A few years ago, I knew a man. He was part of a man’s world. He earned a Ph.D. in Computer Science. He studied Probabilistic Reasoning in Artificial Intelligence. He entered the program with excellent grades, a string of peer-reviewed publications, and an applauded thesis at the Master’s level. With his knack for finding intricate relationships between seemingly unrelated bits of information, he chose a unique path. He combined his logical, analytical mind, and his passion for psychology, to explore how probabilistic models could be used to shed some light on how we, as humans, use a) our past experiences and knowledge; and b) environmental cues – to make decisions in the world.

He took some classes, taught some classes, defended a comprehensive examination, earned a research grant, defended a thesis proposal, published more peer-reviewed papers, and offered some seminars, all the while being an active member of several student associations. Finally, he defended his thesis for a committee of respected academics without a hiccup. From start to finish, this took 2 ½ years.

What adjectives would you use to describe this man? Dedicated? Driven? Hard-working? Innovative? Intelligent?

Well, as it turns out, this is a true story, in all but one detail. It is not a man’s story. It is a woman’s story. It is my story. My timeline. My academic journey. And the adjectives used to describe me were far from the ones listed above. Let me elaborate on three (of many more) tales that coloured my Ph.D. student experience.

The One From the Other Side

There was this common core Computer Science class I took. My professor was about a year shy of retirement. I noticed he called upon me (a lot) to give an answer…almost giving me the impression he was trying to stump me. So needless to say, I made sure I paid constant attention instead of writing, in my head, my next research paper. He kept calling upon me, and you can bet your life I made darn sure I gave the correct answer. Every time, I would provide the answer, and every time, he would laugh, for a few very uncomfortable seconds. Once the laughter would stop, he would carry on with the lesson and it would simply be understood that the answer I had given was in fact correct. After a short time, he stopped calling me by name, and began to refer to me as: “the one from the other side”. That’s right…as in “the woman”. He would shamelessly make jokes about my being a woman in a sea of men, about not fitting in, and about not knowing my place in the world. He implicitly insisted I made it my duty to prove myself. Being there wasn’t enough. Having jumped through the same hurdles as my male classmates didn’t warrant me the credibility required to sit through the class minding my own business. And that wasn’t 50 years ago, it was 2005!

Sexual Promiscuity

There was a young male professor in the department. I don’t think he and I had ever had a proper, one-on-one conversation. Perhaps polite chit-chat at a welcome BBQ or a department curling outing? Anyway, it was brought to my attention that this man, this professor, was wondering who I was sleeping with that would explain my admission to the program and my continued academic success.

There is a research grant called the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant. Computer Science Ph.D. students are eligible for the NSERC grant. It is a fairly prestigious award in the sense that it is based on merit and pretty much allows you to focus exclusively on your research without the need for a part-time job, or other sources of funding. There are many applicants but few recipients. I (boldly!) applied for this grant.

Back to the rumour. This rumour about my sexual promiscuity became so real and so powerful that my thesis committee was modified under the speculation that one of its members was the source of my academic success. That my having become socially involved with this other professor, made it “clear” that he was the instrument to my otherwise impossible success.

Back to NSERC. When the anticipated announcement was made about the NSERC grant recipients, I suddenly became a legitimate person whose success wasn’t determined by gender. I became an NSERC-funded Ph.D. student and only then did I become credible. The NSERC scholarship is awarded based on the quality of the submitted proposal, refereed publications, and grades – not sexual promiscuity. The rumours ended, and I was free to pursue, without justification, what my male counterparts were able to do from Day 1, NSERC or no NSERC.

The Bubbly Blonde

As it turns out, my Master’s degree (M.Sc.) also came together rather quickly. It was remembered for having been fast (one year and one semester), having produced several publications, and a sound thesis. I was unaware of this reputation my M.Sc. carried until one day during my Ph.D. studies. A few professors from the University where I had earned my M.Sc. were visiting. One of these professors made it his duty to congratulate me and to inform me that many still spoke highly of my work. All the feedback I was receiving from this professor was very positive, encouraging, and uplifting. A wise man would have stopped there. But he didn’t. This professor kept going and took it upon himself to share with me his great surprise. He went on to explaining to me just how stunned he was by my academic success because “when you came in, I thought you were just this blonde and bubbly girl”. He was throwing that out there like this was ADDING TO THE COMPLIMENT!!!!!!

These are three stories I know of. I’m not sure what the ratio is between the tales I know and those I will never know, but that’s not the point. What matters is that although I didn’t experience an extreme case of discrimination, I had to prove myself over and over, simply because I am a woman. I am grateful for how far we have come. I had a right to this education, and once I earned the respect from my peers, I did have a voice, I did have an outlet. I don’t think I should need to prove myself simply because I am a woman, but at least I had the opportunity. I was allowed to rise to the challenge. Many women are still looking for that freedom, that choice, that permission, and that outlet.

And those men? None of them are monsters. In fact, I have learned from all of them. They are conditioned. So conditioned that they don’t even realize they are taking a stance. That they are limiting women. That they are taking away women’s power. If you asked any of those men the question: “Do you suppose women should have equal rights?”, I’m pretty sure you would hear a resounding YES from all of them.

It is International Women’s Day. Let’s ask ourselves if we play a role in this conditioning. Let’s remember the progress that has been made, but let’s stand united and keep joining hands so that all women are given equality – freedom, choice, permission, and an outlet.

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