I imagine it's easier now that there's a more even mix and you don't have to be—or try to be—the one girl in a little study group doing whatever the subject is you happen to be studying.
So, yes, I think we got very close to each other in the dorm, but I think it really was limiting and an issue.
Did you feel like the male undergraduates and male faculty respected your intelligence in a way that was equal to how they respected your male peers?
It's so hard to say. I mean, you know, we all had experiences of feeling like the professor kept looking directly at me to see if I nodded and got it. You did feel unusual and singled out in class.
I've certainly talked to people [women] in other fields who were told explicitly, you're going to waste your degree, or you shouldn't be doing this, or you should study X instead of Y. I never had that kind of experience at MIT.
So what was the next step for you, after finishing up your undergraduate work at MIT?
I stayed in graduate school at MIT, and so, in graduate school, my Master's and Ph.D., are in computer science. And I was, literally, the first woman to get a first computer science Ph.D. at MIT. There were other women who got computer-science degrees at other schools before me. So, you know, it's a mix of—it was early, and I'm old now—but also of which schools gave which degrees when. But I was among the earliest at all, and literally the first at MIT.
It is awesome, but I always talk a lot about a woman, Candy Sidner, who was the third computer-science Ph.D. who, with a group of women, wrote a report, one of the first reports, on what it felt like to be a woman in the department and described the behaviors of men who were hard to deal with and so on. And I just always felt like, even being in the tiny cohort that she was in, having a couple of other women to talk to, made a huge difference in sorting out what's me and what's going on around me. And I never had that.
I know you said that your mother was an accountant. Was your family very excited about your achievements in computer science? Were they supportive?
Oh yeah! They were thrilled! They were bragging! And they bragged that I was a girl among boys. They thought that was cool. [Laughs]
What came after you completed your Ph.D.?
Well, the interesting thing is that I sort of did it assuming that I would teach. For one thing, I'd been told by my mother that it was good to be a teacher because you just worked the hours your kids were in school and you could come home and all that stuff. So I had this teacher notion in the back of my mind, even though I went to get the Ph.D. and I wasn't going to be a K-12 teacher that worked that sort of hours.
My first job was at the University of Washington, Seattle. What I learned fairly soon was that I actually didn't really enjoy the mix of teaching and research, trying to balance the two. It just didn't work for me.