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.