Tag Archives: higher education

Learning How to Hack in a Bro’s World: A Women’s College Student Perspective

A skewed image of the interior of a building with interior brick walls, concrete catwalks, and stone staircases

Image courtesy of Cali Stenson.


This is a guest post from Cali Stenson and Karina Chan. Cali Stenson is a sophomore at Wellesley College majoring in computer science and minoring in math. She’s the co-hack chair of Wellesley’s Computer Science Club, a member of the Wellesley Whiptails Ultimate Frisbee team, and an avid believer in learning and sharing knowledge with others. Karina Chan is a junior at Wellesley College. She is majoring in Computer Science and minoring in math. She tweets all things technology and cat related.

The first hackathon we went to was PennApps over Valentine’s weekend in February of 2014. We thought it sounded really fun; who doesn’t want to spend their weekend making a cool app or website?

It wasn’t exactly what we expected. Hackathons are glorified as centers where people build life-changing and legendary projects; however, most of the students at PennApps seemed to just end up tired, dirty, and a little defeated. What went wrong? Is it the perpetuation of the no sleep/shower/brogrammer stereotype? We do know that we were two of the few women within an entire group of 1,200 hackers.

We didn’t have a great time, but we learned something. We found ourselves in an environment that unconsciously shuts women out, and even worse, women who are beginning hackers. We felt like we did not belong; we could not possibly be competent enough to compete with the guys who seemed so much better than us with their aggressive energy drinking and loud bragging. Not to mention, some unconscious aversion to showering. There is no moment where you have more impostor syndrome than when you meet brogrammer after brogrammer with a successful app/gadget at the end of a hackathon where you did not even get a basic website up.

This might seem like a surface-level and exaggerated assessment, but from what we’ve seen, getting that feeling of acceptance at a hackathon needs to begin at the ground level as well as the top level. Even with the plentiful conversation flowing about gender inequality in tech and the beginning of forced gender ratios at hackathons, it is important to change the “brogrammer” culture of hackathons. One of the major problems for women interested in hackathons is that it is intimidating to throw yourself into an unfamiliar environment, only to feel different and rejected. Why is this even a problem? In its purest definition, hackathons are havens where people who like to build things have time to build things. Impostor syndrome is distracting and needs to be addressed based on what women are looking for in hackathons and on how teams interact with one another. Are the needs of women different from men? How do we appeal to both audiences? Hackathons should foster an environment friendly to all skill levels and all people that encourages learning for the sake of it, and this is should be enforced not just by creating a magic ratio, but by changing how the internal culture is run.

Over the weekend of April 17-19th, Wellesley College’s CS club along with a group of CS students at Simmons College will be hosting a hackathon that aims to change the internal culture. We want to create a pure space that supports learning and developing while also creating opportunities for networking with current members of industry, i.e. alumnae of Wellesley college and professionals in the Boston area. We’re focusing on the target audience of undergraduate women in CS (will not exclude men), and we encourage students who do not thrive in the typical hackathon environment to come learn to hack with us. Our aim is to focus on the ground up and to address these questions: how do we get women to participate in the hackathon scene, and how do we get women (+ men!) to stay?

Editor’s note: For more information on attending the hackathon, sponsoring the hackathon, or being a mentor, please fill out this contact form, which sends email directly to the Wellesley CS Club.

David Notkin

Remembering a geek feminist ally: David Notkin, 1955-2013

This is a guest post by Debbie Notkin, who is the chair of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award motherboard, a co-organizer of WisCon, and a science fiction and fantasy editor and reviewer. She is also the writer (with Laurie Toby Edison) of Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and (with Laurie Toby Edison and Richard F. Dutcher) of Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes. She blogs at Body Impolitic and on Dreamwidth.

No marginalized group can move forward without allies, and all of us have the opportunity to be allies as well as need allies. So it behooves us to look at what high-integrity, committed ally work looks like. And that’s why I want to tell you about my brother.

When David Notkin’s son Akiva was about two years old, he was fascinated by all games played with balls. (At 15, he still is.) We were on a family vacation together when David and I walked with the toddler past a ping-pong table, and Akiva instantly wanted to see what was up. I asked David why he thought Akiva was so much more interested in balls and ball games than his older sister Emma. David said, “I don’t know. We treated them exactly the same; it must just be something about him.” Having heard this from dozens of parents over the years, and rarely finding a productive response, I just let it go.

Years later, unprompted (if I recall correctly), David told me that he was no longer sure that was true. He had started to spend time with and pay attention to the serious feminists who advocate for more women in technology and the STEM fields, and he had done some listening and some reading. He said, “I think it’s perfectly possible that we responded to Akiva’s interest in balls differently than we would have if it had been Emma.” I had, and still have, very little experience with anyone changing their mind on these topics.

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville differentiates between what she calls the “Fixed State Ally Model” and the “Process Model,”

In the Process Model, the privileged person views hirself as someone engaged in ally work, but does not identify as an ally, rather viewing ally work as an ongoing process. Zie views being an ally as a fluid state, externally defined by individual members of the one or more marginalized populations on behalf zie leverages hir privilege.

The kind of shift that David made about his son’s interest in ball games is as good a step into the Process Model as any.

In this flash talk, given at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) Summit in Chicago in May of 2012, we see more commitment to process in ally work.

In this talk, David says nothing about what women want, how to bring women into the field, or really anything about anyone except David. Instead, he describes the reasons to take another step on an ally’s journey, and advocates a way for teachers and professors to take that step, by voluntarily stepping into a learning situation where they are in the minority. As he says in the opening frame, he’s in a room full of brilliant women. As he doesn’t say, he knows he has nothing to tell them about being female, or being female in the computer science world, or anything else about their lives. What he can share is his own efforts to understand what it’s like to be marginalized, without taking on the mantle of the marginalized.

The NCWIT talk came in a deceptively optimistic period for David; he had spent the end of 2010 and virtually all of 2011 in cancer treatment, and his scans were clean … until June. In February of 2013, a few months after David’s cancer had spread and he had been given a terminal diagnosis, his department held a celebration event for him. Notkinfest was a splendor of tie-dye, laughter, and professional and personal commemoration. I hadn’t really followed his trajectory as an ally and mentor to women and people of color, and I was amazed at how many of the speakers talked about his role in making space for marginalized groups.

Anne Condon, professor and head of the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia told a longer story about Mary Lou Soffa, (Department of Computer Science, University of Michigan), who couldn’t be there. Dr. Condon said,

Mary Lou is a very prestigious researcher in compilers and software engineering, and probably the most outspoken person I know. Once a senior officer from a very prominent computing organization proudly unveiled a video about opportunities in computer science. Now in this video, all of the people profiled were white males, except for one little girl.

Mary Lou in true fashion stood up and she did not mince words as she told this senior official what she thought of that video. When she was done, there was total silence in the room. And then one voice spoke up, questioned the choice of profiles in that video and spoke to the importance of diversity as part of the vision of this organization.

And that person was David Notkin.

The speaker list at Notkinfest, aside from Dr. Condon, included somewhat of a Who’s Who in increasing diversity in computer science, including:

  • Martha Pollack, soon to be Provost for Academic and Budgetary Affairs, as well as Professor of Information and Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan, who has received the Sarah Goddard Power Award in recognition of her efforts to increase the representation of and climate for women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.
  • Tapan Parikh, Associate Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and the TR35 Humanitarian of the Year in 2007. (check out his TedX talk on representing your ethnic background).
  • Carla Ellis, member and past co-chair of CRA-W, CRA’s Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research , past co-chair of the Academic Alliance of NCWIT. On her web page, Ellis says: “In my retirement, I will be pursuing two passions: (1) advocating for green computing and the role of computing in creating a sustainable society and (2) encouraging the participation of women in computing.”

Notkinfest was David’s next-to-last professional appearance. Here’s what he said at the open reception:

It’s important to remember that I’m a privileged guy. Debbie and – our parents, Isabell and Herbert, were children of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, and they were raised in the Depression and taught us the value of education and how to benefit from it.

Mom, especially, taught us the value of each and every person on earth. I still wake up and – You know, we have bad days, we have bad days, but we have plenty to eat and we have a substantive education, and we have to figure out how to give more back. Because anybody who thinks that we’re just here because we’re smart forgets that we’re also privileged, and we have to extend that farther. So we’ve got to educate and help every generation and we all have to keep it up in lots of ways.

When I spoke at his funeral, not three months after Notkinfest, the main thing I did was repeat that plea.

Linkspam: The Gathering (12 October, 2012)

  • Viewpoint: More women needed in technology | BBC: “Dr Gloria Moss, a gender marketing expert, confirms that when targeting women, having female input on the design team is crucial: “In design preference tests, I’ve always found extremely strong statistical evidence for ‘same-sex preference’. Men tend to prefer the designs that men produce, and women prefer the designs that women produce.””
  • E-mails Ignored, Meetings Denied: Bias at the Search Stage Limits Diversity | Knowledge @ Wharton: “Using an experiment that explored the treatment of prospective applicants to doctoral programs, they found that professors were significantly less likely to be responsive to communication from women or minority applicants — and that the level of unresponsiveness was greater within academic disciplines that tend to pay more, and at private institutions, where faculty salaries are higher on average.”
  • A primer on sexism in the tech industry | .net magazine: “Designer and developer Faruk Ateş, the man behind Modernizr, says that sexism is hurting our industry in more significant ways than most people realise. Here he explains what it’s all about and what we can do to address this issue.”
  • Busting a Cyberstalker: How Carla Franklin Fought Back | The Daily Beast: “After just a few casual dates with a guy, Carla Franklin faced six years of harassment, stalking, and cyberbullying. Now she’s suing him—in a new frontier of online crimes. Her story, as told to Abigail Pesta.”

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Google, gossip, and gamification: comparing and contrasting technical learning styles

I just ran across Karen Rustad’s “How to teach programming: shy, practical people edition.” She cared more about making practical things than about what she perceived as “coding,” so her early technical life centered on HyperCard and making webpages, rather than boring faffing about with “mathematical curiosities.” Finally she came across a project she wanted to help, and scratching that itch meant learning more programming:

Basically what revived my interest was having the opportunity to work on OpenHatch. Getting thrown into web app development and all the associated languages and tools — Python, Django, git, Agile, bash and other command line nonsense — all at once? Yeah, it was a lot. But Python out of context is just a toy. Django out of context is plausible, but hard. Git out of context … wouldn’t’ve made any dang sense. So sure, I couldn’t remember half the git commands (Asheesh eventually made a wiki page for me :P) and I had to look up how to restart the Django development server practically every dang time. But I made do, and I learned it, because the context totally freaking motivated me to. Because *finally* code had a purpose — it was clear, finally, how it could be self-expressive and useful to me. Learning these tools meant I could help make OpenHatch exist. Like, fuck yes.

Different people learn in different ways, and for different reasons.

I figure I learn how to tinker in software, especially in open source, via three methods:

  • Google
  • gossip
  • gamification

I learn to search the Net well, iterating on keywords and site: and so on; I fall into or develop a network of folks who won’t think I’m stupid for asking questions; and I play little games with myself, or write them, feeling the thrill of the challenge, leveling up little by little.

I was missing all of these when I tried to Learn To Program.

Continue reading

How Very Unlike the Linkspam of Our Own Dear Queen (23rd March, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.