Some thoughts on gender and robotics

This weekend, I participated in a robotics competition.  Like last year, I have a handful of high school girls (5) working with the boys high school down the street.  There’s one returning student, two students who have some experience from previous types of competitions and two who are new to the whole thing.  I also brought some middle schoolers, who ended up helping by resetting the field between matches.  There were 5 of them.  If you count my middle schoolers, there were 12 girls total at the competition doing something besides just watching.  That’s out of maybe 75-100 total people.  Not a good percentage.

The show is run by some well-meaning folks–a couple of middle aged engineers (both men), several college students (all men)–but I’m not sure they appreciate how few women there really are, and why there might not be more.  The organizers had a hard time accepting me as someone who could actually help.  They needed extra hands to get teams to the fields on time, but one guy said while I’m standing right next to him, “Does she know how?”  Wouldn’t ask me directly, and didn’t think I could do a pretty simple task.  Kind of annoying.

Mr. Geeky came for a while and mentioned that he thought the girls weren’t being allowed to participate very much by the boys on the team.  I didn’t see any of this because I was busy doing the task that the guys thought I couldn’t do.  I plan on talking to them about it on Monday and see if they felt left out.  He thinks I should boycott the whole thing or thinks I should encourage rules that require gender and racial diversity on teams.  I think boycotting deprives interested girls a much-needed opportunity and they might just shrug us off.  But I also am not above thinking that we should at least be having more thoughtful conversations about this issue within this particular organization.

I would also love to see some more research on whether robotics competitions are the best pathway for getting girls interested in computer science.  There are lots of good things about this whole thing, but it takes a lot of energy (and money), energy that might be better spent doing other things that increase girls’ participation in CS.

7 Replies to “Some thoughts on gender and robotics”

  1. That’s a really great question. I would be interested in the answer. My vote would probably be to have a discussion with everybody about their behaviors (but without pointing fingers) and ask them to help come up with ways to make the competition more welcoming to girls and women.

    The conversation with the guy standing next to you is irritating. I might have bitten his head off if it were me. But then, I have a short temper about such things (and in my own male-dominated field, my credentials are second to none).

    My sister is an engineer and volunteers at several programs each year to get high school girls interested in engineering. These tend to be single-sex events only.

  2. Interesting. My dad is an engineer, and used to be an engineering professor at a community college. They (meaning the entire math/science departments) ran day long programs for girls only where they did cool stuff like robotics, led by faculty (of both genders) and female students at the community college and some of the neighboring colleges. These were extra cool, because they were open only to girls with As or Bplusses in math/science, so there was a strong sense of “we’re so cool” to them.

    I digress.

    In my limited experience with girls doing things that pushed limits, I found that many girls don’t recognize sexism when they see it–or don’t know how to label it. They’d say things noting the lack of equity but then assume the boys were older than they were (when they weren’t). I think a good conversation might be revealing!

  3. Single-sex only events are great, but they are hard to come by. I’m in a single-sex school, and if I had to guess, I’d say that the girls don’t experience this subtle sexism much in their lives because they’re in a single-sex environment. So while, those events give them the opportunity to explore without having to fight the boys, it doesn’t teach them how to fight the boys. See what I’m saying? We’re having a conversation this afternoon, so we’ll see what comes of it.

  4. A lot depends on the people involved. I know a HS robotics team where when girls show up and don’t announce a preference for involvement are first shown how to use power tools. No default to “marketing” at this team.They’ve seen a steady growth in female participation in recent years with many in leadership roles in areas that are traditionally male roles in other teams.

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