Posts tagged ‘women in computing’
“I had so many advantages, and I barely made it”: Stanford alumna and Pinterest engineer on Silicon Valley sexism
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.
So what does convince people about a need to change? Stories? Personal experiences? Poking around on the Web, you can find lots of pages about motivating change and salesmanship, but I’m more interested in the question of how do we get people to recognize the Platonic cave. What they think is true is measurably and provably not true.
Now, a new study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) shows another level of bias: Many men don’t believe this is happening.When shown empirical evidence of gender bias against women in the STEM fields, men were far less likely to find the studies convincing or important, according to researchers from Montana State University (MSU), the University of North Florida, and Skidmore College.
At the end of LaTICE 2016, the Vice-Rector of Al-Baha University in Saudi Arabia (see information here) welcomed attendees to LaTICE 2017. After the presentation about Al-Baha University, Sahana Murthy of IIT-Bombay stood up and asked, “Can I come to LaTICE 2017 dressed as I am right now, in Indian clothes?” The Vice-Rector replied, “No.” All women, including foreigners, will be required to cover their hair at LaTICE 2017.
That exchange was a central topic of conversation for the rest of the conference and in social media for me. I heard some female computing education researchers say that they would attend anyway. Many I heard from expressed outrage. Several were angry that the organizing committee for LaTICE would even place the conference in Saudi Arabia under these restrictions.
I spoke to Neena Thota about LaTICE 2017 (seen below after my keynote). She was one of the Chairs for LaTICE 2016 (faculty at Uppsala University and University of St. Joseph in Macau) who went to Saudi Arabia in preparation for the conference. She felt respected there and taken seriously as a scholar, but she did have to cover-up. Neena doesn’t expect that the rules for women in Saudi Arabia (see the Wikipedia page here about them) will change for a long time. Do we simply ignore the scholars there and ostracize them, for rules over which they may have no control? As in Qatar, computer science students in Saudi Arabia are majority female.
The question is no longer rhetorical for me. I was invited to attend the Program Committee meeting at LaTICE 2016 as a non-voting observer, and I have been invited to serve on the PC for LaTICE 2017. I have already had several people warn me that I should not participate. They urged me to shun the conference publicly, in order to send a clear message against the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.
I’ve been thinking about this, and discussing it with women in my life (my wife, my daughters, and my colleagues). I’m not female, and I can’t fully understand my own biases as a male, so I sought advice from women in my life and very much appreciate all the comments I received. I’ve decided that I will serve on the LaTICE 2017 program committee.
I understand the reasons of anyone who chooses not to participate. Those who choose not to review are sending a message that LaTICE should never have gone to a place that restricts the rights of women. I can understand why women, especially from the West, might choose not to attend. I don’t think foreign women should go there, unless they’re willing to abide by the laws and customs of the place they’re visiting.
Here are my reasons for thinking it worthwhile to engage in LaTICE 2017:
- The female Computing students and faculty in Saudi Arabia might not otherwise be able to attend a conference like LaTICE. Unless LaTICE goes there, they do not get the opportunity to hear other perspectives, to share their practices, and to participate in a community of education scholars. By participating in the PC, I get to share what I know about computing education with the community of scholars in Saudi Arabia, both female and male.
- As an education researcher, I know that learning and change occurs from active dialogue, not from passive silence. I doubt that I can change much in Saudi Arabia, either by my engagement or my public refusal to engage. This semester our seminar on Learning Sciences and Technologies at Georgia Tech read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire points out that privileged people can’t solve the problems of the less-privileged, nor can the privileged even “help” the less-privileged. All that any of us can do is to create dialogue which creates opportunities for learning for everyone. Freire explicitly includes teachers in that everyone. Teachers ought to aim to learn from students. Dialogue requires engagement. Reading papers and responding to them with my comments creates dialogue.
- Finally, I want to be engaged because of what I will learn. I’m curious. I learned more about India from attending LaTICE 2016 (see the first and second blog posts in this series). I would like to learn more about Saudi Arabia. It makes me a more informed and effective researcher when I am more aware of other contexts.
Neeti Pathak, one of the students with whom I work, pointed out that there is interplay between religion and culture in Saudi Arabia. I also look to my own faith in thinking about LaTICE 2017. Pope Francis, the leading figure in my faith, recently made a proclamation encouraging the Church to be more welcoming, even to those that the Church may have once ostracized (see NYTimes piece). That’s a proclamation that relates to LaTICE 2017. Everyone gains by engaging, even with those whose activities and rules we might not like.
I’m not willing to ostracize a whole country, even if they have rules and customs that I think are wrong. I’m not confident that I understand the issues in Saudi Arabia. I’m not confident that my views on them are more than my Western biases interpreting customs and values I don’t understand. I don’t feel justified in making a statement against LaTICE 2017. I see value in engaging in dialogue.
I shared earlier versions of this post with several colleagues, who are angry with me for the stance I’m taking. These are complicated issues. I am sure that there are many more perspectives that I have not yet considered. I welcome further discussion in the comments, including telling me why I’m wrong.
Betsy DiSalvo and I did a study of women in computing who chose not to participate in our OMS CS program. One of the reasons we heard was that these women were experienced with computing education. They all had undergraduate degrees in computing. Every one of them talked about the sexism rampant in their classes and in the industry. They were unwilling to be in a mostly-male online program.
We used to talk about getting the word out to women about the great job available in the tech industry, and about how that would attract more women. I fear that women today who are choosing not to go into the tech industry are doing so because they do know what it’s like.
A new study finds that sexism is rampant in the tech industry, with almost two-thirds of women reporting sexual harassment and nearly 90 percent reporting demeaning comments from male colleagues.The study, called “Elephant in the Valley,” surveyed 200 women who work at tech companies, including large companies like Google and Apple as well as start-ups. The study focused on women who had 10 years of experience in the industry, and most worked in Silicon Valley.
The basic facts of this infographic were things I knew. Some of the details, particularly at the end were new for me — like I didn’t know that the quit-rate gap between men and women increased with age. (Thanks to Deepak Kumar who pointed to this infographic on Facebook.)
Dan is one of the best computer science teachers I know, and I strongly agree with the goals he describes below. I’m not sure how much intro courses can do to recruit more diverse students. At Georgia Tech, Media Computation has been over 50% female since we started in 2003, but that’s because of what majors are required to take it and the gender distribution in those majors. I know that Harvey Mudd, Stanford, and Berkeley have grown their percentage of females, but their undergraduates get to choose their majors while on-campus. At schools like Georgia Tech, where students have to choose their major on the application form, the decision is made off-campus.
One clear thing we can do in undergraduate courses is retain more diverse students. In our BS in CS, we graduated 16% female BS in CS students in Spring 2015, which is pretty good. Taulbee Survey says that the national average is only 14.1% (see report here). But our enrollment in CS is 25% female. We lose a LOT of women who decide to try CS. I’ve talked about some of the reasons in past blog posts (see post here about bad teaching practices and here about my daughter’s experience in CS at Georgia Tech).
Dan Garcia says there’s another important issue: Once courses are created, educators must make sure they’re reaching a diverse audience. Women and minorities are grossly under-represented, not just in tech fields, but also in computer science classes.Teachers should shake the trees and reach out to more kinds of students, not just the student who’s doing well in math. And, he says, connect computer science to bigger, more controversial topics, Garcia says, because coding and data are connected to issues of power. With the persistent digital divide, he says, educators must ask, “What does that mean for equity? What does that mean for fairness? Privacy issues? Hopefully the curriculum brings equity as part of it,” he says.
A recent article in The Chronicle talked about just how white higher education faculty are — see article here. Most of the student protests about equity and diversity on college campuses this last year demanded more minority faculty.
In this graph, I found a different and fascinating story in just the first two bars in each set:
Professors are overwhelmingly male. Associate professors are only slightly more male. Assistant professors are slightly more female. Instructors are much more female.
It’s not surprising, but it’s interesting to see it. The women in academia have the lion’s share of the lower status jobs, and the men have the lion’s share of the higher status jobs. When you take into account the landed-gentry/tenant-farmer relationship between the tenure track faculty and the teaching track faculty (see previous blog post), the relationship between gender and academic power becomes much more stark.