Tag Archives: women

The Dongle Incident

So, there was yet another incident involving a woman at a tech conference enduring unpleasant comments that were insensitive. Sexist, some say. Crude, very likely, if indeed the word dongle was used in the way most of us are assuming it was.

I’ve read many, many articles and blog posts about the incident. And just scrolling down to the comments of any of them is enough evidence that indeed something took place that made the woman involved feel uncomfortable, maybe even threatened. A Wired article I read earlier today had exactly zero female commenters of the 100 or so comments I skimmed. Many of them were along the lines of, “You shouldn’t be offended by the stupid stuff we say. You’re too sensitive.” Wow.

Just this morning, Mark Guzdial, who is a staunch advocate for getting more women involved in computer science was surprised that ten years after Unlocking the Clubhouse, women still experience bias, veiled threats, and ostracizing. Um, yeah, a book, even a good one, doesn’t fix things. A thousand paper cuts, indeed. Every time I go to a conference, and there are very few women, cut. An ad that assumes women can’t figure out a remote, much less a smartphone, cut. The Best Buy guy who talks to your husband and not you, even though you’re making the purchase, cut. Ads for tech where there are no women because, hey, only men invent things, cut. And I have tough skin. Imagine what that does to a 14 year old girl, or a 20 year old college student. Some will tough it out, but many will decide it’s not worth bleeding over.

What Adria Richards did was try to fix things in a very public way. Thanks to social media, her little revolution was televised. In my mind, she basically refused to sit at the back of the bus. Her attempt backfired, as it did, and does, for many people. Luckily, she lost only a job and not more. At least one of the men involved also lost his job. That’s at least some sense of justice.

But how do we fix this? There’s the Sheryl Sandberg mentality of leaning in, toughening up. But that is not enough. From what I can tell, many women are already doing this, have been doing this. I offer a few solutions. One, men need to step up. I know many who do. They need to recognize that these things happen, and just because they don’t see bad behavior doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Don’t participate in the activity and tell others who do to cut it out. That’s what we tell our children to do with bullies. A bystander is as bad as a bully.

Two, companies and conferences need to be more explicit about appropriate behavior and the repercussions for it. PyCon had such policies in place. What they didn’t have, apparently, was a set of procedures. I’m not going to say that Richards’ posting the incident to Twitter was right or wrong. She did what she thought she needed to do. I might have done the same thing, but if pyCon or the company the men worked for had clear reporting procedures, she might not have turned to twitter. Hard to know, but I know if I thought sending a private message to a specific email address would definitely get some action, then that might be the route I’d go.

Three, we just need more women. I have to believe the one-sided nature of all of this leads to some bad behavior, or at least lack of perspective. It’s a vicious circle, though. Incidents like this turn women off to tech, so there are fewer women. And more incidents like this, turning more women off . . .sigh.

Leaning out

The Internet is abuzz about Sheryl Sandberg’s book and initiative Lean In. Critics are saying that her approach is unrealistic and supporters are saying that she’s right, women do need to step up more. I wonder if Sandberg has ever taken a Gender Studies class. If she has, then she would understand that all the leaning in in the world sometimes doesn’t get you to the top. And since when is the top the only goal. As someone in my last job once said, there aren’t enough of those spots to go around. If everyone in the organization wants to move up within the organization, then there’s going to be a lot of disappointment. That’s true more broadly. There’s a pyramid structure that exists in the work world. As far as I know, Sandberg hasn’t acknowledged that.

In the comments to a post by Penelope Trunk, someone called Sandberg’s book and books like it, career porn for women. I read The Feminist Mistake, and I’ll probably read this one just because I don’t like arguing against things I haven’t read. Many of the women I read on the Internet started out as career women. Some still are. Many, including myself, have shifted careers in order to balance their lives better. One thing I know in middle age that I didn’t know as a young woman is that neither the workplace nor the family structure have shifted enough to make an intense career plus family a real possibility for women. Nannies are often only possible after you’ve made it. Before that, you either take out a loan to pay for childcare or hope your partner can pick up the slack. If he’s in an intense career, that’s a nonstarter.

The workplace needs to shift before the family can. It needs to measure output not facetime, so that a parent can leave to manage a doctor’s appointment. It needs to allow that for men and women, so that women can ask their husbands to share the burden, knowing that it won’t harm his career (or hers, when it’s her turn). We need subsidized childcare so that women in their early careers, before the paycheck matches the hours worked, can put in the hours needed.

Alternatively, we need to place less value on work. I’m notorious for asking, “What do you do? ” to anyone I’ve just met. And despite having all kinds of anxiety of this question when I was in various states of transition over the years, I still ask it and still there’s at least some judgement. I’ll admit to being disappointed with friends who’ve stepped back from a career when I know we’ll that sometimes the sacrifices aren’t worth the paycheck. Part of me wants them to push for what they need to stay, but I know that often the organization will never give them anything because there’s someone without kids or with a stay at home parent standing behind them ready to take their job.

So maybe women need to work on some skills that will allow them to move up or take on more responsibilities (as if they don’t already have a lot) but we also need to examine our practices and prejudices to make things better for all of us in the workplace.

Pronouns and abstract nouns matter

I’ve been reading and watching tv a lot over the last couple of days. Here are some things I’ve noticed:

  • people who work at Google are guys
  • people who work in Silicon Valley have beards
  • the tech people behind the Obama campaign digital strategy are smart guys
  • when traveling, you need your moisture wicking briefs

Do you see a pattern? I’m starting to wonder if there are any women involved in tech at all, even in tech journalism. If I worked at Wired, I’d sure as hell make sure that stories don’t leave women out. And if I was a producer for a big news network, I’d make sure pronouns and nouns that referred to gender in tech stories were inclusive. You may claim I’m being too PC, but these things matter. They are part of the way that girls are subtly (and not so subtly) told that tech careers are not for them.

Programming for girls

The number of programs geared just for women or girls seems to be increasing rapidly. Almost every day, it seems, I read about a camp or a class just for the female gender. I have nothing against these programs. I teach in an all girls’ school. I think there’s value in single sex education. But I wonder if they are working. Will we see a huge influx of women in tech or programming jobs in 10 years? I’m honestly not sure.

I’m sort of inclined to think that these programs are separated from education in a way that may not be useful in the long term. There’s no continuity in these programs. They’re often one off attempts to teach technology x. After that, the student is on her own to figure out what to do next. Maybe it will inspire them to take a college course or advocate for CS to be taught in their high school or to enroll in the one class that exists but is always all boys. If so, that’s a good thing. I don’t know how some of these programs are measuring success, and if anyone is studying them in a sustained way.

I can’t help but think, also, that these programs may take away some of the incentive for schools to offer courses themselves or to recruit more girls to existing programs. I just feel a lack of connection between these programs and what I and many CS teachers are trying to do.

How to do things differently

Mr. Geeky’s response to my last post about women and coding with, “Okay, so what do you do differently?”  I didn’t have an immediate answer, and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’m working on having more answers.  Here are some brief but immediate ideas, based solely on my own experience and a tiny bit of reading.

1. Connect to what women like.  Don’t know what they like? Ask.  Things that work for me:

  • Graphics, drawing, animation. Graphics, by the way, is a great way to reinforce math skills.
  • Music and sound
  • Current movies, books and tv shows.  Think trivia games about these or text analysis.
  • Physical object, especially cute robots, Lilypad arduino/soft circuit projects

2. Let them work in groups–at least for a couple of projects.  Women are social.  They like talking to each other as they’re working.  Sometimes they’re talking about their projects, sometimes not.   Note: not all women are social, so allow them to work alone if they want.

3. Assume they know little about the inner workings of a computer–everything from file systems to motherboards.  One of my first labs is to take a computer apart.  Very fun!  And it gets them to understand more about the hardware.  Teach them these things in context, not as a lecture.  As they’re using files in their programs, for example, they’ll get what a full path name means.

4. Give students time in class to work on projects, so that they have your and others’ support.  This also deals with equity issues.  I can’t necessarily expect that everyone has access to a computer at home, so all their projects are done during class time.  It creates a workshop environment that I’ve enjoyed.  Whether that will work with more than 10 or 15 students, I don’t know.  But we’ll see.

5. Speaking of projects, assign interesting projects (see number 1 above).  Recently I did a search of Computer Science projects just to get some ideas to add to my own list and it was depressing.  Calculate the nth prime number? Fibbonacci sequence? A lot of math-related stuff, a hold over I suspect from the days when CS was math.  If students are interested in that, fine, but I’ve had better luck making suggestions, but ultimately letting them choose.  My students have created games (“rock, paper, scissors”, “tic tac toe”, “lingo”) and robotics projects (“navigate a maze”, “dance with a partner”), among other things. 

6. Be flexible.  I’m lucky to have only women in my classes, and while there are definitely differences among individuals that I have to accommodate, they are more similar than not.  Adding boys to the mix complicates matters.  Boys have higher confidence than women when it comes to talking about computing and trying things.  This will sometimes intimidate the women in the class.  You have to be able to pivot and create an environment where this doesn’t happen.  It means creating assignments that appeal across the board, and it means supporting students who do good work, but may not be taking as many risks as those who have more experience and confidence.

7. Don’t get stuck on the language, environment, etc. Especially in middle/high school.  Some other language is going to come along by the time they’re in college or working.  Or what they learn in high school won’t be what’s taught at the college of their choice.  I like Scratch and Alice, Python (using the Calico project for my environment), and Processing (great way to create art).  You’re teaching concepts.  As I often tell my students, “Everyone uses a reference manual.”  While you’ll memorize some things, you’ll never remember the exact syntax for everything.  And if you switch languages, knowing that is very helpful.  There is no right language, though some languages and environments are easier to teach/learn and are more engaging to some people.

For non-students, women who want to learn to code in order to further their careers or just because they’re interested, some of the same things apply.  I’d say, too, that if you can latch them onto a project that has practical application, that they or someone they know might actually use, that’s a great way to get them involved and learning a lot.  One of my first projects that involved data structures was writing something that keeps track of my food items and tries to match that with recipes.  It was something I really wanted to work, so I worked harder on it.  And that wasn’t something anyone has ever suggested in any class I’ve taken online or offline.  I teach in a way that I’ve never been taught. 

Solving the time problem is harder, but one thing that CS is good for is breaking down problems into small bits.  Find a project and just write a small piece of it at a time.  For my recipe project, I started with structuring my recipes so that I could separate food items from them.  Just a bit at a time. 

What am I missing?  What else works? How do you work around the time problem?

Women and Coding

I’ve been meaning to write for a while now, but I’m on break, and I basically refuse to use my brain. :)  Actually, there’s more to it than that, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Over the break, I ran into a couple of articles about Digital Humanities and coding, both by women.  They both address issues with exhorting women in DH to code.  Miriam’s post (second one linked) discusses the issues of the unfriendliness of both in-person and online communities for learning, and the pressure of representing all women.  The other post is more about not blogging and tweeting more, but it shares an issue with the other, which is about time.

These posts come on the heels of an interview I had with Audrey Watters about coding, and an article in the New York Times about the need for everyone to learn to code and touting all the new online ventures that are supposedly helping people to learn to code.  There are, btw, several women quoted in the article, at least one of whom I actually know in real life.  It’s a small world of people who think about these things.  There should be more of us.

As someone who is simultaneously learning to code and teaching women to code, I think a lot about why more women aren’t interested enough in coding to take the time to do it.  And I can come up with a few key things I’ve been thinking about.

First, to address the issue of whether DH’ers or anyone else should learn to code.  Short answer, yes.  Yes, they should know a little code.  They should spend maybe just a few weeks learning enough to write a couple of simple programs–in Python or PHP or Javascript or whatever, doesn’t matter.  It will at least give them an appreciate of how machines work and interpret instructions, of the limitations of what we can tell computers to do, and the logic of the instructions we give.  It helps people see the gap between how humans process information vs. how computers do, which has to be a huge help to anyone, but especially for those in DH.  This is not to say everyone doing DH should become an expert coder.  Only if they want to.  There are plenty of ways to contribute without knowing how to code.

Second, why don’t more women pursue coding, especially with all these great resources that are available.  The answers differ, depending on where you are.  For my students, there’s the time factor–finding time for a class or an after-school program or just figuring it out on their own.  And when your schedule is already packed, that’s hard.  But there’s also a coolness factor (or lack of coolness factor, I should say), something the first post I linked mentions as an issue for teens.  That’s hard to overcome.

Older women also have the time issue.  And here’s where I get to my break.  I could be coding over break. I’m not. My husband did.  He codes in almost every spare moment of his time.  Sometimes I do, but a lot of times I don’t.  And frankly, I attribute some of that to being a woman.  Even if the actual physical labor of our household is evenly divided, and it’s not quite, the brainpower devoted to it is not.  As soon as my husband walks out the door, he’s not thinking about whether the kids will do their homework and clean their rooms or the fact that we’re out of butter or milk or that I have no underwear and therefore need to do laundry.  Those thoughts crowd my head, plus doctor’s appointments, etc.  That’s not to say I’m distracted when I’m working, but it often means that when I do have spare time, those things become my priority, not coding.  Learning anything is a challenge, and frankly, learning to code is not a cakewalk when you get past a certain level.  It’s higher order problem solving.  It puts my brain cells into probably their highest gear.  Which is great and exhilarating at times, but requires energy.  And if I’ve just put in a long 10 hour day teaching, I have a hard time mustering the energy to code.  And laundry takes less energy and it’s already in my head to do anyway.

The other, more important issue, I think, is about the culture.  Learning to code is about entering another culture.  Miriam mentioned the inside jokes that go along with this culture.  Those jokes, along with many other things, are meant to keep people out.  And that’s the nice way of doing it.  If you’ve been to Slashdot lately, you’ll see the not so nice way.  Programming culture, especially online, is not far off from Mad Men.  Women are made to feel that they don’t belong and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it.

The culture also creates particular structures for learning about programming which are not friendly to women.  Here’s how most men I know learned to code.  They or their parents bought them a (Tandy, IBM, Apple IIe), and they used the manual to learn to program, often in BASIC.  They did this on their own, in their bedrooms or rec-rooms.  By the time, they got to high school, they joined the computer club, which brought together all the other boys who’d learned to program the same way.  By the time they got to college, they’d written programs to do all kinds of things–from games to graphics to organizing their cassette tapes.  Girls, in contrast, often weren’t given a computer.  I got my first as a sophomore in college. Nowadays that’s less true, but nowadays computers don’t immediately look like they need to be programmed.  Why would anyone learn to program on their MacBook?  It’s got tons of programs.

The mostly solo, figure-it-out-for-yourself mode of learning has now been transferred online.  Every venture out there, from Stanford’s CS courses to Codeacademy, takes this as its model.  They think, well, I learned on my own, so if we just give people the resources, they can do it, too.  No, really, they can’t.  They might be able to get started.  But there’s no sequence of courses.  One doesn’t progress from easy projects to harder ones.  One doesn’t learn the next level of things, because often one doesn’t know the next level.  There aren’t group projects or socialization or a context that’s interesting and fun.  I’ve taken a couple of these courses.  In one from MIT, the first lesson had us calculating the first 1000 prime numbers. Woo hoo.  That’s going to be something I use again.  My first lesson in the class I teach? Draw a square with your robot.  Same principles apply, but it’s a lot more fun, imho.

My point is, these courses attract the same kinds of people to CS that CS has always attracted.  They’re not doing things differently enough to reach folks who’ve looked at coding and thought, nope, not interested.  As Miriam says at the end of her post: “If you want women and people of color in your community, if it is important to you to have a diverse discipline, you need to do something besides exhort us to code.”  Yes, you need to do things differently–way differently.  You have to attract the artist and the musician and the future scientist.  You have to contextualize coding within things that they’re interested in, not within things that you think are important.  It’s why I changed my 8th grade curriculum.  Okay, I said, you don’t like this, then let’s do this.  Similar information is being taught, but hopefully it’s in a way that doesn’t turn people off.  And I think it means you have to accept that most women haven’t been sitting in their basements hacking on their computers (though some certainly have), and that might mean explaining the inside jokes (or not telling them) and not assuming that they have a certain baseline knowledge.  And you can’t berate them for that.  I mean Apple once said, “Think different.” But when it comes to teaching coding, few people are.

Top Secret Rosies and Middle School

On Wednesday, I went to see the film, Top Secret Rosies and participate in a Q & A with the director afterwards. The film is well worth seeing for anyone interested in the beginnings of computing and especially for those interested in women in math and computing.   During the Q & A, someone asked about getting women/girls interested in CS and the director’s response was that they needed to get to girls sooner, preferably middle school.  A couple of people around me poked me.  I wanted to jump up and shout, “Yes!” 

I don’t know that many people that try to teach CS of any kind in middle school, and I, myself, balance teaching applications and skills students need for their other classes and basic computing skills.  I’m especially proud of my sixth graders who work with HTML and CSS and who learn a little about web protocols and how the Internet works.  While that’s not strictly code, it introduces them to the idea that humans tell computers what to do through special languages–and we even talk about binary. 

And we begin learning about the logic of programming in eighth grade through Scratch.  I’m also doing an after school session for 4th and 5th graders where they’ll be doing a little of everything that I do across the middle school.  I’m planting seeds that I hope will grow into my future CS students and our future programmers and problem solvers.

The film made pretty clear that women have a long history of being discouraged from pursing highly technical and mathematical careers.  To some extent, I still see the uphill battle I’m fighting as some girls still tell me how “uncool” is it to be good at computer science.  That makes me sad, and I hope that five years from now, I won’t be hearing that as often.

Why we get defensive

I was going to post something fun here today, but nothing floated to the top as worth it, and after I read Historiann and Dr. Crazy this morning, I found myself with a lot of thoughts to put down. Dr. Crazy’s post on speaking out as a non-parent on parent-related issues is excellent as are the many comments which dig into the topic further. What she and Historiann both marvel at is the defensiveness with which many of their parent commenters express in their responses. I feel that defensiveness pretty keenly these days in all kinds of different situations. It feels to me that no matter what choices I’ve made–to be a parent or not, to work or not, to mother a certain way or not–I’m criticized for them. I think many parents–mostly mothers, imho–feel they’re in a basically lose-lose situation. And I think Histioriann’s discussion of patriarchy is right on the money as to why this happens. Here are some of my humble thoughts, mostly based on my own experience, so, as they used to say in the old days of the Internet: ymmv.

1. Women in the workforce have a difficult time. They are still often perceived, even in places that are “family-friendly” as the primary caregivers. This leads to assumptions about how dedicated they are to their work and whether they’re going to up and quit because of a child. Unfortunately, many women do quit to manage family matters because they find they can’t once they realize there’s no (affordable) child-care, no (affordable) afterschool programs and their workplace isn’t flexible enough to provide time to juggle child-care and work. Even if their partner can take on part of this, they both need the flexibility to manage this and workplaces are often even less friendly to men who want that kind of flexibility to do their part as parents. And all this is systemic, having nothing to do with individuals as individuals who just react and make choices that make sense within that system.

2. On the flip side, when mothers who work find themselves among mothers who don’t, they’re often treated as if they’re not being good mothers. They’re leaving the kids with less than ideal care (ideal being a parent). Also part of the system.

3. Mothers who don’t work feel awkward among mothers who do because again, they feel they’re being judged. As one commenter noted, and as I myself have experienced, some women will expound on the “anti-feminism” of the sahm. I’ll admit to having had those thoughts, but would never say them out loud. And now, I think that some people are sahm’s because they are persuaded or caught up in certain social norms that stem from patriarchy, mostly having to do with appropriate gender roles. And some are sahms because they get forced out of the workplace, which as I said in #1 functions under these same social norms.

So, here’s the thing. This was my first week at home after school started. The kids aren’t here from 8-3. For the first time in 13 years, I am making absolutely. no. money. It feels very, very weird. I feel all at turns useful and completely useless. And yes, sometimes defensive. When I was working at my polling place a couple of years ago, my across the street neighbor came in and one of our other neighbors, a man in his 50s, started talking to her, and she explained that she’d quit her job to stay at home (her kids are older than mine–oldest is a senior, youngest is in middle school). He said, “Good for you. As it should be.” That has stuck with me, and just the other day, when I was standing at the bus stop, a neighbor said to me, “Hey, don’t you teach too?” And I stumbled a bit, and said, “Not anymore. I quit my job last fall.” And he said, “Good for you.” And I heard “As it should be” in my head. And that does not feel good–at least not to me.

There are subtle messages that we get as parents about how we’re expected to behave. Those messages are often different for fathers than for mothers. One would think the easy path would be to meet those expectations, but most of the time, we end up trying to overcome those expectations. A working parent often has to prove to her workplace that she’s not a slacker and prove to the mothers at the soccer game that she’s a good parent. I’m getting a nagging feeling all the time that I should be working, but then I realize how much work it would be to manage the house and kids and I cringe, thinking about putting in a 40-hour week plus god knows how many hours juggling the home front. And I don’t feel comfortable at all running around with the PTO crowd, some of whom have literally said they put their children’s needs ahead of their own. I’m not even doing that now, as a sahm. I quit work for myself, for my own mental and physical health and to give myself some time to work on some projects that may or may not make any money, but I feel like I can’t say that.

So what am I saying? I guess I’m just saying that it’s complicated, but I’m very glad that the conversation is happening. And I think we should all be observant of the ways in which we might be participating in a system that reinforces stereotypes, one of which might be that parents need extra “perks” as Dr. Crazy suggests is the norm at her school, but another of which might be that non-parents have all the time in the world, which is equally untrue. Those stereotypes are damaging to us all, put us all on the defensive and make it so we can’t work together toward viable solutions, which might be local, but which might also be part of a larger policy goal related to working conditions.

Women in Tech: Feeling like a Fraud

I have always been an avid supporter of women choosing to pursue technology degrees and careers. Through the summer program I used to direct, I encouraged young women to learn more about the technology we used, either on their own through their projects or by taking computer science classes or other types of classes. And many of them did further their knowledge. Some took graphics design courses. Some pursued computer science. Still others took internships that involved web or flash design and even ended up in first jobs that were heavily based on using technology.

So that’s a success story. But I personally sometimes feel like a fraud for not being even more geeky than I am. Yes, I know HTML and CSS and can figure out my way around most programs and even a unix system. But I can’t program and there are definite limits to my abilities. What I’ve focused on in the last few years has been the more philosophical aspects of our use of technology. How does it change our relationships, our schools, our government? And I can’t help but feel that the true technowomen out there think this is not hard core enough. Every time I look at web sites for organizations that support women in technology fields, they’re offering programming camps or money for your technology startup. And I feel left out. The irony!

I feel slightly less left out after reading this article on women who have leveraged technology in similar ways to my own. They are communicators, entrepreneurs, and policy wonks who have turned their love of technology into interesting careers that aren’t about being system administrators or php programmers. Now I should say that most of the groups that support women who do want to be programmers and the like are not excluding those of us who want to bridge the relationship between what the programmers make and the people they make it for. But they’re also not offering support for those of us who are technically savvy but haven’t taken that next step to learn to program. Programming camp for dummies, maybe?

Then again, some of us may not want to program. I’ve tried to learn for years, but I get bored pretty quickly or frustrated or sometimes both. I think in part, this is because I don’t want to learn for myself, but want to learn in order to establish more geek cred–a really bad reason to learn and obviously not very motivating. I’m just hoping the tent will widen instead of shrink.