Radia Perlman: Don't Call Me the Mother of the Internet

In your studies and when you first started working in the field, did you have many female colleagues? What was the environment for a young woman like in those days?

I went to MIT at a time when the number of females was strictly limited by the number that could fit into the single female dorm, so there were very few women (I think 50 out of a class of 1000). But since I was required to live in the women’s dorm I at least knew some women. But when I was a sophomore most of the men’s dorms became “coed,” and that sounded like fun, so I moved out of the women’s dorm and into a “coed” dorm. But with so few women, “coed” pretty much meant I was the “resident female.” I didn’t really see other women in the dorm. And I majored in math, so I didn’t see them in my classes either. It became so normal to me not to see women around that I didn’t notice the gender imbalance. It was only when occasionally there was a(nother) female in a class that I’d notice that it kind of looked weird…this other gender person looking curiously out of place in the crowd. I’d have to remind myself that I was also that “other gender.”

After graduating, I went to grad school, again at MIT in math. After I’d completed all my coursework and exams, I had no idea how to write a thesis. I had no advisor … MIT math department, at least at that time, was not helpful about matching students with advisors… An old friend asked me if I was enjoying grad school and I said “Not really. I have no idea how to find an advisor and write a thesis.” He said “Come join our group at BBN Technologies (Bolt Beranek and Newman)”, and so I did. That involved designing network protocols, and I really enjoyed it. I did wind up returning to grad school 10 years later, again at MIT, but this time in computer science, and completed my Ph.D.

Anyway, at BBN one of my coworkers there was female, and I really enjoyed working with her. But for a lot of my career since then, it’s been rare for me to be working on something in a group that has women.

After BBN, in 1980, I joined Digital Equipment Corporation, to design routing for DECnet, which happened to be the perfect job in the perfect place at the perfect time, but I really didn’t get to work with women there.

In what ways would you say that attitudes toward women have changed during your years in the field?

Honestly, not much has changed. Obviously it was possible to have a job in the industry long ago (like my mother did in the 1950s). People’s assumptions these days are that companies are desperate to hire and promote women, and that being female must be a big advantage. Companies do spend money on sponsoring events for women’s groups, but actual hiring decisions are based on subjective feelings, and I think there is often an unconscious bias where the hiring manager doesn’t really see a “true engineer” if the candidate doesn’t fulfill some preconceived vision (for instance, a younger version of himself). None of this is intentional, and it’s very difficult to do anything about it.

That being said, nothing is specifically gender related, even though some things might be statistically true. I’d suspect that a higher percentage of boys than girls dive right in and take things apart when they are young. But certainly not all boys do, and certainly some girls do. And, that’s not the only type of person that makes a good engineer.

The kind of diversity that I think really matters isn’t skin shade and body shape, but different ways of thinking. Yes, it’s great to have some of the people that desperately want to start writing code once they hear about a few special cases. But it’s also good to have other types of people, like me, that like to think about the problem a lot, from lots of different angles, and then realize the right problem to solve and the simple, general-purpose solution that will handle all the cases.

So it’s a real problem if a hiring manager has one specific notion of what an “engineer” should be like.

Another gender stereotype is that women are not as good about the kind of relentless self-promotion and politicking with powerful people that leads to rising through the ranks. It could be that a higher percentage of men are like that, and a higher percentage of women are self-deprecating, but I certainly know many men whose careers suffer because they are too humble, and I know some women that are as self-promoting as any man I’ve ever known.

Are there any specific instances or situations that you experience today that stand out to you as particularly significant or telling regarding women in technology? Any comments made by bosses or colleagues?

Again, pretty much nothing is purely gender-related. Though one woman told me she has a problem because her group likes to do team-building extreme sports together. They are all huge burly men. She, the only woman, is tiny, even for a woman. She can’t really play these sorts of sports with them. When she attempts to participate, like in ultimate Frisbee, they don’t throw to her (they don’t want her to get hurt). She feels left out. She suggested to her manager that the group do other things, like perhaps a pot-luck cooking party, but her manager sadly pointed out that nobody else in the group would want to do that.

One thing that I hate is when women “pick the wrong battles,” for instance, complaining if people use what women perceive as non-gender-neutral terms, e.g., in an email saying “Hey guys! That design has the following technical problem…” I cringe when some woman on the mailing list says “We are not all guys!”

That being said, of course there are genuinely hostile work environments with cases of genuine sexual harassment, and those have to be dealt with. But I think women would be much better off if we let the superficial stuff slide.

I had a manager once who was wonderful in almost all ways…really smart, really well-meaning, but I always made him nervous. He admired the tall pompous guys in the group, but he never quite knew what to make of me. When I did something really clever, he was smart enough to understand its importance, but then he’d look at me all confused and say “How did *you* think of that?” He meant well…

If you could, what advice would you give to your younger self? What do you wish you had known? What do you think you did right?

“What I did right” was pretty much due to a bunch of accidents. I just happened to get exactly the right job at the right time in the right place, so it was my job to design routing protocols at a time when the field was in its infancy. It was because of the way I approach problems, thinking it through conceptually rather than diving right in and solving each special case, that the designs wound up being so successful.

But I was not good about making a big deal out of what I did. My designs were so deceptively simple that it was easy for people to assume I just had easy problems, whereas others, who made super-complicated designs (that were technically unsound and never worked) and were able to talk about them in ways that nobody understood, were considered geniuses.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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