Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Really bad ideas

Zuska had an interesting post about the use of sexual metaphors in computing (specifically at a hacking summer camp)--things like "penetration" or "violation". I commented about how it reminded me of my undergrad days when I spent a couple of years working in a physics lab building electronics instrumentation. One of the components used to build analog circuits is a resistor, a tiny blob of carbon (or something equally not-very-conductive) painted with colored stripes to denote the magnitude of resistance that that resistor provides. Most people found the color code hard to remember, so there are all kinds of mnemonics to help out. The first one I was taught* was "Black Boys Rape Our Young Girls, But Violet Goes Willingly for Silver or Gold" (occasionally people would tone it down by saying "bad boys..."). Yikes! I'm almost as speechless now as I was 20 years ago. And, hey, way to make the first woman in your research group feel welcome!

In electronics there are also all kind of connectors (like the one from the TV to the, uh VCR? ok, DVD!) which were referred to as "male" and "female" connectors, for obvious reasons**. Anytime I was around someone I hadn't worked with before, the first mention of these would be followed with an awkward pause while everyone in the room had my (female) anatomy flash through their minds. Or it would be followed by some ribald jokes (sometimes these would continue even around people I had worked with for a long time). This is a good example of the kind of "uncomfortable climate" or culture that makes me think twice about being a scientist--do I really belong? Do I want to put up with this for the next 40 years? All these kinds of events that magnify our Otherness can have this kind of very subtle impact. But because each individual event is so small, it seems kind of silly to point to them individually. It's well known, however, that these things really do add up over time and also in quantity.

*Incidentally (and luckily), I never had trouble with the color code because it's simply black-brow-the_spectrum-grey-white-silver-gold. The spectrum was one of those things that seemed to come naturally to me, and even as a very small child I was pretty neurotic about needing my colored pencils to be in rainbow order! in their case. Ahem. And with the resistors, the package around the spectrum was just a fade out from black to white. I never had trouble remembering left from right either--it's funny how people just get that as a toddler or they never do (their entire lives!).

**I have to confess that some of the "male" connectors had such large and deep "foreskins" that I would occasionally get a bit confused!

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