People do things even if they won’t be the best, or even great

January 11, 2012 at 8:00 am 11 comments

On Saturday, I ran the Disney World Half-Marathon with my brother and son.  This was my third half marathon — I did my first in 1989, and I did one last October, so this is sort-of my second.  The Disney World Half-Marathon was huge.  About 27,000 people were registered.  22,000 finished the race. I was interested in the gender split: 10,000 men, and 12,000 women.

I thought about Larry Summers’ controversial speech when he was at Harvard, where he argued that the lack of participation in STEM fields by women (specifically, why women may have been underrepresented “in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions”) was due to a lack of ability.

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.

The chain of reasoning in Summers’ argument (as I read it) is that there are too few women in tenure-track STEM faculty positions because women have lower aptitude (on average, or at best) than men in STEM.  Participation, he seems to believe, is a function of aptitude — people do what they are good at.  I am interested in why women choose or not-choose to participate in STEM fields. I believe that the aptitude for STEM is likely similar between genders, but I question the relationship that he is suggesting.  Is it necessarily true that people only pursue activities in which they have aptitude?

The best women are significantly slower than the best men in long distance running, including the half marathon.  I don’t know much about physiology of athletics, but I could well believe that the differences are physical.  Men may have greater aptitude for distance running than women.  Yet, the Disney World Half Marathon is 20% more female than male.  All those women are running the race, despite the fact that they are unlikely to win.  I don’t know if most half marathon races are significantly more female.  It may very well be that the Disney World Half Marathon is an outlier, and that would make it even more interesting.  Why is it an outlier?  What draws women more to that race, despite the fact that they likely won’t do as well as the men?

I am not a great runner.  My time was in the bottom half of male performers 45-49 years old in the race.  I still enjoyed the experience and am glad that I did it.  I am proud that I finished.  I might do it again sometime.  I have been pursuing this activity, despite the fact that I am unlikely to win at it.  I don’t have particular aptitude to reach the top in this field.

Mark, son, and brother running at Disney World

Of course, running a race is a much lower cost than choosing a career.  The point, though, is the same.  People do things for many reasons, not just because they’re going to be excellent.  A lack of aptitude does not mean there will be no or little participation.  Aptitude may not even be a significant factor in participation.

If it isn’t aptitude, what does draw people to activities, pursuits, or careers?  If the Disney World Half Marathon is unusual, it might be because it’s fun.  It was the most fun race I’ve ever run, with Disney characters, clowns, marching bands, and even a gospel choir (at mile 13, to sing you to the finish).  Fun has something to do with why people pursue activities.

Larry Summers has been beat up enough over his comments, and he has apologized repeatedly.  Many of the commentators were concerned about the research base for his remarks, whether women could make it to the top of a field, and whether there really is a different aptitude distribution for women and men.  I’m raising a different question.  Maybe there are variables that are more important than aptitude.  Climate, culture, sense of fun, sense of belonging, sense of success (of being “good enough” — I was “good enough” to finish, and that was enough for me), sense of fitting in, and sense of accomplishment (even if not excellence) may play more significant roles.  These are important variables to consider if we want to draw more people into computing.  We may not be able to improve anyone’s aptitude. We can make computing a place where people want to be.

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Creating a Peer Instruction network New curriculum for CS in UK Schools

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael Hewner  |  January 11, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Based in my interviews Mark, I would say that the idea of aptitude is pretty important to a lot of students.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 11, 2012 at 9:01 am

      Could you say more, Mike? Is it aptitude as in “I can do this,” or aptitude in Summers’ sense “I can be one of the best at this”? (Summers talked about “high ability” and reaching the “top” of the field.) Your ICER paper talked about students choosing specialty classes based on what they “enjoyed.”. Was aptitude part of that sense of enjoyment? You’ve interviewed at three campuses. Did you see the same sense of aptitude at all three?

  • 3. Bri Morrison  |  January 11, 2012 at 10:13 am

    I think the other important aspect related to aptitude is self-efficacy: how do females perceive themselves within the field as related to others? In the half-marathon (I suspect, I’m the first to admit I’m not a runner) perhaps the women feel they are just as good as “most” of the others running. I suspect their training times would tell them that. Or perhaps their goal is just to finish, as yours was. If they *believe* they can finish then they’ll choose to run.

    In STEM fields, I suspect that females don’t believe they are as “good as” others going into the field, however they define “good as”. And when they think about the long term goal of finding a job and pursuing the career ladder, they don’t want to compete against others they perceive as “better”. Just graduating with the degree isn’t the same as just finishing the race.

  • 4. Cecily  |  January 11, 2012 at 11:41 am

    First, let me say that I love this post in particular on so many different levels.

    I really like the idea of the distinction between “good” and “good enough”. I also like the idea of comparing running races to learning to program. I teach intro programming at SUU, and I have programming quizes every week or two for the first couple months of class. Each quiz is worth 4% of a student’s final grade and pass/fail with an opportunity to repeat each quiz once at midterm time, these are an excellent opportunity for students to develop a real sense of how good they are relative to each other. I pass out paper prompts, face-down, and they all start together. When they think they are finished, I check them, and if they are I tell them where the finished- first person to finish is #1, next person is #2, etc. I did something kind of like this at a college-summer-camp at BYU, and it was a great source of strength to me to know where I actually ranked. I also let them all design their own final projects, but they they have to stand in front of their class and present them at the end of the semester. This also lets them see where they rank, but it a different way.

    I think one major problem with computing classes is that often it is difficult for students to develop a sense of where they rank. The fact that half of the students have significant prior programming experience and half don’t exacerbates this problem.

    Curiously absent from the discussions on the dearth of women in tenure track R1 schools is any discussion about the fact that many of these are notoriously inflexible when it comes to dealing with life events, which women have more of than men. My experience has been, that in order to be hired into a R1 school, you had better have had significant publications and you had better have produced them regularly. If you have had a “life-event” or two(such as having a baby, working through an illness, etc.) it had better have consumed at most one year of your life, maybe two, and it will be better if you have neglected your teaching instead of your research. I think institutions are starting to get better at creating ways to stop the tenure clock temporarily after people get hired in order to accomodate life events, but there isn’t really a mechanism to stop the tenure clock before a person gets hired.

    I teach computing because it is fun for me- I love watching my students learn, and I am good at it (my students, their famillies, and my co-workers remind me regularly of this). I also enjoy working on a good technical problem and trying to figure out something new.

    Finally, congrats on your half marathon- I think I have done about 2-3 as well, and they are lots of fun! 🙂

  • 5. Kathi Fisler  |  January 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I’ve long felt that one of the challenges to teaching CS is that it can be hard for students to distinguish “mostly right” and “wrong” against the harsh task-master of a compiler or test case.

    When you write an essay for a class, you decide what “done” means. When you run, you decide what “good enough” means. When you program, the computer tells you whether you are “right” or “wrong”. I suspect students often spend 80% of their time on the last 20% of an assignment, not because they want more than an 80%, but because the software tells them they are below 100%. Our programming tools don’t emphasize what students have gotten right. They point out what is (vaguely) wrong.

    When I run, I can point to lots of milestones for the day — pace, distance, did-it-despite-wanting-to-nap, etc. It’s only with many years experience that I can do that when I program. I had no trouble doing that the first week I took up running.

    It’s hard to help students develop a sense of aptitude in CS, especially when the device they spend the most time interacting with persists in reporting that something is wrong. At the very least, students need to see a variety of deliverables in programming problems, each of which has separate, intrinsic value that students appreciate. But there’s much more to do, especially at the tool level.


  • 6. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 11, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I think you’re glossing over an important part of his statement:
    “employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity”

    It takes two sides two enable an individual to participate in STEM as a career choice. Furthermore, those two sides have to arrive at some agreement that both sides find acceptable for participation.

    You can even take gender out of the equation. Look at any given article about the national shortage of engineers and technology workers. Then look at the rebuttals and reams of people respond with stories about how they worked in IT/software/engineering, were laid off (outsourced, replaced with a younger worker, etc), can’t find a job, and would never recommend a young person go into STEM.

    Software engineering and IT seem to generate a fairly high level of attrition of both the voluntary and involuntary sort.

    What I believe many employers are seeking is to build the all-star teams. Now, many of them will commit all sorts of nonsense that undermines that goal. And they have varying approaches, from intense screening before hiring to hiring then weeding to hiring and trying to keep their best people from being too hampered by the rest. None of these practices create a welcoming atmosphere for those at the lower end of the perceived curve, whether being at the lower end is due to aptitude, education, or commitments/interests outside of professional matters.

    The question really is: Can you build highly productive, innovative teams out of average people, and if so, how?

    If you can’t build such teams over of average people, then what justification is their in providing them with special benefits, such as a generous work/life balance?

    • 7. Cecily  |  January 12, 2012 at 11:06 am

      I think it is important to help people develop realistic, sustainable expectations. I know quite a few folks who think they are unemployed STEM people, but most of them do not have a current skill set, and most do not have realistic expectations. At the height of the dot com boom days, there were a lot of people making six figures to do simple HTML development that a high school student could do with less than a year of training. Expecting to be compensated at that level with a skill set that minimal is not a sustainable and realistic expectation! Just because it worked for a year or two it does not mean that it is going to work for an entire career. I believe that with 1-2 years post high school education, most people can learn enough IT skills to get a job, and with a bachelors degree in CS/IT they should be able to support a family if they continue to work at their career and keep current. If they don’t work at it though, they will find themselves unemployed, because most modern employers are more interested in PHP than FORTRAN or COBOL. That is the nature of the field.

  • 8. Alfred Thompson  |  January 11, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    One of the great things about this post is that it doesn’t assume a simple answer or even a single answer. Motivation is complex. I was a professional software developer for many years. I was pretty good at it. But I worked with a lot of real super stars. The sort of people who would write a device driver over the weekend because they were bored for example. Or people who could build a job slot in binay using toggle switches on the front of a mini computer. I was not going to get as good as them – not ever. This took some of the fun out of professional development. I still program (and to some extent I still get paid for it) but it is not my main job and it is something that I keep at a level that is fun. Sort of like stepping back from trying to win the long race to running the race at a pace that I am comfortable with.

    Out of the 27,000 people who started your race I would be surprised if as many as 100 thought they had a real chance of winning. The rest were racing for other more personal goals. Some as simple as finishing. I see nothing wrong with that in the least. There were many great success stories in that race – far more than there were people who “placed” or “won” by traditional measures.

    I think sometimes we don’t leave enough room for personal goals in computer science. We tend to force an idea that if you are not the very best you are not good enough. What we need to do is to allow people to set goals that meet their needs for personal satisfaction. Someone is not a failure if they don’t get a PhD but to manage to excite a lot of high schools students to enter the field. Someone is not a failure if they create simple games for their own amusement and the amusment of their friends but never work on a AAA video game. And in fact I would suggest that anyone who creates any code that solves anyones problem is a sucess. No matter how small the problem or how simple the solution.

    I suspect that every woman (and man) who ran that race was celebrated for it my family and friends. For many of us that sort of thing is enough. For some of us it is everything. How do we celebrate success in computer science? Not everyone is going to win a Turing Prize. For some people, apparently a lot of geeky guys, a clean compile is enough of a small victory to keep them going. For many others it is a reward that comes at too high a price. Either we decrease the price (IDEs and compilers are working at that) or we increase the prize.

  • 9. J. M. Cohoon  |  January 12, 2012 at 8:41 am

    In answer to your question about productive, innovative teams of average people, see Scott Page’s book, “The Difference” where he shows that teams of diverse non-experts solve complex problems better and faster than teams of experts.

    • 10. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      I’ll look into it. My experience thus far with arguments for “diversity” is that they usually either take one or more scenarios where some form of contextually relevant diversity lead to positive results and then remove the context and generalize the diversity to something PC, or they use far too shallow of situations to be relevant to engineering problems that require deep expertise. It feels like a classic bait-and-switch.

      But I’ve never read a full book on it, so I’ll give it a shot.

  • […] another half marathon on Thanksgiving, and noticed the same observation in the results that I did when I ran the DisneyWorld half marathon in January: Women are the majority of the runners, but the men (on average) run faster. Ambition to be […]


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