She++: The Documentary and The Audience

August 2, 2013 at 1:09 am 5 comments

I was sent links to the She++ documentary by several people.  It’s a nicely done documentary on the issues of women in undergraduate computing at Stanford.

The Twitter account for She++ posted the video link with the comment, “Show this to your daughters!”  Others in social media are suggesting that this should be seen by all girls to encourage them in CS.  This is a great video for describing the students’ experience.  I’m not sure it works as a recruiting tool.

In some of our GaComputes work, we found that female workshop leaders were more likely to warn the girls in their computing workshops, “Now, I know that this is hard, but you’ll be able to do something cool here.”  The male leaders were more likely to just say, “This is so cool!”  The female leaders tended to get declines in interest in computing — girls left the workshop saying more often, “Computing is hard” and “Girls can’t do computing.”  The male leaders tended to get positive improvement in attitudes.  Notice that the male leaders didn’t say it was easy.  They didn’t lie.  They just emphasized the benefit.

This video feels honest and heartfelt.  The women interviewed say things like, “It was really difficult” and “I didn’t feel I fit in.”  And when they speak to the camera, they say, “Girls, it will be hard at first, but it will get better.”  I believe that the speakers are being honest, but I worry that those descriptions might trigger stereotype threat.  Does telling girls about imposter syndrome make it less likely?  Some pretty amazingly successful people suffer from imposter syndrome.

I recommend that the video be seen by all computer science teachers, especially teachers of undergraduates.  It’s important for teachers to know about the experience of women in their classrooms.  I don’t recommend it for girls that you hope to recruit into computing.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kathi Fisler  |  August 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Watching the video really has me thinking about the “hard” image of
    computer science. The recent UChicago report (posted here on July 10) had many comments about students avoiding computing because it is hard. I repeatedly hear students talk about the time investment of computing compared to other majors. Combine that with the sense of time pressure that many students bring from high school (see the film “Race to Nowhere”), and perhaps the “hard” perception is actually our main problem (not stereotypes of isolated, anti-social classmates). (I found it funny that the Ryan Secrest video Mark posted today ended with a female newshost saying that she took programming and it was hard—images of Barbies and math …)

    I’m wondering whether good K-8 CS education could make a real
    difference here, because it could introduce computing more gradually. If students see computing more gently, over time, perhaps the “hard” wall would naturally disappear.

    I don’t think we can fix “hard” in college intro. College intro computing is bound to be somewhat hard, given the time constraints of a four-year degree program and the amount of precise technical detail one learns in CS. Single-semester “gentle” intro classes dump into hard CS2 classes for those who pursue the major. So perhaps one goal of K-12 CS education should be to thwart the “hard” perception.

    Obviously, we’re struggling now with getting _any_ computing education in K-12. But there are still questions of what K-12 computing should try to achieve. I suspect mere engagement with computing isn’t enough to overcome “hard”. What does combat “hard”, and how do we strive to build that into early CS education?

  • 2. Elizabeth Patitsas  |  August 2, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    So I just watched the trailer, and I had a lot of concerns while watching it. It’s clearly very well intentioned, but sadly I’d be surprised if it works as recruiting tool.

    Why is this all about women? They make men sound like a monolith. Black/hispanic/aboriginal/etc men are going to go through the /same/ problems as women: being non-stereotypical, impostor syndrome, no role models, etc. And for women of colour it will be even worse.

    (Also: Was I the ony one who noticed that the only men in the trailer are white?)

    Watching this as a Canadian I very much noticed that “only 30% of jobs will be filled by Americans” was presented as a horrible and scary thing. Oh no, not the foreigners! Foreigners are evil!

    Rhetoric like that does little to make international/immigrant/first-generation students feel at home in the CS community.

    The underlying message for that part of the trailer was “women should go into CS ‘cuz jobs” rather than “women should go into CS because it’s a rewarding career path”. On the individual level that’s not very appealing.

    In the science communication community, research has been finding that when you tell people /all/ the reasons why people should do Sustainable Thing A (it saves you money, helps environment, saves time, etc) it actually reduces their likelihood of doing Thing A. If you give them only one reason (it saves you money) they’re more likely to do then do that thing. The trailer would be more compelling if it had a focused message of “women should go into computing because it’s a great career path for them”.

    Moving on, in the research world we know that counterstereotypic role models ( demotivate young women in terms of going into STEM. A large portion of the trailer can be summarized as “I’m a sorority girl who wears makeup and I’m in CS.” From the research we know that actually hurts the effectiveness of the trailer. :\

    The trailer, as you noted — really does focus on “CS is hard” and reinforces that message. Talking instead about how awesome CS is and how you can help society with it is much more useful for recruiting minorities.

  • 3. Mark Miller  |  August 9, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    I agree with Elizabeth that I would not recommend this as a recruiting video. It hits the viewer right off with, “I was a woman in CS, and I felt alone and isolated.” Not a positive message to students! I don’t besmirch the reality of that feeling they had, but I think what I’d like to see is rather than it being portrayed as a “condition,” it should be thought of as potentially a lesson for life: “When you feel alone and isolated, see if that perception is accurate, or even that relevant.” People’s perceptions can be deceiving. If anything, I’d see this as an “awareness” video for educators.

    What I’ve been seeing lately is this idea that women feel socially awkward in CS, because they feel out of place among all the men. I don’t know if this would help, but male students in the field often feel socially awkward as well. It’s just in a different context. They have a male peer group they can feel kinship with, which is a comfort, but there’s still a sense that they can feel “surrounded” by a much larger community that doesn’t understand them.

    A common thread I often hear about women and computing is they didn’t realize they might like it until they got into college, whereas men got into it as teens or pre-teens, so they start off behind the 8-ball. I won’t presume to know how to solve that problem, except to say that a common experience I’ve seen with myself and other males in the field is what drives us forward is our curiosity and thirst for knowledge. We are pretty aware that there are many others in the field who are more skilled or way more knowledgeable about how to construct systems, or have greater understanding about the subject than we do. We see evidence of that all around us, even after we’ve gotten our degrees. That feels daunting, but I think what drives us forward is our curiosity. We have a sense of adventure and the desire to be challenged. We run into feelings of inadequacy a lot (which often comes across as admiration for someone else’s accomplishments), but at the core we have a curiosity that will not be denied. I think another capacity at the core is a tolerance for risk, of trying and failing, having our ego bruised by something that “just won’t cooperate” the way we think it should, and a perseverance with the confidence that “the only way to insure failure is to give up.”

    I liked what Sophia Westwood said, that computer science makes you better at your other subjects, and likewise your other subjects make you a better computer scientist. I think that puts it in perspective, that CS is not the end-all, be-all, but something in the mix of knowledge.

    I was puzzled by one of the women saying, “Fake it ’till you make it,” and, “Project confidence,” though she did say, “Eventually you don’t have to fake it.” That’s good. If that worked for her, great. I won’t judge and say that has no use. I’ll just say as a male in the field I don’t remember ever doing that. I found it much more constructive to be very open about my ignorance, and to ask questions of those willing to help me out. Sure, I’ve run into people who complained about me asking a “stupid question,” but I also found people willing to help. I stay away from the jerks. I doubt acting like I knew what I was doing when I didn’t would’ve gotten me anywhere.

  • 4. gailcarmichael  |  August 19, 2013 at 11:24 am

    I can understand the desire to warn students that CS can be hard so that they are caught off guard if/when they actually try it. This is something I struggle with in my outreach, too – I tend to want to discuss the issue of women in CS from the perspective of understanding why they stay away so that when they do get to HS or college they aren’t entering in the dark. But I can see why this isn’t a good idea.

    I wonder if the video would work well as a retention tool rather than recruitment? So women can see that they aren’t the only ones experiencing these challenges while they are actually there?

  • […] to women and under-represented minority students, who may already be wondering if they belong (see imposter syndrome), “And you know even less than you […]


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