Being the only woman

Why do I need WomenInSage and Pyladies

Posted by Viviane on April 10, 2017
Diversity Point of View

Whenever I organize a “Woman” event, I get some comments. Sometimes, it’s just curiosity, sometimes I am asked to justify it, to argue, to defend. Sometimes, I am let to nicely explain to someone that even though they disagree with me, I am going to do it anyway. Indeed, I am entitled to my own fight, I have gained enough experience, I am clever enough to decide by myself what is needed, what I should do. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that non-mix events can cause debate and, every time, I have a debate with myself to decide what I should do and what is the best solution. And today, I have decided to explain one thing. I need it: I do this for me. Of course, I believe it is of general interest for the communities I belong to, of course I want to help women and other under-represented group to join, of course I believe in diversity. But I do it for me. Because, I am tired of being the only woman. I have a great job, I get along very well with my men colleagues and I always have a lot of energy and cheerfulness. But still, I am tired and I need to do this. Let me tell you how this feels and what those events mean for me.

The Gender asymmetry

When did I become aware that computer science and mathematics were not meant for women? (In the sense that there are very few women and that society basically tells us it’s a man job). I don’t know. It came gradually I suppose. I chose to pursue a degree in science because it was what I loved and I was good at it. When I started university, the male / female ratio was quite ok and I remember being friend with many female students. Later on, I did a double major in mathematics and computer science. That’s where it became quite obvious. In mathematics, still, there were women, but in computer science they had almost disappeared. That’s also when I met my first mansplainers who, for some reasons, thought they knew more than me (mostly in mathematics, I must say). Thankfully, I was very good in what I was doing so they soon learned to keep their arrogance for themselves if they did not want to look like idiots.

When I finished undergrad, I spent two years as a web developer in Ireland. It was a small family business, many people came and left. All in all, in the dev team, I can remember around 8 guys and 1 girl, who stayed only for a few months. So, basically, most of the time I spent there, I was the only woman (2 other women worked in the company in the commercial team, one was the boss’s daughter and the other one was the other boss’s wife). Then I went back to school and started a master’s degree in Mathematics. We were a small group of students, around 10, and I can remember only one other woman. Then I started my thesis. Both my advisors were men, most of the other PhD students were men, even the students I taught to were mostly men. It happened very often that I would go for lunch with a bunch of people and suddenly realize: I’m the only woman here.

Did I suffer from it? Not really. I have been quite lucky and also maybe, happily blind. All the men I have worked with, whether in the Irish company or in Academia were great guys who valued me as a developer and, later on, as a researcher. I have never suffered from any kind of harassment and I can hardly remember any specific sexist comment. Actually, at the time, I believed I had passed all the invisible barriers that stopped women from becoming scientist (I was not blind enough to ignore those barriers existed) and that now, I was just another scientist, that being a woman would not change anything. I was wrong.

Not everything was bad. I felt it was easier for people to remember who I was: “Who are you talking about? - You know, the girl who gave a presentation about blah. - Oh sure” (There was only one girl who gave a presentation). I must say some people still managed to confuse me sometimes with the one other woman even if she did not look anything like me. “You’re confusing me with … I understand, we are both women, but see: she’s rather small and has dark Mediterranean skin, and I’m tall and blond and very very pale, I’m sure you can manage!”. During my first year as Maître de conférences, a colleague who had lunch with me every week still never managed to remember my name: he was confusing me with the other new girl and would basically use both names to refer to us as if we were a single person. “Viviane-or-A.-I-can’t-remember said this”. This same guy would brag about knowing all his students by name and was giving me very condescending remarks on how I should teach my class.


So, for a long time, I was not aware that being the only woman was actually tiresome. The first time I heard of a woman-event, I was a bit surprised and curious (Am I not just another mathematician?) The event was so specifically targeted that I felt I HAD to apply: “Young women in discrete mathematics”. When I told the name to my boyfriend he jokingly said: “Wow, that’s specific, will there be anybody else?”. That’s also what I thought. But still, there were, something like 100 people. The conference hall was filled with young women in discrete mathematics, just like me, women I was not even aware existed before. It was weird, for once, to not be the exception, it was nice, and somehow I could rest. As if, all this time, I had to constantly justify me being here, to constantly prove I had deserved it, I had to play this role of being the only woman. There were things I could discuss there that I would not have discussed with my male colleagues (no matter how nice they were), I could actually become aware of my own experience by recognizing it in other people’s stories.

The second event that opened my consciousness was not a woman event. It was one year later when I first attended PyCon. It was also the biggest event I had ever been to and the first time I was attending a non-academic conference. Because it was about a programming language, I was expecting a bunch of nerd guys and no woman. Why? Because that’s what I knew! I had been part of the SageMath community since the beginning of my thesis. This is how I got into python, how I discovered open-source development and philosophy, versionning control (well, that’s not true, I knew svn from my time in Ireland but Sage taught me mercurial and git). Anyway, that had been a new world for me, and it was a world I loved. I had been welcomed and valued in the Sage community and I believe my implication in Sage had (and still has) a lot to do with my success in research and in my career. But, there were no women.

What was already quite noticeable in the math world was event more blatant in the math-dev world. As I said, there are not many women mathematicians (still a few) but when you intersect that with programming and open source development, you find almost no woman at all. At the end of my thesis, I think I knew only one other woman in my field that was heavily involved in Sage. The sage-devel mailing list is almost 100% men contribution (I think more than 99%). Whenever I attended a Sage workshop, especially if it was development-focused as opposed to discovering-sage-focused, it often happened that I was the only woman. So when I attended PyCon, I was expecting the same thing.

And what a surprise! There were so many women! I don’t know what was the ratio among participants, what I know is that 30% of the talk were given by women. This was a result of a very active policy of empowering women and encouraging women speakers. 30% was still not 50% but it was way more than I was used to. And this diversity of speakers was reflected among participants. I could meet many different women from different backgrounds with a common interest in python and coding. Meeting tech savvy women was a new thing for me. This was like seeing some old friends and realizing that you had missed them all this time. The other new thing was that the diversity issue in tech was actually addressed, people talked about it (and not only women). In my field, I had always felt like nobody even noticed or, if they did, they did not think anything could be done. I was surprised to see so many talks about the python / open source community, and diversity, and all. There were women activist groups, and among them the PyLadies for which I am now running the Paris chapter.

And now

Not long after I attended PyCon, I got my permanent position in Paris-Sud where I have been ever since. My work load was heavy, teaching and research kept me very busy. But the idea of feminism and activism was always in the back of my head. I did not have the time to organize anything but kept following the groups and women I had met at PyCon. So when @Patjouk started PyLadies Paris, I was among the first to join the meetup. One year later, she decided to move to Berlin and very naturally, the task of keeping PyLadies Paris up felt on Anna Livia and myself. I still did not have much time, but this was a cause I was willing to give some time for. We run the Coding cafe every week: we just meet and code and talk together.

I am still often the only woman. I am the Paris-sud lead of the European project OpenDreamKit: among 53 participants, we are three women and I’m not even sure I met the other two. But I am not always so quite alone. By meeting the PyLadies every week, I get a bowl of fresh air, of nice chat, and some motivation to keep learning and to keep fighting. Recently, I organized WomenInSage and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had. Even when you get a PhD, even when you get a permanent position, there are still many barriers for women in tech and science. We have to keep fighting all the time, and for this, we do need energy and support and I get that from the PyLadies coding cafe, from the WomenInSage, from whenever I am not the only woman anymore.

So this is me. Maybe not all women in tech need this. But still: I am very privileged. I have a permanent position, I am white, cis-gender, I have great colleagues who support me and to whom I can even talk about feminism because they are the best allies you could dream of. I do not suffer from harassment or pressure. Many women are not that lucky. So maybe, some of them need these spaces even more than I do. So even if you have some philosophical reticence against women-spaces and women-events, do consider how much some of us need it before you start arguing and tiring us.

Before you comment

Please, do not tell me about all the time men are the only men. For one thing, I am aware of it and this is not a contest of which gender suffers most under the patriarchy. I do fight all gender prejudices. Also, remember something. Many times where men are the only men, they are not that alone. Indeed, a male student in Literature might be the only guy in his class but he has all history and even current society to look up to. Everything tells him how many great men there are in his field and the more he goes up, the more men he finds. I can think of one field where men suffer a very strong prejudice, it is child care. But see, I cannot tell you about mid-wife men groups because I am a woman and I am not a mid-wife…