To my daughter’s high school programming teacher

This is a guest post / cross-post from Rikki Endsley who tweets as @rikkiends and is community manager for USENIX in addition to being a tech writer. See also the original post for other comments and the follow-up: What could possibly go wrong?

Trigger Warning: mentions of threats violence and rape

Dear sir,

I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages (Visual Basic? Seriously??) or about the A my daughter earned in your class. And, actually, my daughter had no specific complaints about you as a teacher. I, on the other hand, have plenty of feedback for you.

First, a little background. I’ve worked in tech journalism since my daughter was still in diapers, and my daughter had access to computers her entire life. At the ripe old age of 11, my daughter helped review her first tech book, Hackerteen. She’s been a beta tester (and bug finder) for Ubuntu (Jaunty Jackalope release), and also used Linux Mint. Instead of asking for a car for her 16th birthday, my daughter asked for a MacBook Pro. (I know, I know … kids today.)

My daughter traveled with me to DrupalCon in Denver for “spring break”, attended the expo at OSCON 2012, and even attended and watched me moderate a panel at the first Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC ’12) conference at USENIX Federated Conferences Week. Thanks to my career, my daughter’s Facebook friends list includes Linux conference organizers, an ARM developer and Linux kernel contributor, open source advocates, and other tech journalists. My daughter is bright, confident, independent, tech saavy, and fearless. In fact, she graduated high school last May — two years early — and is now attending high school in India as her “gap year” before heading off to college.

So what’s the problem?

During the first semester of my daughter’s junior/senior year, she took her first programming class. She knew I’d be thrilled, but she did it anyway.

When my daughter got home from the first day of the semester, I asked her about the class. “Well, I’m the only girl in class,” she said. Fortunately, that didn’t bother her, and she even liked joking around with the guys in class. My daughter said that you noticed and apologized to her because she was the only girl in class. And when the lessons started (Visual Basic? Seriously??), my daughter flew through the assigments. After she finished, she’d help classmates who were behind or struggling in class.

Over the next few weeks, things went downhill. While I was attending SC ’12 in Salt Lake City last November, my daughter emailed to tell me that the boys in her class were harassing her. “They told me to get in the kitchen and make them sandwiches,” she said. I was painfully reminded of the anonymous men boys who left comments on a Linux Pro Magazine blog post I wrote a few years ago, saying the exact same thing.

My September 8, 2010 post, Inequality, Choices, and Hitting a Wall, discussed illegal gender discrimination in tech. The next day, comments started popping up on the post. Sure, the sandwich comments were easy enough to shrug off at first, but within a few minutes, the comments increased in numbers and intensity. And then the threats of violence started: “The author of this article is a whiny bitch and needs a good beating to be put in her place.” Ten minutes later, the rape threats began, and I shut down our comments site-wide. And then the emails started…

So, you see, I was all too familiar with what my daughter was going through, but I was unprepared for the harassment to start in high school, in her programming class.

I consulted with friends — female developers — and talked to my daughter about how to handle the situation in class. I suggested that she talk to you. I offered to talk to you. I offered to come talk to the class. I offered to send one of my male friends, perhaps a well-known local programmer, to go talk to the class. Finally, my daughter decided to plow through, finish the class, and avoid all her classmates. I hate to think what less-confident girls would have done in the same situation.

My daughter has no interest in taking another programming class, and really, who can blame her.

For her entire life, I’d encouraged my daughter to explore computer programming. I told her about the cool projects, the amazing career potential, the grants and programs to help girls and women get started, the wonderful people she’d get to work with, and the demand for diversity in IT. I took her with me to tech conferences and introduced her to some of the brightest, most inspiring and encouraging women and men I’ve ever met.

Sadly, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you, sir, created a horrible one for girls in computer programming.

Did you not see her enthusiasm turn into a dark cloud during the semester? Did you not notice when she quit laughing with and helping her classmates, and instead quickly finished her assignments and buried her nose in a book? What exactly were you doing when you were supposed to be supervising the class and teaching our future programmers?

I’m no teacher, so forgive me if you think I’m out of place when it comes to telling you how to do your job. But I am a mother, and I’ve spent years encouraging girls and women in IT, so perhaps my perspective will help you. After all, you didn’t mean to create a brogrammer-to-be environment, did you?

Here are seven suggestions for teaching high school computer programming:

  1. Recruit students to take your class. Why was my daughter the only girl in your class? According to her, she only took the class because I encouraged it. My daughter said she wouldn’t have known about the programming class, otherwise. (I’m adding this to my “parenting win” page in the baby book.) Have you considered hanging up signs in the school to promote your class? Have you asked the school counselors to reach out to kids as they plan their semesters? Have you spoken to other classes, clubs, or fellow teachers to tell them about why programming is exciting and how programming fits into our daily lives? Have you asked the journalism students to write a feature on the amazing career opportunities for programmers or the fun projects they could work on? Have you asked current students to spread the word and tell their friends to try your class?
  2. Set the tone. On the first day of class, talk about the low numbers of women and lack of diversity in IT, why this is a problem, and how students can help increase diversity in programming. Tell students about imposter syndrome and how to help classmates overcome it. Create an inclusive, friendly, safe learning environment from day one. I thought this was a no brainer, but obviously, it’s not.
  3. Outline, explain, and enforce an anti-harassment policy.
  4. Don’t be boring and out-of-date. Visual Basic? Seriously?? Yes, I know I said I’m not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages, even though I’m still scratching my head on this one. The reason I mention your choice is that it doesn’t help you make a good first impression on new programmers. I have no idea what my teen learned in your class because she wasn’t excited about it. Without touching your minuscule class budget, you can offer a range of instruction with real-world applications. With resources like Codecademy, for example, students could try a variety of programming languages, or focus on ones they find interesting. Have you considered showing kids how to develop a phone app? Program a Raspberry Pi? Create a computer game? Build a website? Good grief, man — how were you even able to make programming boring?
  5. Pay attention. I don’t know what you were doing during class, but you weren’t paying attention, otherwise you would have noticed that my daughter was isolated and being harassed. Do you expect girls to come tell you when they are being harassed? Well, don’t count on it. Instead, they pull away, get depressed, or drop out completely, just like they do in IT careers. You want to know what happens when women speak up about verbal abuse or report harassment? Backlash, and it’s ugly. Best case, she’ll get shunned by classmates or colleagues. And hopefully she won’t read any online comments…ever. But it can get much worse, with the vulgar emails and phone calls, and home addresses posted online, and threats of violence. Sadly, this isn’t rare; this happens all the time, from high school on up into our careers. Don’t believe me? That’s because you aren’t paying attention.
  6. Check in. Talk to your students in private to see how class is going for them. Talk to other teachers or school counselors. Had you talked to my daughter’s counselor, for example, you would have known how class was going. The counselor worked closely with my daughter to help her graduate early, and she would have had no problem getting an honest answer about my daughter’s unpleasant experience in your brogramming class. Did you expect me to call you? Believe me, I wanted to, but I also respected my daughter’s request to let her handle the situation. And see number 5. Had I told you how class was going for my daughter, her situation would not have improved, and might have gotten even worse.
  7. Follow up. At the end of the semester, take a survey. Allow students to submit anonymous online answers to questions about the class material, your teaching methods, and their experience with other students. Allowing anonymity will help you get honest answers and, hopefully, you can improve your programming class for your next round of students.

Look, you don’t have to tell me how hard your job is or how underpaid and overstressed you are as a high school teacher. I’m a single mother working in tech publishing — believe me, I get it. I like to think what I do is important, but what teachers do has the potential to change the world. No article I write will ever do that, but the daughter I raise might.

I spent 16 years raising a daughter who had all the tools and encouragement she needed to explore computer programming as a career. In one short semester, you and her classmates undid all of my years of encouragement.

I always told my daughter that high school isn’t real life. Unfortunately, your programming class proved otherwise. In one semester, my daughter learned why there are so few women in IT, and no amount of encouragement from me is going to change that.

EDIT: Rikki has posted this update:
As I said, my daughter is in India for a year, so she didn’t see this article until Wednesday, September 11. I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about me sharing her story and all the attention it received. Luckily, my daughter thanked me for writing about her experience. I asked her whether she had any corrections for the article. “Um, maybe tell them that I did actually talk to the teacher and I tried to tell the guys to quit being jerks,” she said. “He told the principal, and it was really embarrassing, which is probably why I didn’t tell you. And I gave up after that,” she explained. My daughter said that, after bringing the problem to the teacher’s attention several times, she finally asked him whether she could talk to the entire class about sexual harassment, he told her he’d think about it, and that’s when he reported the situation to the principal. “And a couple days later I was in the principal’s office being explained to that it wasn’t my place to do that, and I just mumbled answers to get out of there as soon as possible because I was really, really embarrassed and fighting back tears.” Before my daughter signed off our online chat, she asked me why I wrote about her story now. I told her about Alexandra, the nine-year-old girl who presented her app at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, and the titstare app developers who shared the same stage. “Well, I’m sorry that crap happened … to both of us,” she said. I am, too.

19 thoughts on “To my daughter’s high school programming teacher

  1. Santeri

    I wish I had something insightful to say, but there’s little I have to add to this phenomenal article. I’m really sorry your daughter had to experience that, though. I’d want to say that it would have gotten better in college, but I honestly have no idea how IT/tech classes in American colleges are like – even over where I live it’s pretty much nine men for every woman, and while I can’t speak for any harassment and I have little idea about the school’s policy on that, but I do worry how our IT-companies are with that and I would pretty much guarantee that workplace harassment will become an issue once they graduate, as it’s still such a male-dominated field, and as a IT student myself, I’d want to find ways to prevent that.

    I hope it’s OK for me to link to this article in my own WordPress? I couldn’t find any “reblog” button and I don’t plan on getting accounts for any of those “social” media sites.

    I can’t get over that Visual Basic thing, for high school I would have gone with HTML/CSS/Javascript type stuff. Or Python, which is something I really recommend if your daughter ever changes her mind and learns programming on her own. We really need diversity in that field right now.

    1. Mackenzie

      Linking is never a problem, though you might want to link to the original too.

      I would’ve gone with Python too. One of my friends even wrote “How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning With Python” for teaching his high school students several years ago. I put a copy of it (it’s CC-licensed and a PDF is online) on my 9yo cousin’s computer a few years ago, and at the next family reunion when I went to show her and her sister some programming stuff, and I started talking about functions, she scoffed at me: I know what a function is.

  2. Chocolate Bunny

    This is a sad reality. What’s sadder is that anyone can become a teacher….being a teacher should be reserved for only the brightest most inspiring people. What a pathetic person.

    I encourage your daughter to keep going. I encourage this article to inspire women to try, and to challenge themselves. Women’s minds CAN multitask on the whole much better than men’s. Women are creative too and these combined can make the perfect computer programmer, or IT lady. Besides being the underdog can be fun. Challenge accepted.

  3. Mauri Favaron

    How sad, how stupid. Being a teacher, in my view, means to inspire – with passionate knowledge – every enthusiasm blossom in something more. While this “should be”, so often we see teachers acting more as gatekeepers, coldly, with no connection to their cub-programmers (in this specific case).

    My hope for your daughter is to not give up. Many developers, beginning with Lady Lovelace herself, have learned on themselves.

    And: find stimulating problems? My own cub-physicists use programming (in R, Fortran 2008, Python, whatever solves the problem at hand) as a tool to solve, with some supervision, some edgy problem. Typically they start quite afraid of the computer. But soon they discover the fun and the beauty, and fully engage with all their creativity. I wonder what would happen, if they havd ghe same motivation of your daughter from the very start…

    Hugs
    Mauri

  4. Lisa Hirsch

    I sincerely hope you sent this, as a printed letter, to the principal and board of education, because the boys’ behavior in class is almost certainly against some code of conduct for students.

  5. sparrow

    If it were me, I’d send this to any local newspapers as well as the Board of Education. If there’s a “school directory” of parents’ contact information or a PTA mailing list, I’d mail it to them, too.

    Also, this sounds a lot like my high-school programming experience, down to the language of choice.

  6. MadGastronomer

    Holy crap. If it were my daughter, I would raise an enormous stink, even after she’d graduated. More so, actually, since she couldn’t be punished anymore. A student reporting harassment and requesting that a discussion be had being sent to the principle for it? Oh, hell no.

    Not everybody has the time, spoons, or personality for a fight like that, and there’s nothing wrong with those who can’t, but I would lose my shit.

    1. R.Dave

      Yeah, the fact that she apparently did report the harassment to the teacher is a pretty significant detail that should have been included in the original story. My reaction to the original story was that the author was being completely unreasonable in expecting the teacher to notice that her daughter’s enthusiasm in class had waned (particularly given that her actual work quality hadn’t changed), but if the teacher was expressly informed of the harassment and did nothing, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

  7. Sean Riley

    I wonder how many of those points any individual teacher could have committed to without the backing of the school as a whole. #1 could very well have been a violation of school policy; #4 and maybe #2 could be hamstrung by curriculum. #3 depends upon the school having a well defined and clear anti-harassment policy, which of course it damn well should have, but how well that’s articulated to the teachers is a good question to ask. And #7 could very well represent a terrifying scenario to a teacher who wasn’t sure of the school’s willingness to support him if a parent decided to take a swing at him — those surveys could well come back as evidence against him.

    This isn’t to exonerate the teacher, by any means. If nothing else, points #5 and #6 are almost certainly wholly his fault. But I can’t help but see this story as one more of institutional failure rather than personal failure, a scenario in which the school failed to anticipate problems and, when problems arose, decided to shut down the problem rather than fix it. It is a sadly far too common response.

  8. Richard M Stallman

    The male students’ (and the principal’s) sexism, and the teaching of
    Visual Basic, have more in common than the article takes note of.
    Both of them tend to direct students into a state of submission. In
    one case, it is submission to males; in the other, submission to a
    company. Every non-libre program imposes the owner’s unjust power on
    its users. (See gnu.org/philosophy.)

    I wonder about one point. Did the teacher report your daughter to the
    principle as a “troublemaker”, or did he report that the class had a
    problem and she had a suggestion worth considering? If it was the
    latter, at least he was trying to do something constructive, although
    it did not work.

    1. Mauri Favaron

      Just a little (collateral?) reflection. I wonder whether Visual Basic is didactically *useful* in 2013. It seems to me shifting the focus from solving user problems to solving “computer” problems (and, Bill Gates please pardon me) bugs and Windows idiosynchrasies.

      This is the reason I urge my students using something else, like Python aned R.

      About the similarity between male students’ sexism and teaching an imposing, private and closed language I basically agree with you they share an asymmetry of power. I’m not so sure the cure of the second (using an open source language) may alleviate the first, however :-)

      Not mentioning the sheer (maybe “friendly”) aggressivity and bashing in some open source circles, which are no less unfriendly than some principals and classmates, I can say sexism is long pre-dating open source. I saw it a numberless times, in my case since 1980, starting with professors (not all male) doing their best to convince you your best professional chances are in literature/art/care/anything-but-please-math, passing through schoolmates and colleagues judging you “strange” because your love for programming instead of “geek” (as it happened to your peers who had the Right Physique du Role), or continuing with that colleague who on uour leave tells you he will miss your smile instead of your system, and so and so and so on. (According to my personal statistics, episodes like this occur from once per week to five per day – maybe I’m just lucky). ;-)
      All that said, I feel the open source community could do a *lot* to make programming be perceived as more girl-friendly. Inclusivity is built in already, at least in a quite manly form (“if you prove you have studied and avoid silly questions, you’re in”). This is a definite start. Maybe, would some deepening of the words “prove” and “silly” be worth? Many people for example “prove” in non adversarial terms. Or explore fuzzy realms asking themselves many questions, some of which silly.

      The presence of female contributors to open source projects could help, too?

      Last, power and asymmetries are present in open source tools, too. Any computer language builds on a large runtime whose innards is often totally unknown to beginner and not so beginner programmers. In psrt, “their fault”. But, changeable by creating awareness. (The problem is for me quite practical: part of my systems are embedded and operate in safety related applications – not very critical fortunately. But I often wonder the lack of democracy implied in our lack of grasp about the numberless devices reading our credit cards, actuating our car brakes, … Many of them are programmable. How they were programmed, no one knows – at least, almost).

      Forgive my “English”, please!
      Mauri

      1. Tim Chevalier

        MO, being “newcomer-friendly” rather than consciously trying to be “girl-friendly”[*] would go a long way. I’m thinking here of how CMU found that the overall quality of its CS majors increased when they got rid of the requirement that CS majors must have programmed before entering university, for example. It also improved their gender balance, but that was just a side effect! In open source, the question is, “Oh, no, what if we decide to treat each other with more respect and kindness and… it *doesn’t* accomplish the objective we want?” Well, what then, we wasted time treating each other like people? :-)

        I think in general, the things that make an environment safer and more welcoming to women are the same things that make it more welcoming to *everybody*. Looking at women’s experiences is useful because in the aggregate, women are taught to react more acutely to social danger signs.

        [*] I’m trying to think of how to phrase this carefully — not at all saying that we shouldn’t see gender or be aware of how others’ lived experience is different. I guess to pick a concrete example, I think it’s unwise to — again in the context of education — assume that women want more “applied” rather than “theoretical” CS classes because they may have been socialized into wanting to “help people”, and decide that that’s what will improve equity, when it’s actually just perpetuating the notion that helping is women’s work and women aren’t allowed to enjoy abstract intellectual pursuits.

        1. Mauri Favaron

          I agree with you. What would make an environment safer and enjoyable for women would be good for everybody, too.

          Maybe there is something specific – in my experience, much more individual than categorial. After all, there are as many genders as people on Earth.

          Maybe, too, there is something “specific”. A part of our being the individuals we all are comes from the experiences we had in life. And, given the proclivity many of us humans have to frame others in categories, the experience of living as a woman or a man “may” make a (“some? lot? just a little bit?”) difference.

          Yes, after all is the tendency to “generalize” which makes our lives less enjoyable than they might be.

          I’d like to share some (specific, individual) episodes. Just small, but in my feeling “significant”.

          The very first for me, pertaining to programming, was the TI-58C Incident, somewhere around 1979 or so (my goodness: Triassic!!) I attended high school on the time, in a mixed well assorted class (the gender ratio was close to fifty-fifty). Some of us (once again, half boys and half girls, more or less) were brilliant. Most teachers were female, with the remarkable exception of the math professor. I remember he *was* sexist – at least, we read his behavior to be. Emotionally detached, arid. And often judging girls “hard workers”, instead of “sincerely committed to mathematics” as he did with boys with same results. Was he really an intentional misogynist? In 1979 we were absolutely sure of it. But maybe, let me say just “maybe”, he reacted unconsciously to *sameness*, feeling more at ease with people with same interests and worldview. He was “very masculine”, so did “sameness” mean “a subset of boys”? Or, more simply, he was just afraid to be involved with female students and filed a sexual harassment cause? Who knows. (The latter possibility was never considered by us, on that time).

          Meanwhile, he was intellectually bright. Sure, his way. With a total, but sincerely passionate and curious, identification with mathematics. Very close to what I came to consider a “real mathematician”. If possible, this made his apparent detachment and lack of interest “to us” more painful.

          (His only measurable defect, indeed a big one in my opinion, is he always spoke LOUD. Independently of emotional tone.)

          Anyway, if I eventually decided to get a degree in maths at university, I don’t owe this decision to him. Another two relevant figures were instrumental in that phase. Our sciences teacher, a motherly and very competent person, and our Italian, History, Latin and Art teacher, a lady from old Piedmont aristocracy with a rebel soul, were very significant for me.

          I say just besides: both of them did not, differently to our math teacher, react to the “category” students belonged to. They both considered us *individuals*. Obviously different. Each one with their own gifts – and many defects. Can’t completely explain the mechanics of the process, but they *inspired* us.

          It is this the time when I first met “programming”. Or, better, simple hand made algorithmics: the calculator I had on that time was a TI-30, non programmable. But “no real problems, “I” was the “computer”, and the “programs” were the key sequences I had to push if I desired to see a given result. (Some months ago I discovered this was the normality in the Fifties and Sixties: “computer” was a job description of a person, not a machine).

          Yet, saying I was in love with computing was plainly not the truth. I found it tedious, and felt I was just scratching the surface, imagining meanwhile I “would never ever have been able to cope with” (not even “hard working”?!) What I *really* was in love with, on that time, was biology, and especially quantitative biology. Don’t ask me “why” this was: I don’t know “today”. But I was really engrossed and enthusiast about it. I have been sincerely interest to the many processes of life since childhood, and that was maybe the natural evolution. Besides, on late seventies “quantification of biology” seemed so close, at hand… It was an illusion, of course, quite akin to the first wave of artificial intelligence. None did really know, however: the first gene and protein sequences were being discovered, and single population dynamics seemed able to explain anything or almost so in ecology. I too was really kept.

          The population models in use on that time were incredibly simple, by today’ standards. Little differential equations (forgive me the ugly word, really no intent to impress you – just the name as it is), whose numerical solution was really easy – just as I said a bit *tedious*. On late 1979 I was considering to buy a new, programmable calculator. Programmability meant that I would have inserted the keys just once, not every time. This would have allowed me to make my dynamics plots look smoother (or, hoped to). Sure it would have saved me tons of key pushes.

          I spoke to my parents, and they agreed on a small model. They told me to buy it (with my money) and when time came I did. Just, I opted for the mythical TI-58C, which was a very advanced model in its sort. The “C” was the part which attracted me most: it meant “constant memory”: you could switch it off, then back on, and your programs was there again. In other models it cleared, so you had to insert it again and again.

          When my dad asked me what I had eventually made, I told him, explaining the motivation. His reaction upset me. He said that model was too expensive, and my decision was crazy. It was very sad, for me. My connection with my father has always been very good. My parents love me, and I love them deeply. So the incident caused a big wound. Maybe this episode is not per se so significant. Nor it was its healing, which took much longer for me than the time my dad told he was unjust, on that occasion, as my commitment was real.

          What make me feel it *was* significant, after all, was that analogous independent decision taken from my brother (two years younger) were not only tolerated, but encouraged too.

          This added to the deeply ingrained feeling that, as a “hard worker”, maybe my interest in mathematics and programming was not too deep after all. That is, that my dad was perfectly right and I was really crazy trying to do something I wasn’t entitled.

          I’m quite sure this happened to me “also” because it was not expected women have some interest in math, even applied.

          Of the many other episodes, I will share just another. A very big one, this time. And recent. In 1993 I worked in a large company transitioning from applied research to services. My task was of starting up, in cooperation with the commercial division and a more-than-big-very-experienced international company a service for testing safety critical programmable devices in view of their certification (in Europe this is essential if you want to sell them). We (I and my coworkers) did. The design ended in a detailed report we gave to the division head for verification and approval.

          Right on the time I was summoned by the head of personnel, who told me my career as a leader of the safety critical testing group was over, and one of my coworkers would have replaced me. The reason he told me was “things have to change, sooner or later”. He went on: “But the Company has still pace for you. From now on, you will support the new manager staying in the shadow, as a good wife always should.”

          On the same day other female quasi-managers have been summoned, and told an identical discourse. It was a systematic policy. Later, on a book, I discovered this practice was widespread all over Europe in the nineties, aimed at avoiding the risk female employees took a maternity leave. In my company, additionally, the management wanted to project externally a “macho” identity hoping this would have made their offering looked authoritative (it was very naive, but remember, the management was used to running a research institute, and they knew of the market not much more than I did).

          Here the comedy begins. The report we made was signed by me, the group technical star (a woman) and the other coworkers. But of course, such a statement of how the process would be architected signed by two people who, formally, were *not* the group new manager was dangerous to his reputation. So, the division head dropped our two names (after a long rebuff about our lack of synthesis – the report was an 80 pages).

          His plan was to place the name of the new manager on the report instead. But he had no experience about safety, or software, or testing, so such an imposition would have seemed blatantly implausible even to clients and external partners (who of course knew me and the other woman). The division head then tried (with threats and strange promises) some of the male coworkers to sign the report. They all refused, of course. Eventually he had to tell the new manager to sign.

          The external partner discovered all, and come personally. His monologue looked very much that of Angela Merkel to mr.Berlusconi some years ago. I was sad for my boss, if you can believe.

          But things did not change any more on the report. Jokes continued for years about the division head and KGB.

          I guarantee you: I and the other woman did *not* write the movie “Baby Boom” with Diane Keaton, but our tragi(comi)c experience was quite similar. Very women-specific, I have to add.

          So I can say I agree with you when you say women react more acutely to social danger signs ;-)

          Very last (and excuse me for the lengthy reply). I feel the best teachers deal with individuals individually, one soul and intellect at a time. This could apply to the best leaders, too.

          The way is long. But walking it is too worth. The talent of everyone (“hard workers” included) is too necesary… ;-)

  9. Coral

    I really hope your daughter reconsiders taking programming classes in college. For one, there will be multiple women in the class, and unless it’s a tiny college there will be some kind of support network like the Society of Women Engineers (just in case one of you hasn’t heard of it, that’s a national organization with branches in colleges) or a Women in CS group (that’s what Carnegie Mellon calls theirs, but many schools have them). I became an engineer because a female TA talked me into it–short version of the story–so the support is there.

    Someone so bright and fearless could be amazing! (And someone so tough would be a fantastic addition to the support network of other women in CS, too.) I mean, she should do what appeals to her. That’s the most important thing. But if she still likes tech, I think she’ll be great at it!

    I could shake this awful teacher for encouraging this situation, which he absolutely did by doing worse than nothing.

    1. sparrow

      Carol, I wish I shared your confidence that it Gets Better in undergrad. There are specific institutions where alumnae in my age group have talked about their CS program supporting and being welcome to women, including WPI and MIT.

      At the undergrad program I attended, it Got Worse. There were upwards of seventy male students and fewer than five female students in my year in the CS program. In high school, my educators were unlikely to be paying attention, my peers might make uncomfortable comments, and I was the only girl in the room. But there weren’t many students in the classes at all, I was attending non-programming classes that were gender-balanced-ish, and I had female friendships.

      In undergrad, I was still the only girl in the room, but now I was the only girl in the room or one of two or three ALL THE TIME (in social settings and in every class), the professors were likelier to be overwhelmed and not paying attention, the teaching assistants sometimes made uncomfortable comments, and I was typically outnumbered by worse than ten-to-one.

      I would have graduated in 2012, for the record, but I dropped out in 2010. I cannot recommend strongly enough that people who are not a) male and b) heterosexual avoid that particular institute.

    2. Mackenzie

      I went to a not-small university with a SWE chapter (I was the only CS student to ever attend, and all SWE did was have tea parties…as in yes, with cupcakes and cookies) and later a WiCS group. Yes, as a freshman, there were other women in the CS classes–other majors were required to take them. As a senior, I was one of two women in my class.

      It didn’t Get Better enough to prevent me having to go to one of the school’s VPs (because she was one of the 3 women CS professors I’d had previously) to get the professor to move on a student who repeatedly said in class about how girls/women can’t handle CS. His advisor was a woman (she was pissed, as she’d already written his grad school recommendation), yet he still believed if a program had a bug or missing feature it _must_ have been written by a woman. The professor didn’t respond to an email about his behavior until that VP emailed him CC’ing the department head.

  10. Aaron Wolf

    I spent some time thinking about this just now, and I have a thought I haven’t seen expressed otherwise:

    I am a male not-so-geeky non-programmer. I have only recently gotten involved in Free/Libre/Open stuff and technology having recognized the social justice importance of technology today. In truth, I am sciency and tech oriented and interested inherently; but I avoided ever taking programming classes myself. Growing up, I saw most programming clubs and tech nerd groups as insular and homogenous and it made me very uncomfortable, so I actively avoided learning to program, a decision I now regret.

    I would not have been anything like this awful teacher, and if I had been a student, I would have spoken up immediately if I had heard anything even slightly sexist or otherwise prejudiced. Except I was not in these situations because the very context turned me off. So there’s a vicious cycle where the people who stick around are those who are ok with a non-diverse, insular community; and those are the very people who become programming teachers and take programming classes.

    I wish I had a simple answer, but obviously this is a wicked problem and many people (now including me, I’m happy to say) are working to address these problems. I guess the take-away I hope to spread is that insularity and groupthink are the even deeper source of the problem and those need to be attacked in all their forms.

  11. justamom

    I came across this while I was looking for information on something else. I would like to say I am shocked, but unfortunately, I am not. What about all the anti-bullying laws since harassment is a form of bullying?

    According to stopbullying.gov -Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.

    In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

    • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.

    • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

    Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

    As a mother, I would make the school board aware of what happened to my daughter. I would want them to know that both the teacher and principle where made aware of the situation and both chose to ignore the harassment your daughter reported. Not only did they both ignore the situation, she presented both school officials with a suggestion as to how to handle the harassment only to be told it was not her place.

    Schools officials have an obligation to protect our children when they are there. They are very fortunate nothing happened to her since they ignored the entire situation! How many other girls have been subjected to what your daughter went through not just in that class but also in the school?

    When I was in high school, many years ago, I had a teacher who told us (his class), “I do not care if you pass or fail, I will get paid no matter what.”

  12. emcada

    Really fantastic article. I definitely enjoyed reading it. Sorry to hear about what your daughter had to go through. I’m fortunate to not have that experience being male and all and would like to think that sort of thing never happens at all at my college, but I digress. I do agree that this is definitely something that we need to look into and address.

    Also, as a Computer Science student from high school to the present I did like your point on promoting the class and subject material. I feel that we can get more people into the field by convincing them that programming is indeed wonderful and fun. I think that the real crunch/hard work involved in programming is a big turn off, but that’s my opinion. I also agree with you that a Computer Science teacher would willingly choose Visual Basic, of all things! Any other dialect of BASIC (QBASIC, FreeBASIC, etc.) would’ve been a better choice. I personally am biased towards C/C++ as those are the languages I started off with and I think learning C++ did help in learning other languages. I also find it a little more interesting than other languages.

    Anyways, I wish for the best and justice for your daughter.

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