Sunday 27 October 2013

How The Grunch Stole C.S.

It's obvious what Birmingham University thinks about people like me.  It thinks this:
People like me don't do Computer Science.
You're a mean one, Mr Grunch
That's the grunch.

It's also a bit of a surprise to me, because I've got some evidence I'm quite good at computer science. You know, what with me being a professor of Computer Science at a great university.

You know what a grunch is? Geekfeminism says a grunch is "the sensation a woman has when she ... is then reminded in some way that she is a woman first and a geek (or colleague, or writer, etc) a distant second."

I'm going to tell you some stuff I wanted never to tell you. Then I'm going to tell you why.

I didn't start puberty until I was 15.  

At some point around age 15 our English class had a debate on lowering the age of consent, so that people under 16 could have sex legally.  I felt I had a contribution to make, so I made it. It was pretty obvious the class thought it hilarious that somebody whose voice hadn't broken was talking about sex.

My voice broke sometime between about 15 to 17.  Being in sixth form (umm, grades 11-12 in US) with a breaking voice is not a barrel of laughs.  Though I don't remember my classmates being unduly unkind to me (not kind, you understand, but not cruel either.)

I didn't start shaving until I was about 17, after a year or more of ridiculous fuzzy face because I was too shy, embarrassed, scared, whatever, to find out how to shave.  

Some point around this time, I was the victim of a very mild sexual assault. I was riding home and some older boy somehow cornered me on my bike and touched my penis (umm, unless he made me touch his, I don't remember). 

At no time was I comfortable around girls, though this didn't matter very much because I never met any to speak of.   

How close did I get to "my first time" before I left Cambridge with a Maths degree at age 22? Well, let's see. If first base is mouth-to-mouth kissing, I can think of one time I nearly got to first base. That's it.

I literally thought I would never have sex, never get married. I learnt to live with that knowledge.

My entire romantic experience until I left university?  A very good friend of mine fell head over heels in love with me. He was a really nice guy but I was completely uninterested in men. Which meant it was a horrible experience for me, probably the most miserable time of my life. And it was worse for him, with his feelings unrequited. He tried to kill himself, which at least was some light relief for me.  Yes, I thought it was funny that I'd made somebody try to kill himself. Not who I wish I was, but that's where I was.  This whole episode made me borderline homophobic for some years, at least in my head - though I hope not in action.  (Now? I have wept tears of joy at same-sex couples I don't know getting married: I want others to have the joy I have in my heterosexual marriage.)

That's part of my life journey as a completely sexually inadequate teenager and young adult.

Why did I share this?

Because of this video from the University of Birmingham, aimed at recruiting students into Computer Science. Enjoy.

"Everyone remembers their first time, what was yours?"

The tag line for this video is "Everyone remembers their first time, what was yours?".  The opening title of the video is "My first time...".  Then we get people talking to camera saying things like "I was 16 or 17", "I was 15", "A very nervous 18", "I was primary school age, probably 9 or 10", "It was difficult at first but I soon got into it", "It was a lot harder than I first anticipated", "Well obviously I enjoyed it enough that I kept on doing it."  At the one minute mark some of the speakers giggle and they start talking about the first time they used computers or programmed them.

Oh, I get it, it's funny because they weren't talking about losing their virginity, they were talking about computers. Well, I'm not stupid, I knew all along they weren't talking about sex: it's a recruitment video.  But I'm meant to laugh along with them (remember the giggles?) that the apparent talk about first sex was just a joke.

I don't care if it's funny or not.

This is what I care about. Birmingam University thinks this:
People like me don't do Computer Science.
I don't think they consciously think that, but the following is what they must think (I'm using an amorphous "they" to mean the people responsible for making and releasing this video.)
  • We think equating first use of computers with first sex is funny
  • Everybody in computing is like us
  • Therefore  everybody thinks equating first use of computers with first sex is funny
Hey Birmingham, you know what? Not all of us are people like you. Not all of us had a good experience of first sex at an age before we are choosing a University.  Some people are like me: teenage sexuality was an embarrassment except when it was a cause of pain and misery. 

What if somebody is asexual, like maybe 1% of the population? What if somebody's first time was a criminal offence, maybe loving and consensual sex between a 16 year old and a 15 year old who are still together, and if anybody ever finds out the older partner faces being labelled a sex offender?  Oh, and you know that hilarious bit about being 9 or 10, to make us think it obviously is not about sex: today this card appeared on : "I was nine. It was rape. This will no longer haunt me." 

I was nine. It was rape. This will no longer haunt me. 

Birmingham University risks making people like the above think this:
People like me don't do Computer Science.
That's the grunch.

Let me tell you, the grunch hurts. Just going over the video again to extract the quotes hurt me. You can of course rationalise the hurt by thinking it shouldn't have hurt me, I'm oversensitive, I've got no sense of humour, whatever you want. Fine. But it still hurt me. But that doesn't matter. Something very very big does matter.
People like me don't do Computer Science.
Maybe there's somebody like me age 17 going to see that video and get the grunch. Get the hit in solar plexus that says Computer Science is not for people like them. If they don't do Computer Science at Birmingham, that's not my loss. But if they don't do Computer Science at all, that's a loss for me. There's somebody been marginalised out of the discipline I love, which is horrible, and somebody who might have been brilliant (or at least like me good enough to be a Professor) doesn't make the contributions to C.S. that they could have made.

You think I'm overstating how much the grunch matters? Nope.

You want the scientific evidence? It's there in this Scientific American blog post.

You want a deeply personal story? It's there in this amazing post from Tim Chevalier.

I probably am overstating how much this video matters. It's a recruitment video from one Computer Science department.

This video may not matter, but the grunch really really really matters.

The grunch is stealing C.S.  It's stealing C.S. right now.

Please stop causing people the grunch.  Stop thinking that something that you find funny is - just because of that - not going to put somebody off C.S.

Over the last few weeks I've been doing a few small things to try to support women and other disadvantaged groups in tech. My wife has very kindly said that I'm being brave. Nonsense. This is the brave post.  Because it's the first one I'm scared to write. A lot of stuff above I have never told anybody, and I thought I would never tell anybody. Also, a lot of my friends disagree with me that this video should never have been used for recruitment (some think it is brilliant.)  So I know for a fact that my opinion is unpopular.

But my unpopular opinion remains that this video is a shame and a disservice to C.S. And a small example of the How The Grunch Stole C.S.

If this is the last thing you see, hit the "read more" button for credits, a postscript, and the most important links above in a useful bullet list.

Postscript: Two points of relevance to this video but less critical to my main thrust.
  1. This video is an example of unprofessional sexist humor and as such totally inappropriate for use as an official recruitment aid in C.S.  It's sexist not because it is directly anti women, but because as things stand, the majority of people likely to be considering C.S. are men and so the minority group of women might be made uncomfortable. (As Geekfeminism says: "regardless of whether anyone present (of any gender) would consider the joke funny among close friends, it is not suited for a highly professional environment. Examples: jokes involving bodily functions, genitals, or sexual activity.")
  2. You might argue that more people would be grabbed positively by this video than would get the grunch. Saying this is actually emphasising the value of including sexually confident people and excluding the unconfident. This is a use of market appeal and is (imho) wrong. 
Credits: My wife for helping me understand the syllogism behind the cause of the grunch. Thanks to Person A on facebook for the explanation about sexist humour, Person B for the point about market appeal, and Person C for saying this video was like a Rorschach test, eventually making me realise I'd been grunched. And all my other friends on facebook and elsewhere for their comments and opinions, many of which I disagree with but which I'm glad to have received.  



  1. I would describe myself as being in a similar/ exactly the same position that you were during the application process and whilst at university.

    The video in no way suggests that people like us don't do computer science and it is exactly this type of humor that helps me connect with my peers which i usually find hard due to my lack of experience. computer science is a stereo typically "nerdy" environment and any attempt to connect with the wider body of students is (in my opinion) the best direction for our professional body to move on.

    your concerns seem to focus on the first 20 seconds of the video which has a dubious context whereas the rest of the video is actually quite informative.

    It is this sort of negativity that prevents the much needed change in an forever evolving industry.

    1. Thanks Anon, I'm delighted to be wrong at least in your case. Thanks for the feedback.

      You're certainly right that most of the video is excellent though I would put the switch at a minute instead of 20s.

      I don't agree on your last point, because if I'm wrong then fair enough but we're seen to be discussing these things.

      Thanks Again.

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    3. I understand that and look forward to a brighter prospect in my future in this chosen career. I just cant see how my own personal experience of life as a university student is applicable to recruitment video aimed at broadening the spectrum of people applying to be computer scientists.

    4. Hi Anon, I'm sorry if my comment was inappropriate, and I've removed it.

      Anyway, once again I thank you for your remarks.

  2. Unfortunately, everything offends somebody.

    I always get upset at mother's day, and how people go on about their mothers. But, I can't get a "mother trigger warning" added to things.

    I am very sorry you had a bad time, but if we can't mention any event which someone missed, or had a horrible time with, how much will be left?

    1. Of course you raise a really good point. I can't say I have an answer to it.

      Equally I do hope that recruitment videos would not be upsetting to people who have lost their mothers.

  3. I wanted to say one thing to everybody reading this, inside or outside CS, considering coming in or already here. Because I want to say that CS is a great area to come into whatever your background.

    A large percentage of my best friends are computer scientists. And that's nothing to do with them being sexually inadequate stereotyped nerds. It's because they are people who are smart and interesting who think like me. They have logical and interesting minds and come up with fun and interesting ideas, whether inside or outside CS.

    Note: previously stated above para in a reply above but it was more general than that.

  4. I'd also like to point out that, no, we can't all remember the first time we used a computer. I was probably a toddler at the time, and heavily supervised every second of the time (as I was until my mid-teens).

    This is not anything like sex at all, except maybe inasmuch as your first time with either is only as special as you choose to see it. My second time meant a lot more to me than my first. And in both cases, your first time can be scary--but using a computer is generally not traumatizing for anyone, in and of itself. My sympathies to anyone who has been sexually assaulted in any way.

    And of course, if you're ace, I'm sorry so many people are so insensitive to the fact that YOU EXIST. As horrible as sexism is in the tech industry, at least it doesn't deny the fact that women are real, existing people.

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