Women and Confidence

I’ve just finished The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.  I picked this book up last year, started it, then set it aside and forgot about it.  A few weeks ago, I picked it up again.  I’m glad I did.  The book is well researched and reveals some interesting things about how confidence works, for all people, but with an emphasis on why women seem to feel less confident.

I think about confidence all the time, for myself, and also for my students. I regularly have students who are afraid to get things wrong and who think they’re not any good at what they’re doing.  My first year of teaching Computer Science, I was carrying around some flyers for the robotics club to post, and as I passed a student standing at the library desk, I held one up to her and said, “You should come give it a try.”  She said, “Oh no, I’m not smart enough for that.”  And my heart sank.  I have a suspicion that many a student doesn’t even try to take one of my classes because they think it will be too hard.

And that’s one of the interesting facts that Kay and Shipman reveal in their book.  They found one study where men and women were given a test on 3D shapes.  The men outperformed the women significantly, which some might think revealed a deficit in women’s spatial reasoning ability.  A closer look at the results, however, showed that the women didn’t even answer a significant number of the questions and that’s where the difference in performance lay.  They gave the test again, and this time, they told everyone they couldn’t leave an answer blank.  When the results were tallied this time, the women performed as well as the men.  When women try at most things, they do just as well.  This result says to me that making things that people are afraid of mandatory might help eliminate the gap in performance between women and men.  And yes, I’m thinking about Computer Science, but there are other things as well.

The other interesting take away for me was that to be confident as a woman does not mean becoming more like a man–entirely.  Again, studies show that women who exhibit a balance of stereotypically male and female confident behaviors outperform not only those women who tip one way or the other, but also men who behave in stereotypically male ways or who exhibit feminine characteristics.

Kay and Shipman summarize their findings like this:

Think Less. Take Action. Be Authentic.

For the intellectuals among you, do not be alarmed by the the “think less” mantra.  It turns out that women, more so than men, overthink their decisions.  Rather than say, asking for a raise, they’ll think about all the reasons they shouldn’t or why they don’t deserve it, etc.  So thinking less moves you to action, but you must be authentic to your values and beliefs.  It seems like sound advice generally.

Men Only

In the last few days, I’ve encountered some things where men are the only reference point.  Here are some smart people: list of men.  Here are some books you should read: only male authors.  Here are some people to follow on Twitter: only men.  Usually, it’s been men who’ve done this, but not always.  And sometimes those references are to people I know and admire, and sure, read their book or follow them on Twitter.  But also diversify.  Women, smart women, often don’t put themselves out there as much as men, sometimes out of fear, and sometimes out of lack of time, and sometimes out of a choice of what to prioritize.  Find some women to include in your Twitter feed, blog and book reading, and people to seek advice from.

Want some suggestions?  Here are a few:

  • Audrey Watters (@audreywatters)
  • Leslie Madsen-Brooks (@lesliemb)
  • Maggie Powers (@mpowers3)
  • Janet Stemwedel (@docfreeride)
  • Laura McKenna (@laura11d)
  • Lisa Palmieri (@Learn21Tech)

Leave your suggestions in the comments.  I’m always looking for more!

The Power to Speak

I began my Educon experience Saturday morning with first, a session on feminism and second, a session on race.   Those two conversations became a thread for me throughout the conference.  I kept talking to people about them, and I’m still talking about them today.

As someone who’s been teaching at all-women’s educational institutions for the last 12 years, and as a women, feminism is obviously very important to me.  It’s colored my life since I can remember, but I’m still striving to practice feminism well.  Things change constantly and feminism has evolved to meet the needs of modern women and others who find themselves oppressed by a patriarchal system.

But, damn, it’s hard, and it’s complicated.  One example came when I attended Chris Lehmann‘s session on distributed leadership.  It was a packed room, so I stood in the back, basically directly in Chris’s line of sight.  I found myself among mostly men in my smaller.  There were maybe 10 of us and only 3 of us were women.  But the room as a whole was fairly evening distributed.  Chris’s style is to set the foundation, then ask a question, have us discuss in small groups and then share more broadly.  At some point, Chris pointed out that he’d noticed mostly men were responding to his questions (yes, Chris attended the feminism session).  I then tweeted this:

And during the smaller group conversations that followed, Chris came over and said something like, “We point it out and we keep trying.”  Yes, yes, we do.

Later that evening, Chris and I talked about this again.  Chris made a huge effort to call on more women, even those that didn’t have their hands up.  And I made an effort to say more, and I think some other women did, too.  I explained how hard it was, even for me, someone who enjoys talking and generally isn’t afraid to speak in front of people, to speak out.  I just told him all the crazy things that go through my head, that I have to push out of my head, just to say something.  They include, but are not limited to:

  • If I say something, I’ll be talking too much (whether I’ve spoken at all or not)
  • What I’m thinking is stupid and if I say it out loud, people will be thinking how stupid it is, how stupid *I* am
  • What I have to say isn’t important
  • When I say something, I may pay for it in some way in the form of negative comments now or later
  • Judging, lots of judging

It sucks.  I relayed my conversation with Chris to someone else down the table who had been in both sessions.  He told me that right after Chris pointed out the issue, the guy next to him said, great, no white guys will talk now.  But, actually, this guy told me, the very next person to speak after a woman Chris called on was a white guy and then another white guy–because they don’t wait to be called on.

In the feminism session, we talked a little about how to shut down that dynamic in the classroom, but it’s clear that even among adults, this is a big problem.  Even among, I should say, a group of adults who generally are sensitive to these issues and who want to do the right thing.

What do we do? We sometimes do what Chris did, point it out, try to correct it.  We can’t put it all on women, but women should do their best to speak more.  Making it more normal can help.  And, of course, make the balance of men and women more equal.

And this is kind of the small stuff.  There’s equal pay and rape and all kinds of other things to deal with, but we have to start somewhere.

And if you want to read more about the speaking issue, here are some great articles, one as recent as two weeks ago.  So yeah, we’re still dealing with it.

Study on why women don’t speak up 

Why Women Stay Quiet at Work

Women Don’t talk more than Men 

Women, the Internet, and Gaming

For about 2 months now, the gaming industry has been up in arms over a female game developer who has received some horrific threats to the point that she felt she needed to leave her home.  Another women in the industry felt the need to leave her home this past weekend after she, too, received threats.

I’ve seen this kind of stuff happen for years, both in gaming-related circles, and on the Internet in general.  I have been extremely lucky that I have not received anything close to what one might call harassment.   People disagree with me, sure, but I’ve never received an email or comment that I considered problematic, and I’ve been blogging for ten years.  But I’ve had friends who have, and I’ve seen other, more prominent women bloggers shut down their comments or switch to heavy moderation because they receive terrible comments.

I don’t think most men realize the difference between the kind of comments women get online vs. the kind of comments men get.  Mr. Geeky once had an article that made it to SlashDot.  The most threatening comments he got suggested that he be fired (for trying to make CS more appealing to women).  Contrast that to what many women get when someone disagrees with them.  Commenters often suggest that women with whom they disagree should be raped or killed (often both).  Descriptions of exactly how that should happen are common.  When Kathy Sierra was targeted back in 2006, people photoshopped pictures of her to show what they were going to do to her.  She shut down her blog and left the speaking circuit for a few years because she no longer felt safe.  And she just wrote about web design, not about women’s issues.  Ditto for the two women involved in this latest gaming controversy.

Some people are talking about why this happens and what’s to be done.  Many say that anonymity is part of the problem, that people feel free to say what they might really be thinking when they know they can’t be found out.  In the gaming industry, there’s certainly a locker room culture that includes putting down women, sometimes to the point of harassment and physical threats.  That culture is not just inherent in online games but carries over to blogs, online journals, YouTube, etc.  Despite more women being involved in games, both as players and developers, the industry still caters to 15 year old boys (either in real or emotional age), making it a petri dish for the kind of disgusting behavior one sees in this particular situation and elsewhere.

But not all of the blame can be place on the industry itself.  They’re working on making it better . . . slowly.  It’s also up to us, to not ignore the offhand sexist comment that maybe hasn’t crossed the line yet, but could.  If you’re in a comment thread where the conversation is about harming women, you have an obligation to step in and/or report it.  We create the community online, and if we allow the crazies to take it over, then it becomes a crazy, unsafe community.  Ideally, laws would be strengthened, so that the veil of anonymity cannot be a protection from hateful conduct.  The Internet is still (more than 20 years in) a bit like the Wild West still, and I think it can be tamed without it losing its spirit.  But that’s in part up to us.

The Problem with Computer Science

This is not new to anyone currently involved in teaching computer science or maybe to anyone paying attention to education more generally. We’re struggling to increase Computer Science exposure in K-12.  We’re struggling to make CS count or to make CS more compelling, especially to young women.  Mark Guzdial recently cited this US News article that breaks down all AP test takers by gender.  By far the worst ratio is in CS, where boys outnumber girls almost 5 to 1.  Why is that?

Of course, there are lots of reasons, many of them complex and difficult to solve, many involving gender stereotypes and bias.  Something I’m struggling with, though, is the CS learning curve.  A lot of the resources available online get through the basics fairly quickly, something I do in the first semester or so: functions, variables, loops, strings, maybe arrays/lists.  And it seems relatively easy at first.  Assign a value to a variable, add something to it, see how it changes.  But then it gets harder.  Suddenly you’re not just doing a simple for loop to print “Hello World” five times, but you’re looping through a list of data, checking its validity and updating it.  Still a basic concept in some ways, but now much more challenging.

I’ve seen this happen in my US classes and my MS classes.  Students will breeze through the first parts and then stumble, and then they sometimes give up.  While you can do some pretty cool stuff at the beginning.  To do the really cool stuff requires some much harder things.  Nested loops, nested if’s, functions calling other functions, objects.  These are all things that allow say, a cool video game, which students love to create.  But . . . it’s sometimes hard to get them past the hard stuff to get to the good stuff.

I’m not saying this is why girls in particular don’t do CS.  That’s a whole other issue.  But this is part of it for many kids. The latest hype about coding is that “everyone should do it.” I agree, but the hype suggests you’ll be making Angry Birds in a week.  And that’s just not going to happen for most people.  So a kid shows up to an Intro class expecting to be making Angry Birds like things and instead (if they’re unlucky like I was), they’re calculating the first 1000 prime numbers. Now there are some ways to make those first few assignments more fun.  I’ve done robots and graphics, for example.  And you can build on those to more complex things.  But things can still get hard and can still get discouraging.  So, we might need to find a way to not just have cool assignments at the beginning (the hook), but to have reasons and support to keep going past the hard stuff to get to the really cool stuff.  I think it’s part of why we don’t have so many students taking CS or demanding CS in schools.  They find out it’s harder than they thought and leave.  I don’t know exactly how to fix that, but I keep thinking about it.  Maybe someone else out there has an answer.

Gender and Makered

The two things I care about most are coming together–sort of–this evening.  And I think I came to care about one because of the other.  Let me explain.

While makered is about making things, physically and digitally, it is primarily a philosophy, an approach to the world that involves figuring it out through hands-on experiences.  It is one of many ways to have a truly constructivist classroom.  It is about encouraging students to take control of their own learning, to ask their own questions and find their own answers.  It’s about getting them past simply looking for your approval and getting them to be proud of their work for its own sake.  Girls struggle with this.  Girls are socially conditioned to not take risks and to seek approval, both of which work against having a makered mentality.  I work in an all girls’ school, which is a blessing.  Many girls, by the time I get them in 6th grade, have been conditioned enough by being at our school, to be okay with risk-taking and could care less what a teacher thinks.  But there are still some who play it safe, who wait for instruction, who have no idea where to go or what to do without being told.

I just watched this morning a follow-up interview with Sheryl Sandberg, where she even more strongly advocates for gender equality, equal pay, and equal representation in top roles in corporations and institutions.  While some have argued, and I have thought myself, that Sandberg has too strongly put the burden on women to “lean in,” the truth is women do need to fight for their rights.  Men are not just going to hand it over.  Men are not going to notice on their own and fix the issues.

Now makered isn’t going to solve our gender equity issues, but, I would argue, it’s one step in the right direction.  If, through makered approaches, girls learn to take charge and to not worry about what others think, they might be more likely to speak up at a board meeting or ask for a raise or work on a pet project that no one thinks is going anywhere but which turns out to be “the next big thing” that never would have seen the light of day if she’s “acted like a girl.”

One of the stories Sandberg told in her interview was about meeting a doctor who started paying attention to how his students responded to questions during rounds.  Most of the questions were answered by men, even though his students were half women.  He wondered why and realized that mostly men raised their hands.  He then tried to encourage the women to raise their hands too.  Didn’t work.  So he disallowed hand raising and just randomly called on people, taking care to ask an equal number of men and women.  Turns out women have the answers just as often as men!

My husband, who teaches at an all women’s college but who has men in his classes from the neighboring schools, often talks about this same dynamic.  The men are more likely to raise their hands, feel overly confident about their answers, and are more likely to take charge during projects. He works hard to change that dynamic, for the benefit of both the men and the women.

Makered and computer science, math and other sciences, the things that boys are supposed to be good at are more likely to have this dynamic than other subjects.  Teachers must work against it, need to call on the girls, encourage them to take risks, support their attempts to do so, and balance the dynamic so that boys see that girls are just as good at these subjects as they are.  One thing I like about makered and one reason I’m hopeful about its potential to transcend some of these gender dynamics is the inherent creative nature of it.  Makered encourages creativity in a way that is appealing to girls.  Artistic expression, even in an engineering or electronics project, is encouraged.  Many of the early makers have used things like fabric and sewing, paint and light to create projects, something that shows girls it’s not just about robots, that this can also be for them.

I’m looking forward to conversations around these issues, both on Twitter and in person, in the coming week.  And hurray for having a snow day to spend even more time pondering these things!

Exciting Things Coming Up

The week ahead promises to be super busy but super fun.  We’re in the middle of exam week, and in fact, I’m spending this weekend writing an exam, grading final projects, etc.  My exam falls on the last exam day (Thursday), so I’ll be frantically grading on Friday in order to get my grades in.

Here’s what’s in store for this week.  First, I’m guest hosting a #KidsCanCode Twitter chat on Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST. You should join us.  We’ll be talking about girls in CS, something I’m passionate about.

Next, I’m co-hosting my usual #makered chat with @tieandjeans at 9 p.m EST.  We’re prepping a bit for our #educon #makered design sprint.

Friday, #educon begins.  This will be my 5th one.  After the grading is done, I will head downtown to meet up with friends for dinner–a tradition, then hit the opening panel followed by the reception.  I’ll head home.

Saturday, it’s back downtown for #educon, day 2.  I’m leading a #makered design sprint with Andrew Carle, Jim Tiffin, Jr. and Sylvia Martinez (and whatever other #makered folks show up!).  I’m excited about this as I need to actually design some stuff myself.

I smartly booked myself a hotel this year, as I always end up staying too late at the after-party and the trains run at odd times on Sunday, so I have a hard time getting myself to SLA in time.

Sunday, #educon, day 3.  In the morning, I’m leading a conversation with my colleague from the Science department on our 1:1 program and how we rolled it out in a grass roots way.  We know others are in the process of this or have btdt, so we hope people will share their successes.

After that, I sleep–a lot.  The very next weekend begins 3 weekends in a row of robotics competitions.  To think, I sometimes feel like I don’t do enough.  That just made me laugh out loud.

Where are the women?

So, I’m a CS teacher at an all-girls’ school.  Like many CS teachers, I’m gearing up for CSEdWeek and participating in the Hour of Code event. I signed up at Code.org‘s website long ago.  I’m excited by what code.org has brought to the table: famous people, money, slick marketing.  A lot of groundwork has been laid by a lot of people and code.org is helping to take that work to the next level.  That’s all good.

Yesterday, I received some materials from code.org to promote the Hour of Code. I excitedly opened the package and pulled out what was clearly a few posters and a brochure.  I was already imagining where I was going to hang the posters.  When I opened them, I was staring Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Bosch in the face.  Two guys.  Two perfectly legitimate guys, mind you, but guys.  My heart sank.  Once again, the message is, “Coding is for boys.”  I can’t hang the posters.  I just can’t.

I realize that no one probably checks whether the materials are going to a co-ed school or an all boys school or whatever.  Heck, I suspect the people that stuffed the envelope might not even know that all-girls’ schools even exist.  But still.

So many people working hard to get more people coding, and so many people ignoring half of the population.  Ugh. I’m getting tired of this fight.

Can you be girly and be techie?

Should you?  I’m going to get in all kinds of hot water for bringing this up, but I’m going to anyway.  There’s a conversation elsewhere on the web about tech-oriented events that, say, include fashion advice or manicures.  Many, many years ago, I attended a BlogHer event that went awry on that front.  This is Twitter-like, pre-Twitter post about that.  For the record, I do think it’s a bad idea for events to go to standard feminine stereotypes for their agenda.  Women get enough of that elsewhere (and then some).

However, there is a sense in the CS/Tech world that in order to participate, you have to “be one of the guys.”  There’ll be no lipstick or heels in this field, thank you very much.  If you haven’t ever seen me, you might not know that I tend toward the girly on many fronts.  I like heels and “girly” clothes.  I like makeup.  I like flowery things.  But I can go with jeans and a t-shirt and watch all the Star Trek movies in one sitting.  I’m not just one way or another.

Just as we shouldn’t exclude people based on gender, we also shouldn’t exclude people based on their expression of that gender.  Gender, fwiw, is on a spectrum, to use CS terminology, it’s not just a 0 or a 1.  It’s everything in between, which is, of course infinite.   So that means accepting lots of different ways gender gets expressed. It also means not making assumptions about what a specific gender might want.  Because gender is not that simple.

So, yes, be girly and techie.  Or be whatever and be techie.  Quit viewing the world in binary and view it at least in 8-bit, maybe 16.  Really, it will expand how you see things.

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Girls and Computer Science, again

This post, about a high school CS teacher, who was not proactive about dealing with the sexism in his classroom, is making the rounds.  I highly recommend reading it.  CS teachers, both at the HS and College level, who are sensitive to gender issues, talk about this problem all the time.  Boys tend to take over, assume the girls don’t know what they’re doing, and belittle girls who do tackle coding.

I’m lucky to teach in an all-girls’ environment, so I don’t have to address that specific issue; however, in both my MS classes today, the ingrained perception that computing is too hard for girls, was prevalent.  I had girls saying, “I don’t get this kind of thing”, “This is too hard.”  Sigh.  I said to those that said that to just be patient, and they’ll learn more.  We’re just beginning. It’s new to everyone.  And it’s sad that girls feel the need to express their perceived inadequacy.  Because half the class was talking about how cool programming sounded, and asking what kinds of things they could do with it.

The sexism doesn’t have to be direct for it to have an impact.  Girls receive the message over and over again that technology is not for them, that math is hard, that science is hard, that certain fields are incompatible with their lives, that they should just sit back and look pretty (still, in 2013).  It takes work on the part of parents and teachers to get past that.  It’s the hardest part of my job to convince a girl who thinks she’s not good at tech that she can be.

The follow-up post is also good, and offers more explanation, and ways to help.  Towards the end, she writes the following:

I strongly believe that every kid should have access to computers and the internet, an introduction to programming, and an understanding of the variety of roles computing plays in our society. I see these things as essential as learning how to read and write, math, science, history, government, and geography. Not every kid who takes a programming class — regardless of how the class is taught or who is in it — will become a programmer. But we can do better, and maybe increasing diversity starts one class, one teacher, and one kid at a time.

I agree.  That’s what I’m trying to do, every day.  It’s why I get up every morning.