That One Time I Took a Law Class, Or, Why Representation Matters

When I was nine years old, I knew three facts for certain: I was definitely old enough to get my ears pierced, Harry Potter was the best book series I had ever read, and when I grew up I wanted to go to Cornell University and then be a lawyer like my mom. Well I did get my ears pierced that year (and I didn’t cry!), I possess categorical proof of enough Harry Potter knowledge to beat 40 other teams at trivia night, and I am about to finish my senior year at Cornell. But that dream of being a lawyer sort of fell by the wayside over the years; I indulged my passions for argumentation and Law and Order and borrowed John Grisham thrillers from the library and forgot all about law school when I fell in love with all things software. I immersed myself in the tech industry for the past three and half years and resolved to never think about the law again. Of course, the perennial hell that is course enrollment at Cornell tested my determination — in order to fulfill my credits I signed up to take a law class (The Law of the Internet and E-Commerce to be exact; also known as Internet Law) and with that, my interest in the subject was rekindled.

And then I took the LSATs, applied to law school, and completely changed my career path!!!

(Just kidding. I joke about it sometimes, but I’m still sticking with tech.)

So why did you read that lengthy introduction, just to learn that my Internet Law class hasn’t actually changed my mind about my career? It’s pretty simple. Internet Law is a great class with great topics like Jurisdiction and Defamation, but the real impact this course has had on me and my mental state is all because of my professor, this great, great professor.

Let’s start off with some background. I’ve been feeling pretty scared about entering the tech industry as of late. Diversity statistics from top name-brand companies are appalling. Sexism in technology is dismissed as a pipeline problem. Women’s voices are being erased, talked over, and dismissed. Often times women aren’t even given the chance to shine. Imposter syndrome is rampant. Even the physical world seems to be designed for non-female physiology. Articles aside, my own experience has made me nervous and frightened. What role models do I have? What representation is there? How can I feel valued when the neutral state of the world is not neutral at all? After all, even the word “mankind” evokes gender. “He” is the default used to describe a software engineer.

Which brings me back to Internet Law, and one utterly memorable class.

It was a small moment, really. We were in the middle of a class discussion about copyright (in a hypothetical situation where a non-technical person hires a coder to build an app, who owns the idea?), and my professor was talking about the aforementioned hypothetical Idea Person and then he said something along the lines of “if they hire a software engineer and she builds the app, who owns the idea under the law…[insert copyright discussion here]”.

She. My professor said “she”.

There’s a phenomenon in psychology called the “ingroup outgroup bias”. It’s pretty much exactly what you expect; according this wikipedia article, “In sociology and social psychology, an ingroup is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. By contrast, an outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify.” Ingroup favoritism, outgroup derogation, and ingroup homogeneity are all important effects of the bias. As part of a minority group in technology, I am automatically a member of the outgroup. On a basic psychological level, I have never felt like I belonged in tech because I have never been part of a large group of people similar to myself who also work in tech. This is one of the causes of the crushing feeling of imposter syndrome. The generic software engineer stereotype doesn’t fit me well at all, which is why that one little word “she” carried a world’s weight of significance. Representation matters. It matters so much that the literal one and a half seconds it took to say “she” drastically changed my attitude in the class: I speak up more now. I raise my hand instead of hiding. I am outspoken. I am as argumentative as my nine year old self aspired to be. I expect to remember this one professor forever, and although I tend to have a flair for the dramatic that is not an exaggeration in the least bit. Hearing “she” gave me the immeasurable comfort of feeling safe.

After class, I decided to go up to my professor and thank him. As it turned out two other girls in the class had the same idea. Our professor was astonished to learn that we had never heard something like that before; even if he hadn’t consciously known, we girls understood the significance of what he had done. “She”, and we, matter. They too felt the reverberations.