bubble having burst. I felt like I’d done my self and my gender proud, so far.

I went the schooling route and finished the Master’s, but, to my advisor’s dismay, I went no further. By the time I got out, I hated the work I was doing. Taking the first job I was offered—a continuation of that work, for a small company instead of scientific interest, and with an added unreasonable time frame (CMU’s lawyers are very good)—was another very bad call, though it got me closer to the DC area and a lot of other opportunities. I was the only woman working for the company, at least until they hired a communications person. They were opening a satellite office, pretty much building it around me and one other employee at that site, a technician (who, incidentally, knew more than I did—enough years of experience more than equal an engineering degree). I was treated as a receptionist and delivery-taker, since he was out doing technician work most days. They wanted me to be the voice on the main office’s phone machine, “because studies show that people trust female voices,” and couldn’t understand why I would refuse. (By the way, the vendor guy who came in the door, walked up to my desk, and asked “May I speak to an engineer, please?” was so embarrassed when I looked up at him and said “You are.”) They hired a guy who knew way less than I did to be my boss, and I wasted a lot of time trying to bring him up to speed. And there were other really awful things about working there, including the Vice President of the company calling and bullying me beyond the point of tears for not owning a car (true!), but the gender stuff is all that’s relevant to this story. So let’s just say, that job ended, and although it took me another couple of years, I did eventually realize that I have rights as a worker, and I’m allowed to ask for reasonable treatment. I can say one good thing about that job, though: I got to see the guts of the Library of Congress. I’ve been in parts of all three buildings that very few have probably been lucky enough to see. That was cool.

My next job was great for the first couple of years. My immediate boss, who was also the manager of the really great, really helpful-to-humanity project I was working on, seemed intent on climbing the corporate ladder and pulling me up behind him. He was a great mentor and let me do a bunch of project management stuff, which has been really useful to me in my current career—more helpful than the wireless stuff, certainly. He pushed me into doing things I was less excited about (more engineering and a broader project base), to help me advance within the company, and he was totally right, assuming that was what I wanted. But when they didn’t need so much wireless engineering or project management on that particular really great project, anymore, and it started to become clear that I would need at least a Secret-level clearance and willingness to work on less humanity-helping projects, I started to really re-evaluate where I wanted to be. That wasn’t what I wanted. I also didn’t want to work for the cell companies; I’d had enough exposure to former cell company engineers to know that wasn’t my game.

So I had a kind of mini-crisis—it was not very dramatic, but any time you can admit “I hate what I’m doing, and I can’t see a way forward or out of it,” I think it counts—and sought help from my friends, both in person and online. A friend of mine, who had also graduated with a Master’s in Engineering, suggested I might want to go into librarianship, just as he had done. Which I thought was nuts, right? Books? I mean, sure, those are great, but…

Luckily, he set me straight and pointed me at some good resources about the more technical side of librarianship. I read a bunch of blogs, decrying how technology was making librarianship hard and “how will we ever compete with Google?” and “there’s too much information out there,” etc. The field looked overwhelming in its complexity, but also really, really exciting. I always shorten this story to “The interesting problems in wireless engineering have mostly been solved. I don’t find ‘How to make more money for cell companies’ compelling. But librarianship has lots of interesting problems, still.” I think we can all agree on that.

I had to do some serious soul searching, though. Librarianship is a female-dominated profession. And while systems librarianship and probably even engineering librarianship are not, as much, I still felt like I was turning my back on my principles by leaving engineering. I felt like I was letting a bunch of future female engineers down. It was a really hard choice, and my guilt ran deep. (Invite me to an event set up to talk girls into going into engineering, and you might still see shadows of it on my face, even now.) I know I made the right choice, because a miserable engineer is not a motivating engineer, but it was still tough.

Where am I going?

Since changing careers I’ve seen the state of systems librarianship and web librarianship and the “ship” of librarians who code (coding librarianship?) first-hand, and I see that there’s some gender-related work to do, here. Even more broadly, there’s work to do in the rest of librarianship.

And, for that matter, it isn’t as though the tech world is closed to me. As I pointed out in a recent discussion on STEM, you don’t need a CS degree to be a computer programmer. I have come to realize that I can totally be part of the coding community, both within and external to librarianship. I am at the very cusp of starting to back away from my “librarian” persona, locally to Anchorage, in order to rebrand myself as more of a web-developer-who-is-also-a-librarian. I’m starting to let go of that mistake so many of us make, as librarians, that we should be trying to solve library-problems in library-land, all the time. Because it turns out that being a librarian does not stop me from, just for instance, returning to my roots and teaching girls and women how to code. (Yes, yes. First I need to get better at it, probably.) I can definitely do it locally—I even have a partner in crime!—and if I can learn Python in time, I can be a TA when Carli Spina and Andromeda Yelton teach librarians to code at ALA Annual.

I really like the idea that I can work in a field that is interesting to me, with interesting problems, and still be true to the part of myself that wants to prove how smart and capable women can be in science, technology, engineering, and math. I have had some great mentors and great people to model my career on, both male and female, and I feel that I’m getting to a place where I can finally give back. And (some part of me wants to add “more importantly,” but I’m not sure if that part is correct), I can keep doing my part to prove all of the misguided teachers and anti-mentors in the world wrong. Take that sexists!

* Since we were on a block schedule, and calculus was two semesters long, it was really a double-class. We passed after one semester, which is how long most people get to study for the exam, total. So we weren’t prodigies; we were only slightly above par, nationally. It just wasn’t the norm for our school, where most of the class passed AB/Level 1 but not until they’d had two semesters.

** I had an undeclared major, but I was part of a program that let me skip the GERs and, if I wanted, make up my own major. In high school, I had wanted to be a marine biologist. (I still do.) But my mom told me that you have to take a human anatomy class and dissect a cadaver to get a biology degree, which I couldn’t handle (at the time, now, ever). To this day, I have no idea why I believed that, why I didn’t look it up. It’s obvious in retrospect that they don’t waste human cadavers on marine biologists, but although my parents both had post-secondary schooling, I was a first-generation university student (or, well, my aunt had gone, before me, but it never occurred to me to ask her for college advice, nor to her to tell me things), meaning that I didn’t realize the requirements for most majors were available online, or that you could ask those kinds of questions if you couldn’t find it out yourself. Anyway, first semester of freshman year, I ruled out majoring in physics. (Physics I for Physics Majors assumes you’ve taken physics classes before! Who knew? I didn’t, so I gave up and withdrew, to save my GPA.) I would probably have ended up a Cognitive Science major, had I stayed in CAS, which would have been more fun and might have led me into human-computer interaction a lot sooner. Ah, well. C’est la vie.

About Coral Sheldon-Hess

Python dev, librarian, engineer, feminist, maker, bird nerd
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