The difficulties of *isms in an professional environment

At my current job, there are many racist people. There are many sexist people. Homophobia is almost ubiquitous. These are people who have been at the company for 20 years and those that started 6 months ago. They say things like “Stupid girls”, “dumb bitches” or “East asian males are all slobby, inconsiderate, and ignorant.” They make fun of foreign names and men who are slightly feminine in their demeanor. Unfortunately, they are all people who I have to work with if I wish to stay employed.

I’d like to think that HR would do something about it if I brought it to their attention, but the sad truth is that they are there to protect the company from lawsuits not to protect the employees from harassment. In reality, the perpetrator would probably end up with a reprimand in their permanent file and I’d end up with a note about being a trouble-maker in mine and, come lay-off time, we’d both probably be among the first out the door. In the meanwhile, however, I’d still have to try to do my job with the whole department less willing to speak to me or work with me.

So how should I deal with this as a low-level wage slave with no support from anyone in power? I am ashamed to admit I was terrified the first few times I encountered these attitudes and just froze in shock. But, since I’m me, I can’t be happy just listening to this dross and not fighting back. I can’t go through official channels without risking becoming homeless, so what do I do?

I’m not sure how wise it is, but I’ve been trying out sarcasm and mockery along with gentle reproach depending on the situation. A couple of weeks ago, I walked into a rant about how stupid women were and spent the rest of the day pretending I was really stupid to annoy the ranter. He’d say something to me about X and I’d just say “What? What’s X?” When he got really angry at me, I said “Well you already think all women are stupid, so what’s the point of trying to be intelligent when you’re around?” I don’t know how effective it was, but I haven’t heard him ranting since.

If I overhear someone unfairly complaining about someone not fitting into some mold that they are unfairly trying to shove someone into, I usually just say “He’s a good engineer and I like him.” The response is usually along the lines of “Well yes, but he’s so effeminate” Then I can say “So what? He’s a good engineer and a good person.” I live in such a backward place that this usually means they’ve never thought up a response to this and don’t say any more on the subject.

Does anyone else have any other ideas?


Free online classes from Stanford

I’ve been taking the Machine Learning class from Stanford this semester. It’s pretty good. It’s not nearly as intense as taking a class in a classroom with exams and quizzes, etc. but it’s good. I spend about 4 hours a week on it, although after I remembered more linear algebra it’s gone quite a bit faster.

There are going to be a *lot* more offered in the spring, but I’ve not seen a concise list anywhere. So I’ve assembled one.

Lean Launchpad
Technology Entrepreneurship


Civil Engineering
Making Green Buildings

Electrical Engineering
Information Theory

Complex Systems
Model Thinking

Computer Science
Computer Science 101
Machine Learning
Software as a Service
Human Computer Interaction
Natural Language Processing
Game Theory
Probabilistic Graphical Models
Design and Analysis of Algorithms
Computer Security

Why I’m a feminist

My mom is fiercely anti-feminist.  It’s a point of contention between us.  She is one of those libertarians who seems to believe that it is right and good that weak people are used by those stronger than they are.  She thinks that, if you’re strong enough, you can fight your way to the top and, I guess, become one of the people who uses others instead of them using you.  She thinks that feminists are cheating and trying to get around this by sitting around and whining.

The other female influence in my life was my dad’s mom.  She was pushed out of the engineering program at her university in the early 1950s because there were two professors who refused to pass any women who enrolled in their classes.  She ended up with a geology degree and a fair amount of resentment.  My mom was always very scornful of this and I think that caused me to see my grandmother in a more negative light than I ought to have done.

I took after my dad’s side of the family in terms of ability, so I started my electrical engineering bachelor’s degree in 1998 when I was 16. About 1/3 of the professors at my school were women, but I was the only female in the group of 18 of us that would end up taking most of our core classes together. My freshman year, I uneasily accepted a scholarship that was for women and minorities only because the money wouldn’t have gone to anyone else if I didn’t take it. I still thought it was unfair. I knew many poor white men who were really struggling to pay their way through school and I felt bad for them, especially since my grandparents had set aside a bit of money that helped me out quite a bit.  However, I became a feminist by the time I graduated and happily accepted a grad-school fellowship that was only available to women and minorities.  This change came about entirely because of the experiences of sexism I had while I was a student.

The first and most formative of these experiences came during my first electrical engineering class.  The professor was an older man who, at least once a week, would mention the good old days when he would stop the class early and everyone would crowd around the window to watch the sexy cheerleaders practicing in the quad below.  He would tell us sadly about how awful it was that they couldn’t do that anymore because there were too many women around now and the university would get sued.  And there’s me.  16 years old and alone in a room with 19 men.  Part of me wanted to run away.  Part of me thought that I was being silly and I ought to just be calm about it and let them have their fantasies.

The semester moved on and I started to cringe every time the cheerleaders were mentioned, every time someone in my class made a joke about dykes, every time they talked about the underage celebrities they wanted to fuck and which older women they would never be willing to entertain with the dubious pleasure of their penises.

And then we were taught about the resistor color codes.  A quick bit of background on this: there are bands of color on these particular electrical components that tell you how strong they are.  Black = 0, Brown = 1 etc.  all they way up to White = 9. It’s kind of long, so they came up with an acronym, which is an educationally sound thing to do.  It would have been an entirely good thing to do if it hadn’t been chosen, I suspect, to be intentionally awful.  To intentionally hurt and drive away people who they did not want to have to call engineers.

And there’s me, still sitting alone in a room with 19 men. Only now they were laughing about racism and rape and sluts and agism (or child rape? I could never tell how young ‘young’ was supposed to be) and…I’m still only 16 and I’ve been told all my life that this sort of thing is ok if it’s done in fun.  I was terrified and embarrassed and…and the lecture moved on and I stayed and even got an A in the class.  I graduated and went on to get my MS, too, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sinking pit in my stomach and the cold fire in my limbs as I sat there and listened to them laugh. And I wonder how many other women were scared away by that same tactic in the past.
I’ve not encountered anything so egregious at school or work since, but there is still plenty of sexism and racism in my workplace and I still feel woefully unable to cope with it most of the time, let alone to do anything about it.
Note:  The color code in full is:
Black = 0
Brown = 1
Red = 2
Orange = 3
Yellow = 4
Green = 5
Blue = 6
Violet = 7
Grey = 8
White = 9
Gold = +/- 5%
Silver = +/- 10%
There are also resistors with 4 bands and they are a little bit different.  If you’re really interested, google is your friend for now. I may do a post about resistance later.
Also Note: I learned that semester that ‘dike’ is a slang name for diagonal cutters, and that some people feel it’s lamentable that other people are offended when they make jokes that are really, honestly about their pliers, quit being such a joyless bitch.