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Not just a thesis

Last year, I agreed with myself that I had reached a place in life where the thought of going back to the University to write a thesis wasn’t giving me anxiety. Actually, I felt a bit excited about it. So one thought took the other, and I send a message to Pernille Bjørn – the first female professor at Computer Science, University of Copenhagen (DIKU). Told her, I wanted to get my degree and she was super supportive. A lot of administrative work and some months later I got the message – I had been accepted into the University with start early November 2021, and the deadline for handing in was beginning of March 2022.

I felt the panic and I fel the early anxiety signs. Also – what the h**** was I thinking? Doing this next to a full time job. But with great support from some close friends, Pernille and PhD student Valeria Borsotti, I did it! And my life has changed for the better.

But what did I write about? I mean – I still don’t like programming, so what can you do?

I interviewed 10 women who were enrolled as students on the Bachelor of DIKU between 2010 and 2015 – the same years I was an active student. It was a time where under 10 % of new students each year were women. A time before women rolemodels in the shape of professors, and almost no TA’s were women either. I had expected, that I would be able to listen to these women’s stories in a very distanced way – and I succeeded writing the thesis that way, but honestly – it touched on things, I did not even know, I needed to touch!

Graph from my thesis (Figure 2.1.: Distribution of women versus men from 1997 through 2021 – page 6)

I’ve always had this idea in the back of my head, that I quit during my last thesis, because there were something wrong with me. I mean – there was – I was having severe panic attacks, got diagnosed with asthma (which disappeared when I quit), and I was coping by spending money I did not have. But that’s not what was in the back of my head. Here there were this tiny goblin whose finest job was to make me doubt myself. The goblin had convinced me, I wasn’t good enough to finish a Master Degree. That the people who once told me, that I should not study Computer Science because women can’t code, was right. That when I was confronted with that exact comment from my fellow students, it was because they were right. I wasn’t good enough. I was a failure, and should never had started. This goblin has been there as long as I can remember. And back when I was an active student, I actually thought I had it under some sort of control. I have later learned that was an illusion bigger than the biggest scam in TV history.

“That thing, “women can’t code”, was a constant fear of mine. I didn’t want to live up to the stereotype, and suddenly you feel like you’re representing your entire gender. If you failed at something, your entire gender failed.” (Former student, 2022-01-04)

Anyway – back to the thesis writing!

Interviewing and talking with these 10 women has been a life saver for me. Because these conversations opened up something inside me. I realised, that the environment I was trying to flourish in, to learn new and exciting things in, was incredibly toxic. It wasn’t there for me to become a great Computer Scientist – the fact that I came as far as I did, I realised was a huge achievement.

The headlines for the 5 key themes from these interviews are:

  • “There are no women at Computer Science – only men in dresses”
  • Women Can’t Code
  • “The Boyfriend Challenge”
  • But That’s Not a “Real” Computer Science Course!
  • Let It Grow

Having these conversations made me feel seen. I wasn’t alone, and the ugly goblin in the back of my head got some serious punches. Because being told from day one that “there are no women at Computer Science – only men in dresses” isn’t okay. We were told that all the time, and quite quickly you actually start saying it yourself. I remember having corrected some people, when they categorised me as a woman, because that couldn’t be – there were no women at Computer Science. So for almost 6 years, I was told by my peers and myself that I did not exist. And realising this blew my mind completely. I think everyone can agree, that telling yourself, that you are not real and doesn’t exist isn’t super healthy. It is basically a form of brainwashing.

“In general, some courses was seen as less worthy than others. Meaning the programming-heavy courses were definitely the best ones. And that meant I never took Human-Computer Interaction because people said it was silly. But today I would have liked to have that theory with me.” (Former student, 2022-01-04)

I started at DIKU because I wanted to be a good Project Manager. I like working in IT – I think it is the most exciting place to be. So of course I wanted to understand what was going on. I never wanted to be good at programming. It was, and still isn’t, any passion of me. But my goblin still used it. It slowly fed into that wrongly narrative, that I wasn’t going to succeed because I did not study the real thing. It was like I forgot, that I actually did complete all the mandatory courses. I even was a TA in a programming course a few years. I had the least exam anxiety when having courses that where more about how we use technology. How do we make the tech we develop relevant? I did quite well in courses that were most relevant for what I wanted to do after. I wanted to be able to understand the technology so I could speak to other human beings about it. So I could lead the way – pave the path for us to take. And STILL – still I somehow believed I did not exist. That I did not belong. That I was not a real Computer Scientist.

“The revue was a place to be yourself. People didn’t care if you drank or if you could code. You could just have a great experience with other people. It probably wasn’t ideal that you had to take a week off from studying to do the revue itself, but it was really amazing.” (Former student, 2022-01-04)

But hearing these stories from women like me. How it affected them and how it in some cases made them seek completely different paths in life. And sharing my own experiences with them has been incredibly therapeutic. I have learned so much about myself. I know, that the environment isn’t the only reason I did not make it in the first place – and it isn’t the only thing that gave me (exam) anxiety. But it didn’t make it easier. It made it a whole lot harder than it should have been.

Besides spending 4-5 busy months writing this thesis, learning about myself while also sort of being my own psychologist, I also showed up to my defence. And not only did I show up, I was only being nervous the healthy way. I had some of my family showing up all the way from Jutland, and a lot of friends showed up. I was excited to share what I had worked on, and the feeling of just ACING it was absolutely incredible.

I got so much positive feedback from both my supervisor and the examiner – a professor from another Danish University, and I could leave the room with the highest grade possible and a pride I can’t remember I have ever felt in a situation like this.

During this whole proces, my former workplace found out what I was spending my sparetime on, and some months after my greatest examination of all times, I was invited to host a talk for the entire IT department. And that is when I realised, that this wasn’t just a thesis. It wasn’t just me putting a final period after that chapter of my life. This thesis has helped me find my passion. It has strengthen my confidence level in ways I did not believe was possible – still a long way to go, but I am a different person. I am more aware than ever, that Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is one of the most important things to improve in our society today. I have learned, that I have a story to tell – a story, that inspire others and when I share it, it helps create safe spaces where others also dare to share bits and pieces from their lives. Because after my talk at work – a colleague of mine shared his story at another event about his recent time with being sick with stress. He dared to stand up and share his experience on something that most of us will experience in our lives – either on our own bodies or through someone close to us – but something very few people talk about.

I want to start more rings of safe spaces in the world. Rings that will spread like if it was water. Let’s play each other up. Support each other and embrace our differences.

Are you with me?

‘The most important document in my life’
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