The Best of Systers Blog Things That Mattered. Things That Made A Difference.
The year was 1987, and I was leading a project to bring symmetric multi-processing to Ultrix. There were no other women in my immediate group at Digital Equipment Corporation – just a handful of women on the floor, and most of those weren’t engineers. I didn’t have a degree in anything – not an uncommon situation in those days – but that meant I didn’t have a network from school. The net result: I felt pretty isolated!
During the hiring process, I’d negotiated that I be able to go to SOSP (the Symposium on Operating System Principles) when it was held every other year. In Austin that year, there was the usual small number of notable women, and many strong men. Dr. Barbara Liskov was the only woman listed as first author on a submitted paper, and she was at MIT. There were only a few women listed as authors at all and, as expected, the majority of the attendees were men.
I don’t remember whose idea it was that all the women eat together at one table – we probably wouldn’t be wrong if we guessed it was Anita Borg. Our lunchtime gathering was noted and commented on by the other attendees – I recall more than one stopping by to say something. It was telling that people noticed all the women together at one table, and not the lack of women at the other tables.
One meal every two years isn’t a big sop to isolation! We were glad to be talking together, but we wanted to stay connected between conferences. From there it was a small leap to a mailing list for women in systems engineering – we wanted to be able to include those women we worked with at home who weren’t at the conference. The rest, as they say, is herstory ;-) We thought “Systers”, spelled with a ‘y’, was very clever. I remember discussing it in the ladies room; I remember Anita being there, but I don’t remember who else!
I wanted to say a few words about Anita, in particular. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to reach out to young women in my work environments, and offer friendship and guidance: mentoring. Nothing formal, nothing official, just seems like the right thing to do – to give back. This was partly because very early in my career I’d chanced to meet this extraordinary woman named Anita Borg. She was at DEC’s Western Research Lab, and I thought she was brilliant - I loved her energy, her understanding of how things work, her priorities. She radiated competence and cleverness and belonging.
I had no idea why she had befriended me, but I was thrilled. There weren’t many women role models, and she made a big difference in my technical life. She gave me a vision of what could be accomplished, and she gave me an *attitude* about how to be a successful woman in computer science. Part of that attitude includes working hard, making yourself visible, and staying connected. Part of that attitude includes giving back what you can to those coming through the door. And part of that attitude is pure Anita: exuding a sense of confidence in oneself and what one knows.
Let me tell you a little story. Very often at conferences like SOSP, and even in my work, in meetings, planning sessions, whatever, I would feel very intimidated. All of the men were working on things that were Important. Things that Mattered. Things that Made a Difference. And me, I was never sure what was important, what mattered, what made a difference. Yes, sure, I could tell that finding a cure for cancer mattered. But, really, why was someone so sure that investigating this approach to remote procedure call (RPC), or that approach to paging Really Mattered? I couldn’t figure it out!
Anita to the rescue! She was clearly someone who could teach me how one is supposed to know these things, and she wouldn’t make me feel bad about not knowing, either! So I asked her, “How do they know what’s Important?” And she told me: “They make it up!” The anxiety faded away from my shoulders! She wasn’t saying, mind you, that anyone was working on something not important. She was just saying they didn’t have any inside knowledge about what’s important that I didn’t already have. Frankly, I don’t know how long it would have taken for me to figure that out for myself. It made a big difference to be able to take that one step a little more lightly.
Systers has provided a place for so many women to get mentoring, guidance, and comradeship. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been directly touched by Anita’s life, and deeply moved to have been, in however small a way, a part of this legacy.
Anita, Grace Hopper, and all of us Systers have contributed to making each others’ lives as computing engineers so much more satisfying. It’s easier now to find the right kind of environment, where we can be supported, have a network of other fabulous women, and work on things that Really Matter.