Tag Archives: education

The Fourteen Not Forgotten and Sexist Posters at Waterloo

This is a guest post from Christine Cheng. She is a research fellow in politics at Exeter College, University of Oxford. In a previous life, she studied systems design engineering and was student government president at the University of Waterloo. This post was originally published at her blog.

(Trigger Warning for survivors of the École Polytechnique Massacre and survivors of campus threats against women)

A photograph of Marie Curie has an image of a mushroom cloud next to it. It is titled 'The Truth'. The caption at the bottom of the poster says, ''The brightest Woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie. The Mother of the Nuclear Bomb. You tell me if the plan of Women leading Men is still a good idea !'

Photo source: Canadian University Press

This post is in honour of International Women’s Day (March 8th).

Recent events at my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, have left a bad taste in my mouth. In mid-February, in the middle of student government elections, someone covered up the posters of female candidates with an image of Marie Curie, a nuclear explosion and the following slogan “The brightest woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie, The mother of the nuclear bomb. You tell me if the plan of women leading men is still a good idea!” A poster with the same image was also put up with similarly alarming text: Kill 250 000 innocent Japanese in WW2 and is given 2 Nobel Prizes. Expose the defective Moral Intelligence of Womankind and it is called Sexism. It had the caption: “Marie Curie = evil”.

Later on, this person sent out a fake email purporting to be Feridun Hamdullahpur, the University of Waterloo’s President. In this mass email, the message railed against “against women in leadership and women attending university“.

This was followed up by a Facebook profile, presumably from the same person:

When a bad idea comes to this Earth it always hides behind The Shield of Vulnerability. This way it is immune from being attacked in the open. Radioactive Technology was hiding behind the vulnerable looking mask of Marie Curie and this is why no one caught it in advance. They figured that if a female was pushing it then it was harmless. They figured wrong. The truth is that overeducated women are truly dangerous. If they don’t know right from wrong they will nuke the whole Planet and call it the latest fashion from Holt Renfrew. This is the truth. The world is in trouble today because the higher moral intelligence of men is not in charge anymore. How long will you let this continue? The choice is in your hands. I didn’t leave posters on your campus because I am a fool. I left them because I am your father who is concerned about where your education is ultimately going. You are being taught the virtues of gender equality when gender equality is nowhere in the Orginial Plan of Creation. Queen Elizabeth is leading you astray and charging you big money for this evil favour. When you graduate from here you will have a degree but no real intelligence. This is the truth.

There have been at least two stories in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on the case, an article posted on the Maclean’s website, and now, an article on Jezebel. The UW campus police are investigating: “forensic analysis of the posters; review of closed-circuit television footage; and collaboration with computer specialists to track the identity of the individual who sent [the] impersonating email fraudulently.”

These are the facts that I have been able to cobble together. While I am loathe to give any legitimacy to the person who has done all of this, I felt that it was more important to post these comments so that readers can get a better sense of why I was alarmed. It may be the case that this person was just trolling and stirring up trouble. But if you take these sentiments at face value, this person comes across as off-balance and in need of counselling.

Obviously, this is not representative of how the larger UW community feels about female scientists, female students, and female leaders. The University of Waterloo as an institution, in my experience, has been quite sensitive to gender issues on campus (though Prof Shannon Dea eloquently disagrees with me in her post on this issue). Having assertive and capable female leaders at all levels of the institution has helped.

Yet this is not just about the misogynistic acts that have been committed, but it is also about how the larger community chooses to respond to these acts. Sadly, in addition to the many constructive conversations that have taken place as a result of these incidents, other comments have been less than helpful, to say the least. For example, Bill Li, a current UW computer science student had this to say in response to a female student who was extremely upset about the events:

Really Sherlock? UW is a male dominated campus, I wonder why… oh, let’s see, UW is in the top for Engineering, Math, and CS, given that most girls doesn’t want to give the effort and sacrifice needed to go through the Engineering or Math program at UW, you are going to bitch and cry that the university is male dominated? Really? So if you want a female dominated campus, try “Bryn Mawr College”.

You have no right to bitch that the campus is too male dominated, when there are literally no girls in the Engineer or Math faculty, even though there are scholarships and extra benefits given to females that are in the Math faculty.

I have seen similarly insensitive posts on other sites. Bill seems to agree that these incidents were wrong, but he fails to grasp that his comments contribute to making women in his program feel unwelcome. Women like me graduated from computer science and engineering despite sentiments like these, which thankfully, were extremely rare in my corner of UW.

Part of the reason that I’m posting about this is because it feels like I could just as easily have been the target of these incidents. I studied systems design engineering at Waterloo in the late 1990s. I was surrounded by amazing, accomplished female classmates. One third of my class was female (and none of us dropped out). I also ran for and became president of my student government at Waterloo. Those posters could just as easily have been mine.

There is also a larger social and historical context to this story that should not be forgotten. Twenty-two years ago, on December 6th, 1989, Marc Lépine, walked into the École Polytechnique (part of the engineering school at the Université de Montréal), then shot and killed fourteen female students, and wounded ten other women and four men. If you read the coroner’s report about how the men and women were systematically separated before the women were all shot in the name of feminism, or watch Denis Villeneuve’s film Polytechnique about the Montreal Massacre, a chill will run down your spine. This event casts a long shadow over incidents like those at UW.

In 1998, during my last year as an engineering student at Waterloo, I organized the Fourteen Not Forgotten Memorial. I exchanged emails with Chris Redmond, the editor of UW’s daily newsletter, about why the memorial was important in spite of the fact that gender didn’t seem to be much of an issue with my cohort. He posted part of our exchange online. I don’t completely agree with everything that was said by my 23 year-old self anymore, but I do think the issues I raised back then are still relevant thirteen years later. Here is an excerpt:

I understood [when I was 14] that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didn’t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.

Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in Québec, the first woman police captain in Québec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachers’ union.

Society recognizes that he was a psychopath — but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? [Chris and I] talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I don’t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women.

So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his “rightful” place in the program. Am I taking up the “rightful” place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?

[Marc Lépine] committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now — we value women’s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination [are] not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. [Women] are valued [equally] in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isn’t as obvious as it used to be.

I know that these recent events were “isolated incidents”, but I think that they still raise broader issues of gender equality that are worth discussing. Comments on other sites also suggest that while gender was never an issue for me at UW, it has been an issue for other women.

While I hope that this is just a trolling incident that has gotten out of hand, there is a distinct possibility that there is worse to come. In light of the Montreal Massacre and my previous comments on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the power of political rhetoric, this conversation about women’s equality is clearly one that needs to continue.

* * *
For more constructive commentary on these incidents, E. Cain suggests some concrete measures for improving campus safety, Maclean’s discussed the importance of hate crime legislation, and UW campus leaders gathered to discuss the problem. Shannon Dea has a thought-provoking piece in Hook and Eye.  Also check out the commentary following the Jezebel article.

Sidenote: On the accuracy of the claims about Marie Curie, see Luke Bovard’s piece: the honest truth: Marie Curie.

Update: Bill Xin Li took down his post on this topic but before he did so, he decided to troll someone who sent him an unfavourable response. Preferring not to do further damage to this person’s reputation by providing another link to what was written, suffice it to say that it was rude and inappropriate. Let’s keep this clean and constructive.

Across the calculus sections, women outperformed men on grades.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Several recent studies have suggested that the gender gap in STEM fields is caused not by bias, but simply by different choices made by men and women. What the new research shows, Dasgupta said, is choice isn’t as simple as people think. “People assume that these choices are free choices, based on talent and interest and motivation,” Dasgupta said. “But these data suggest that the meaning of choices, of what it means to choose math or science, is more complicated. Even talented people may not choose math or science not because they don’t like it or are not good at it, but because they feel that they don’t belong.”

Inoculation Against Stereotype by Scott Jaschik (Inside Higher Ed)

Continue reading

More young scientists: 8-Year-Olds Publish Scientific Bee Study

This one’s from last month, but it was sent to me after my last quick hit and I couldn’t resist the urge to share another story of young folk doing ground-breaking science work:

Figures from the paper "Blackawton bees" showing the pattern of coloured dishes and the test results

“We discovered that bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from,” the students wrote in the paper’s abstract. “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

The paper itself is well worth reading. It’s written entirely in the kids’ voices, complete with sound effects (part of the Methods section is subtitled, “”the puzzle’…duh duh duuuhhh”) and figures drawn by hand in colored pencil.

One of the things that’s awesome about this article is the fact that they aren’t worrying about pushing the kids towards science as a career. I’ve often found it infuriating how school curricula is becoming increasingly career-oriented and there was much talk of streaming when I was in public school and not nearly enough time for learning things because they’re interesting. (I learned violin anyhow, but missed out on world history.)

Strudwick says the project has completely changed the way Blackawton Primary School approaches science education, and that the students have a much more positive view of science now than three years ago. The students’ scores on Britain’s national science exams are well above average, too.

Misha Lotto, now 10, says his view of science changed thanks to the bees.

“I thought science was just like math, really boring,” he said. “But now I see that it’s actually quite fun. When you’re curious, you can just make up your own experiment, so you can answer the question.”

Some of the students now want to be scientists when they grow up, but some still want to be soccer players and rock stars. That’s okay, Lotto says.

“If they don’t turn out to be scientists, that’s not a big deal,” he said. “The hope is that this kind of program doesn’t just create data and information and little scientists. Being uncomfortable with uncertainty, in fact being excited about not knowing — that’s really what we’re trying to foster through science.”

You can read the whole article on wired or check out their published paper in Biology Letters.

Re-post: How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn’t.

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, we’re reposting some older writing for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on Oct 17, 2009.

It comes up a lot in discussions of women in computer science, women who write code, women in open source. Eventually, someone brings up the fact that women score slightly lower on math tests. Clearly, they claim, this biological inferiority must explain why there are fewer women in math heavy fields.

It sounds like a compelling reason, and it gets a lot of play. Except, you know what? It’s a lie.

I’m a mathematician. I’ve looked at those numbers, I’ve read some papers. The research into biologically-linked ability is fascinating, but it simply isn’t significant enough to explain the huge gender gap we see in the real world. I used to do this presentation on the back of a napkin for people who tried to spout this misconception to my face, and I finally put it online:

Love it? Hate it? Learn something? Catch the Mathnet reference? Let me know.

Re-posting notes: one of the most common complaints about this slideshow was that the graphs aren’t perfect. You may wish to read this comment about the design choices I made when preparing this slide show. I periodically toy with the idea of putting together a follow-up presentation including some more recent research ideas regarding what causes the gap (e.g. recent research into stereotype threat) so if you have recent links to neat ideas, please pass them along!

Florence Nightingale pioneered data visualisation of statistics.

From Diagrams that changed the world (BBC News):

One of the first to use the visual world to navigate numbers was Florence Nightingale.

Although better known for her contributions to nursing, her greatest achievements were mathematical. She was the first to use the idea of a pie chart to represent data.

Florence Nightingale's Crimea diagrams Nightingale had discovered that the majority of deaths in the Crimea were due to poor sanitation rather than casualties in battle. She wanted to persuade government of the need for better hygiene in hospitals.

She realised though that just looking at the numbers was unlikely to impress ministers. But once those numbers were translated into a picture – her Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East – the message could not be ignored. A good diagram, Nightingale discovered, is certainly worth 1,000 numbers.

Continue reading

Dot Diva: The Webisode

This is an amended version of a post I wrote for the CU-WISE blog (my local Women in Science and Engineering group). See below for additional comments to geek feminism readers.

Dot Diva logo

This Wednesday fun is actually something connected to CUWISE: We met the fine folk working on Dot Diva at GHC09 and got to hear about some of their plans to make computing seem like a cool career for girls. While most of us seem to focus on fun outreach science programs, they took things in a different direction: seeing as crime shows like CSI have increased the public interest in careers in forensics, they thought perhaps TV would be the best way to make younger girls realise that computer science is actually pretty cool.

They’ve released the first episode of Dot Diva:

KATE, a sarcastic fan of alt- and indie-rock. ALI, a lover of kittens, chick flicks, and the mall. Two girls with NOTHING in common… except for being ace programmers at a seriously-crazy video game company.

As they work to launch Rocklette’s first-ever game, these two Dot Divas have to outwit their smarmy boss, Kate’s doofus boyfriend, and the spy within their midst.

If the video embed doesn’t work for you, click here to view the video

I wasn’t too sure about the first episode initially, since it seemed like they were throwing a lot of the stereotypes in there, but I think they dealt with them ok for a first look, and I expect we’ll be seeing more nuanced stuff as the characters develop. I found myself caught up in their story despite my initial feelings of awkwardness. One thing I really loved was how different the two women main characters are, while still both being programmers.


Now, I’m actually guessing some of our readers here on Geek Feminism are going to be irked by this video because it’s once again conventionally pretty young women depicting geeks, but I’d really like to hear comments about more than their appearances here. Would this show have appealed to you as a tween (their target demographic)? What else would you want to see? What other stereotypes would you like to see them deal with and maybe overcome? What else do you think could make the career of programmer appeal more to girls? Do you think this actually does make it more appealing to girls? Have you shown it to girls you know? What do they think?

Please be constructive in your comments — remember the women who produced this are genuinely trying to help the image of computer programmers in a way beyond Barbie, and that they actually have a decent amount of media savvy but likely had to choose their battles to make something appealing to both their sponsors and their target demographic.

Note: I’ll be taking a heavier hand to moderation here than I usually do because I don’t feel like hosting a whole lot of hate towards this project, though I do think readers may have interesting suggestions, criticisms and ideas for future episodes. If you’d like to rant, you may wish to keep a copy of your post for your own blog, or find a way to balance it with constructive ideas.

I blame the Patriarchy for my technical incompetence.

This is cross-posted at Restructure!

I demonstrated an aptitude for computers when I was a young girl, but I didn’t have home Internet access until I graduated from high school. I blame the Patriarchy, partly.

By the time I was in high school, I was usually the only person in my classes who didn’t have any Internet access, while most of my peers had high-speed access. When my peers communicated with each other through e-mail and chat, I was shut out of the social conversation and didn’t understand the “technical” terms they were using. I understood the creative potential of being able to communicate with computer users all over the world. I knew that Internet access would allow me to communicate with others without my social anxiety getting in the way. However, my father was hard-set against the idea of “the Internet”.

For five years, I was part of a persistent family campaign to convince my father that we should get Internet access. He thought that the Internet was a software program that was just a “fad” and would go out of style. Back then, the mainstream media was even more confused than now about what “the Internet” was. The news sensationalized stories about online predators luring young girls through “the Internet” to rape them. The implied moral of these news stories was that the Internet was dangerous and full of sexual predators.

My father did not work in an office then, so he heard more about “the Internet” through his coworkers. One male coworker basically explained to my father that The Internet Is For Porn. My father came home and told us that he was never going to let us have Internet access, because girls especially should be protected from exposure to pornography.

Continue reading

Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter

This Ask a Geek Feminist question is about stereotype threat:

What can I do when stereotype threat is playing games with my head?

To give an example, I once had to take an IQ test at school in seventh grade. One section of the test included rotating three-dimensional objects in your head. The test was designed so that each section starts easy and then gets progressively harder. It is supposed to get so hard that there comes a point where you can’t continue any longer and then the tester stops that section of the test. On that section of the test, I managed to hit a window on the score because I got to the very end, having correctly answered all the questions in the object rotation section. The tester, who did these tests for a living, was astonished and he said he had never seen anyone come close to getting all of them.

As an adult, I heard the stereotype that women cannot rotate three-dimensional objects in their head. I heard it many times. Since I started hearing that, I have lost my ability to do so. I’ve tried some rather basic tests on this skill and I can hardly do any of them.

What can one do about this sort of thing?

Continue reading

Restore meritocracy in CS using an obscure functional language.

Students who did not have the privilege of hacking since they were young are at a disadvantage in Computer Science (CS). However, CS departments can teach introductory programming using an obscure functional programming language to limit the young hackers’ advantage. Most students with prior coding experience learned a procedural programming paradigm, so forcing all students to struggle with learning a new, functional language helps restore meritocracy.

In the blog comments, Kite recounts hir experience with an intro CS course:

While I think my course was pretty sucky, one good thing it did was to knock the wind out of the sails of those guys who’d been programming for ages – by starting us on an obscure functional programming language called Miranda (oh did it ever raise a whole lotta grumbles from the boasters). Only after that did we do procedural stuff like C, and then onto C++. Mind you, the whole course seemed determined to be as academic and un-real-world as possible, so C++ was probably the most career-relevant thing we got out of it! [...]

Continue reading

Scientists are “normal” people, some children discover

This is a modified version of a post that was originally published at Restructure!

In Drawings of Scientists, seventh graders draw and describe their image of scientists before and after a visit to Fermilab.

BEFORE AFTER
The scientist has big square-shaped glasses and a big geeky nose with brown hair and blue eyes. I see a scientist working in a lab with a white lab coat . . . holding a beaker filled with solutions only he knows. Scientists are very interesting people who can figure out things we don’t even know exist. My picture of a scientist is completely different than what it used to be! The scientist I saw doesn¹t wear a lab coat. . . . The scientists used good vocabulary and spoke like they knew what they were talking about.
Beth

Continue reading