“I had so many advantages, and I barely made it”: Stanford alumna and Pinterest engineer on Silicon Valley sexism

May 6, 2016 at 7:45 am 4 comments

I’m a believer in empirical evidence, and I worry about getting a representative sample.  Sometimes, the right size sample for the question is one. CS is now the biggest major among women at Stanford (see article here).  Do the issues that Jane Margolis and Alan Fisher described in Unlocking the Clubhouse still exist there?

As the article linked below describes, women don’t always feel welcome in CS at Stanford. It’s hard to address the issues of classroom culture described.  Having separate classes for different groups of students with different backgrounds/interests (as at Harvey Mudd does) might help.

I know of even worse experiences at other CS departments.  The Stanford CS teachers actively encourage women.  There are still CS teachers who discourage women in their classes. It’s hard to get administrators to focus on broadening participation in computing in the face of overwhelming enrollment.  It’s even harder to push better teaching from the top down. “Teachers have academic freedom,” is a common response to requests to change teaching (see my efforts to incentivize active learning) — we allow teachers teach anyway they want. It isn’t clear that still makes sense when there are empirically better and worse ways to teach. That’s like letting modern doctors use bloodletting or not wash their hands (see NPR piece making that argument).

At Stanford, I took two introductory computer science classes. I soon became convinced that I was much too behind my male classmates to ever catch up. I was surrounded by men who’d breezily skipped prerequisite courses. As freshmen, they’d signed up for classes that I was intimidated to take even as a sophomore. They casually mentioned software engineering internships they had completed back in high school, and declared they were unfazed by any of the challenges professors might throw our way. My classmates bragged about finishing assignments in three hours. I told myself that they were quantifiably five times better me. I remember the first “weeder” computer science course I took–meant to discourage the unworthy from pursuing the major. My classmates bragged about finishing assignments in three hours. Listening to them chat, I felt mortified: the same work had taken me 15 hours of anguish at the keyboard to complete. They are quantifiably five times better than I am, I told myself.

Source: “I had so many advantages, and I barely made it”: Pinterest engineer on Silicon Valley sexism — Quartz

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  May 6, 2016 at 11:15 am

    A couple of comments about “That’s like letting modern doctors use bloodletting or not wash their hands.”

    1. There is a serious problem in hospitals with doctors not washing their hands or sterilizing their stethoscopes. There are estimates that about half the medical problems in the US are “iatrogenic”—caused by medical treatment.

    2. The analogy implies a level of educational research and well-founded theory similar to the “theory of germs” in medicine. Unfortunately, the rigor of educational research has not reached that level yet. A better analogy would be between doctors choosing between leeches and bloodletting—neither really works, but some patients get better anyway, and statistical studies might show one as being better than the other.

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  May 7, 2016 at 10:05 am

      Barring a dramatic advance in our methods of measuring cognitive development, we’ll never have an education theory at the level of the “theory of germs.” We can’t control for prior background and measure learning as accurately as we can look for growth in a petri dish. Yet, we have to do education. We have to make educational decisions. We have to accept a different standard for making educational decisions than we do for making medical decisions. The finding that active learning is better than passive lecture is accepted by education researchers. That’s our current definition of best practice, just as washing hands and avoiding bloodletting is the current definition of best practice according to medical researchers.

      Reply
  • 3. chaikens  |  May 9, 2016 at 11:27 am

    A remedy for people getting discouraged by their usually male bragging classmates may be to post grade distributions for all assignments and add immediate feedback active learning practices such as clickers. It may also help to provide assessment and feedback after a project assignment for what the experience was designed to teach, so students who struggled more can tell whether or not they succeeded as well or better than their swifter-seeming peers. In other words, is there an effect in active learning besides getting more engagement: Successes are rewarded even after a student feels discouraged after a struggle. Any research about this?

    Reply
  • […] a fan of these first person female perspectives on what it was like to be a CS student. (Recall the Stanford one I posted recently.) I met Satoe at Snowbird last […]

    Reply

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