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This semester, I’m in two classes in which I’m the only girl. One’s a history class, which has six students, and the other’s a computer science class, which has five. Both have male professors. I’ve had other classes where I was either the only girl or seriously outnumbered, and while that obviously sometimes gets awkward, it’s generally not so ba


So, I realized today that I’ve let institutionalized sexism affect a major academic decision of mine. This unpleasant revelation may well weaken me such that I get the consumption and waste away. (I’m taking you all down with me as soon as I figure out how that would work, I guess coughing a lot, or promiscuity.) At the beginning of class today, I was trying get myself to speak up, because we were on material I thought I knew fairly well, and I haven’t been talking enough, and there’s a participation grade and all.

Whenever I answered a question, though, I got the kind of blank looks from everyone else in the room, including the professor, that usually mean, “You’re not making sense,” even when the professor said I was right. So I figured I must be missing something somewhere, and shut up.

Except, I’d realized by the end of class, my answers weren’t any stupider than anyone else’s, and were definitely a lot less of a stare-worthy intrusion on the class than were those of the first-semester-freshman-who-wants-to-be-a-comedian.

I have a baseline of the level of awkwardness that’s acceptable in being heavily outnumbered gender-, race-, or age-wise in a group. We are beyond that baseline when the professor says, “You gentlemen,” giggles nervously, then says, “You gentlemen and ladies, I’m sorry.” We are also beyond it when the professor is visibly much easier on me when I’m wrong than on anyone else, and when a female major gets incredibly excited to see I’m in the class, and when the professor nods and agrees with her at the anomalous nature of the situation.

This doesn’t happen in either the humanities or the other sciences. When the gender demographics are weird in those classes, it is not an intrusion in the mind like to a sharp stone in one’s shoe, or that Ghost in the Shell thing with the wires.

When I took the CS class freshmen year, I got an A easily, but stopped there. I remember thinking at the time was that it might be easy now, but it was going to get too hard. I had no reason to be thinking that except that I got stared at all the fucking time in that class, and figured I must be lacking some crucial computer science Something that cannot be reflected in mere grades. I think that that Something was a fucking scrotum.*

The really bad thing is, it’s not the damn students who are the problem. (Or, it is in the sense that the guys who major in CS really do tend to be nerds with too much testosterone for their social skills to handle gracefully. But they can learn self-control after embarrassing themselves enough, as could be proven by a study of the males in my Japanese classes over the past four years.) When the professor’s not there, I can actually have a basically normal conversation about whatever we’re working on three of the four guys in the class. It was the same freshman year.

But neither of the professors has known how not to make a big deal out of a girl in the room. They obviously don’t realize what they’re doing, and none of it’s at all mean-spirited, but I obviously have some major psychological significance to them that no one else does. It’s like they were playing poker and got dealt a tarot card.

I actually can’t get mad at them – they’re obviously trying their best, and I’ve had too many actively malicious teachers to go after these guys. I’m mad at myself for letting this affect me freshman year. I’m supposed to be a raging feminist virago, but I didn’t think about what was happening in my head then – if I had, I know I would have gone ahead and at least minored in CS. But I didn’t. It all makes me tired and grumpy.

Anyway, it’s something to take with me to Japan.

* Incidentally, I made an unwise joke involving the word “scrotum” in the history class today, and got groans not differing much in quality from those The Voice got a minute later, when he made a joke about ugly babies. And not long after that, the professor got started on the effects of syphilis on the genitalia (this is the guy whose pet subject is medicine and the Japanese military), and no one looked nervously at me. I think that’s some sort of litmus test for the amount of sexual awkwardness in the room.