Tag Archives: mentoring

When you are the expert in the room

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

This a “what should we do” question, but a fairly specific one.

Recent discussions, particularly Restore meritocracy in CS using an obscure functional language , have left me thinking “this still doesn’t say what it would be helpful for people like me (white male with computing experience starting early) to actually do about it”. Just saying to avoid the viewpoint that this reflects enthusiasm or innate ability isn’t very specific, but the discussion seemed to finish around that point.

The answers will probably be different in different contexts. For example, how about in class? The best I can think of is “don’t be eager to answer the lecturer’s questions to the class, but let someone else go first”. Would that help? Is that enough, in that context? But if you give the lecturer the impression you’re not knowledgeable, but then do well in the written exam, you can invite suspicion of cheating in the exam (this definitely happens). Or should you even make deliberate wrong answers, to lower your apparent expertise? I’d find that horribly condescending if I knew someone was doing it towards me.

And in a professional context, if you know the answer to a colleague’s question (or on a mailing list, to any question), but you hold back on it to let someone else answer, you’re holding back the asker from getting on with whatever raised the question. But is that less important than letting others answer? (I suspect it depends on the group or list concerned.)

And a branch of that one, relevant in my present job, in which part of my role in the team is specifically to be the experienced programmer who can answer people’s questions, how is it best to handle that?

And in a seminar, should you hold back in a discussion if you have advanced ideas, so as not to scare the less confident? But then, you’re not making your best technical contribution.

The most extreme suggestion I’ve seen (only once, I think) is that geeky men should get out of computing altogether, to make it more comfortable for others to get in. In which case, a big source of potential mentors would be lost.

And do the same suggestions apply to female experts?

So, I’m stumped on this and can’t contribute any significant answers, but I hope the questions are useful for discussion.

There was some discussion among the cob-loggers about whether and how to answer this question. But there was always lots of confusion about this on the LinuxChix lists while I was subscribed (I haven’t been for a few years now), men who genuinely wanted to in some way to address gender issues in computing but the only strength they saW in themselves was their expertise, and when it was suggested to them that displaying this at every opportunity was at best annoying and at worst harmful they were completely at a loss. So I think an answer is genuinely useful.

Important note: this answer is aimed at privileged people (in this context, generally men with a good technical background) hoping to check their privilege and keep it on a short leash. If you are a woman reading this, it’s entirely possible the reverse applies to you in geeky environments: you might be wanting to learn how to have more confidence in your expertise and how to inspire confidence in others. Some of these techniques might be useful to you at some times when you want to help others learn, but this answer isn’t really intended for you.

Important note 2: from here on, “you” refers to the general you, the person who want to encourage/support/etc women but is struggling to see how to do it without being dishonest about your own abilities, not necessarily “you” the person who asked this specific question. I’ve seen this a lot, so I want to try and address it in general. I’m generally going to assume that the relative expertise of the question asker is in fact a correct assessment but you should question whether you are really the expert or whether you’re partly benefiting from structural assumptions that you are.

Let me start by stating that there are at best misguided versions of this question: people who say “I want to share my expertise with women who want to get into computing! But now I’m not supposed to be intimidating. Fine then, I’ll take my expertise and go home. See how you like that, women in computing! Ahahahaha!” Don’t be one of those people. Your participation in technical and geeky groups, especially groups for learners, isn’t solely about you. If you insist on either being the top dog expert or going home… go home.

My beta reader for this suggested that much of the question is based around the assumption that in order to help build people up, you have to drag yourself down. There’s two problems with this: one is that this sort of thing isn’t a zero sum game, and the other is that not all women (or outsiders in general) are also beginners. They may be intimidated in spite of substantial ability and experience. So in many cases your role is less to try and hide your own excessive light under a bushel, and more to support the discovery of what’s already there.

When you’re the expert at work

In terms of your workplace, an approach I like is one that some activist groups make explicit: if you are the only person who knows how to do something that the organisation needs, you should make it your top priority to train at least one other person to do it. You could do some of the following:

  • presumably part of your role as designated expert, or something that you can make part of your role, is keeping a sort of list (mental or physical) of areas of expertise other programmers have, and referring questions to the other experts.
  • if something should be documented, ask the person who consults you if she can document it as she learns it. Then you can refer future questioners to that documentation, or get them to improve it. And you can credit its authors when you point people to it. And by having people teach others and write for others, you are turning them into experts.
  • if something should be automated (for example, you are consulting on a fiddly manual process) ask the person who consults you if she can automate it as she learns it.
  • when you get too busy (and this sounds like the sort of role where you are constantly in more demand than you can satisfy) decide that someone else needs to be the expert on some subset of the organisations knowledge base, and come up with some kind of handover process in collaboration with her, so that she is confident in being able to handle that set of problems and people know to go to her without even involving you.
  • consider that your own expertise is unlikely to be all-encompassing. If there’s a task that takes you half a day and a colleague half an hour, ask her for her help with it. (No need to go on and on about how she’s the expert here yay for her, just get her help.)

Note that those aren’t specific to women colleagues despite my choice of pronoun. The idea is to change the environment such that expertise is being built everywhere, not to go out of your way to make women into experts, unless you are in an environment specifically focussed on women (like LinuxChix is).

Similarly, in teaching roles, it is important to know when someone is thinking out loud on their way to the answer and when they are genuinely stumped and starting to get too frustrated to make progress. In the former case, just let them think and give them some time to put those thoughts into action.

When you’re the expert in class

Some of the question about classroom behaviour does seem a little excessively fearful. I guess there might be some classes that are structured as lectures and a final exam, but all my classes at university involved submitted assignments throughout the course in which you can demonstrate knowledge without taking up class time. A class in which people must ask questions to demonstrate their knowledge, as opposed to asking questions because they need the answer sounds like it must be terribly tedious for everyone involved. And they must be awfully small classes, or really long ones, if everyone who doesn’t regularly participate but still does well in the class is then investigated for cheating. In general, if you are required to demonstrate expertise solely in order to pass, see if you can do so in a way that isn’t public.

In terms of being part of classes or seminars, it is situation dependent. Is the class or seminar or discussion a bit introductory for you? Perhaps you should absent yourself or remain silent while the others get the hang of things, or at least wait for one-on-one approaches from other students for help rather than taking up teaching time demonstrating your knowledge. Is it genuinely challenging for you too? Well, make it visible that you’re being challenged. Be that wonderful person who asks the lecturer half way through the class “uh, I don’t think I really understood that first set of hypotheses, can we slow up?” when everyone else thought it was just them. Throw a few ideas against the wall before you think you have the answer. If someone else has a good idea, give them space to express it, thank them, and then see if you can extend it, especially in a collaborative way with the original proposer. Watch the tendency to try and set up a you-and-me-the-smart-ones dynamic with the teacher by speaking up only when you’re totally confident.

It may help periodically to actually try and measure (by making notes of who speaks when, assuming you can do it subtly) whether you are the most talkative person in the class. If you are, take a break from talking: it’s unlikely your ideas are so uniformly superior as to need that much airtime, and if they are, perhaps you need a more advanced class.

My beta reader also suggests that if you find a classroom is centred around you and other confident students and generally being a little self-congratulatory and that other students are floundering and suffering, that perhaps you should have a word to the teacher about how you feel the classroom environment is letting most of the students down.

When you’re the expert in a women-centred geek forum

In situations like mailing lists, at least places like LinuxChix which have a specific mission to be encouraging and a good place for learning, here’s some tips:

  • Have a look at the average turnaround time of the discussion. Is it common for someone to wait 24 hours to have a question answered? Well, people asking for help are probably aware that they may need to wait 24 hours (unless of course they say something like “ARGH HELP NOW DON’T DELAY FIRE FIRE FIRE IN THE THEATRE”). So make that your delay. Wait 24 hours (say), and see if they got a decent answer yet. If not, then post.
  • Very important: before you post an answer, read the other answers. It’s a common problem to have a self-appointed expert insist on re-explaining the whole thing from scratch, rather than seeing that Suzy already sorted out Jane’s compile error, so you just need to help Jane work out how to get the info she needs out of the core dump.
  • If an answer worked, but is missing a nuance, or isn’t precisely how you would have done it, consider carefully if you need to point that out. Is it actually harmful in the long run to do it the other suggested way or is it a matter of taste? Is this a good time and place to evangelise on matters of taste? It usually isn’t.

Note that none of this is denying your interest, expertise or talent: it’s not about pretending not to have it, it’s about genuinely putting it at the service of other people, and about developing similar expertise in other people.

I think it’s also important to interrogate your motivations in being the expert in women-centred groups. All of these approaches are not uncommon in tech groups with a lot of women:

  • assumptions that you, a man, must surely be the only expert in such-and-such who is part of the group, because, really, how likely is a woman to be a such-and-such expert? (There were certainly subscribers to the LinuxChix lists who believed that this was true of all of Linux systems administration, to the constant chagrin of women members who had spent 20 years in the field.)
  • assumptions that women geeks, unlike men geeks, will properly acknowledge you and respect you for your expertise, finally, the admiration you deserve!
  • the good ol’ not having enough women in your social circle thing, and being there to make friends.

The last one is tricky: here’s my take. Nothing wrong with having friends or wanting more! But, when you aren’t in a social group, attend to the mission of the group first, and the socialising a distant second.

The spammers, united, will never be defeated

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.

Good girls don’t linkspam (3rd May, 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).

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Ladies celebratin’ ladies

Like a lot of people, I think, I became an instant convert to the cult of Sady when I read her 13 Ways of Looking at Liz Lemon last week. I’m a big 30 Rock fan but not blind to the show’s problems, especially in its treatment of race and class, and I loved Sady’s trenchant take. But I think her piece on Parks and Recreation for Feministe’s Weekend Arts Section is even better. I haven’t watched the show but I sure will now. Here’s a chunk I found especially chewy:

Since your life is about your work, and about feminism — not in the abstract, Liz Lemonist sense, either, but in terms of actually and truly connecting with and helping other girls — and about your ideals and your friends and your goals for the city of Pawnee and for yourself, and very definitively not about any one dude or dudes in general, having Your Life Minus That One Dude was simply not a very big deal. It was sad, but it definitely wasn’t going to ruin you. You already had a full plate, a whole interesting life, and dudes could come in and out of your life without altering that fact. So, no matter what happens to you, dude-wise, you’re going to know that you’re pretty great. And since you put your whole self into all you do, since you care about people and it shows, other people are going to know that you’re great, too. They’ll be there for you. And that’s how you’ll get by.

I talk a lot about feminism, Leslie, and I think about feminism a lot, and I have to tell you: I think this was one of the most genuinely feminist moments on your show.

Wow. I mean wow, seriously, especially in the wake of the always-provocative Ada Lovelace Day. This made me think about how profoundly my relationships with women have changed in the last decade. I was a bad feminist in my twenties. I wanted to be the special one, the one who was into physics and maths and programming and who could talk to boys, and I saw other women as competition, and so nearly all my friends were men and nearly all women found me incredibly irritating and divisive.

I’m not claiming to be a great feminist in my thirties, but one dramatic change has been the quality and intensity of my relationships with other women. These days when I meet an awesome woman my first reaction is not, or isn’t always, to be threatened and defensive. The self-confidence that has been the single absolute best thing about growing older has made it possible for me to hold my own in awesome company, not because I think I am awesome, but because I mind less and less what other people think. And of course awesome women tend to be awesome friends, if you gather up the courage to approach them, and when you realize that you somehow without really meaning to have created this network of strong intelligent kind entertaining adults on whom you can rely – well, it makes the prospect of middle age look downright pleasant to me.

It’s what Wired magazine and the Burning Man organization used to call the shift from a scarcity economy, where people competed over constrained resources, to a surplus economy, where people just give each other gifts, because. That model looks like questionable economic theory these days but it’s certainly true that love and friendship don’t need to be constrained resources, and that the more you give, the more you get. Another economic analogy might be investment. Romantic relationships were for me always very high-risk, high-return propositions – a VC investing in a startup – and I wish I’d never risked more than I could afford to lose. (I did, of course. Oh well. I wasn’t using that dignity anyway.) Platonic friendships, in this analogy, are dividend-bearing stocks.

Among the dividends: these relationships have also improved my friendships with men – including a handful of very intense friendships left over from my single days. It’s my women friends who have taught me to shut the fuck up and listen, to not try to fix things. That sometimes all you can do is show up.

I’ve noticed these patterns at work as well as in my personal life. I’ve sought out professional mentors, and younger women have sought me out. I feel completely inadequate to offer anything to the latter, of course, but at the same time I have a strong sense of indebtedness to the older women who have given me their advice and support. I’ll always seek out qualified women for jobs, and I’ll always try to make time for younger women who seek my advice: it’s the least I owe to myself.

Bottom line, I guess: I really honestly believe that it’s true, that women can have a complete and fulfilling life made out of work and friendships, with or without a significant other. If I could go back and give my 18-year-old self advice it would be to love my friends more, and let the dudes come and go as they please. What about you? What are your hot tips for the investment of your affection and time?

Mentoring a geeky teen

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

In my day job, I’m the teacher librarian at an independent (private) high school in the Midwest. I’m a geek myself, but more along the lines of library work rather than coding (I’ve done a little, but not much) I’m starting to have conversations with students (ages about 14-18) who’d love to learn more. Our school offers digital arts courses and a robotics clubs, but no classes in programming by itself. So, my question is two fold:

  1. What do you wish some nice supportive adult who thought geekiness was great had done for you when you were a teenager? What got you excited, and what made a lasting impression? (And what parts of that do you think are still true even if the specific technology options have changed?)
  2. What sources and options do you think are a really good intro, especially for younger students.

For example: I’ve been starting one of them on basic HTML, with a move to CSS and then scripting once she learns more. I’m hesitant to suggest she look at something like Dreamwidth or AO3 just yet: she’s a great person, but she doesn’t quite have the social or time management skills to handle that kind of project environment without a lot of mentoring yet.

I’d love something that fit that middle ground: a guided resource with lots of advice and ideas that produced an interesting or creative outcome, but that I could help her through without learning it all myself. (much as I’d like to, not realistic at this point, given the stubborn persistence of 24 hours in a day.)

Showing your awesomeness for Google Summer of Code

Some of you may have heard the story: When the GNOME folk looked through their summer of code applicants back in 2006, they had 181 applicants… and not a single woman. They decided to do something about this, and started The GNOME Women’s Outreach project. They soon had 100 talented female applicants. You can read the whole story here. One of the lessons to take away from this is that there may be really talented women out there who just aren’t applying:

Women would contact us saying “oh I don’t know if I’m qualified enough but working with a mentor sounds good etc etc etc and then have REALLY impressive CVs — clearly they’d’ve been accepted to GSoC if they’d applied, but they were clearly not confident enough to do so.

We at geek feminism hate losing talented folk to Impostor Syndrome, which causes totally awesome people to believe that they aren’t good enough. So for those of you who are considering applying this year, I’m hoping we can boost your confidence by reminding you that projects want you, providing some tips on making an application that will get noticed (so you can’t say “oh, I’ll never get it”), and giving you another place to ask questions if you’re too shy to ask them elsewhere. We can also help with applications and maybe even introduce you to people if you’re just too shy to get your foot in the door — just ask!

Lots of readers of and writers for Geek Feminism have been involved in GSoC. I’m one of the mentors for Systers, which might be especially interesting to GF readers since we’re an organization that promotes and supports women in technology (the name “Systers” is a play on women in “systems”). You can read my blurb advertising the incredible awesomeness of my project here and there’s lots of other cool summer of code projects advertising on GF.

The most common question I’m getting from prospective students right now is, “What do you look for in a GSoC applicant, and how can I make my application stand out?.”

There’s lots of things we look for in a GSoC applicant, but we most of all we want someone who’ll get stuff done, and with whom we’ll enjoy working.

Here’s some tips for demonstrating your inner awesomeness:

  1. Get involved with the community early. Join the mailing list(s), hang out on IRC, or wherever the community is. That lets both you and us know if we’ll work well together, and lets you learn more so you can put together an awesome application that we’ll all be excited about. If you participate in discussions, we’re much more likely to remember you when your application comes in! (Hint: if you’re using a nickname, remember to put that name in your application too so we can associate!) The earlier the better when it comes to community involvement — you don’t need to wait ’till the applications open.
  2. Spend some time doing research on your proposed project: Find out if anyone’s tried it, what other approaches are possible and how your idea compares to them. If you’ve done this research in advance, we know you’ll be ready to go when summer hits!
  3. Ask smart questions. If there’s something about the project you don’t understand or you’re trying to do a bit of hacking and run into a snag, the mentors will often be able to help. One of the things I’m looking for in applicants is an ability to communicate, and asking articulate questions that show you’ve done research is one way to impress me. I’m also looking for applicants who can work independently and figure out stuff on your own, so if you do get stuck, remember to explain what you’ve tried, and where you’ve already looked for information so I know you made the effort to solve the problem yourself.
  4. Contribute to the project in advance. One of my prospective students has started writing patches to fix our simple bugs, and it tells me so much about her: that she’s already getting comfortable with our code base, that she’s dedicated enough to find solutions to problems, that she’s really serious about contributing to our project. Another way to contribute would be through helping others such as answering questions on the mailing lists or IRC or contributing to the project wiki. Show off your skills!
  5. Don’t be afraid to apply! Even if you don’t get in, the GSoC application period is a great time to scope out a project because there are mentors who you know are willing to answer questions. You don’t need GSoC: you can always choose to join the project on your own. But don’t forget that lots of really talented folk misjudge their own awesomeness, so don’t pre-reject yourself. You might be exactly what that project needs!

So now I open up the floor to everyone else: If you’re a mentor, what impresses you? If you’re a former student, what tips do you have? If you’re a prospective student, what else would you like to know? Feel free to ask for help with your applications or ask if we can introduce you to someone in your project too!

GF classifieds: Google Summer of Code edition

Student applications for Google Summer of Code are opening March 29.

Google Summer of Code — yes, bad name for anyone in the southern hemisphere, but you are allowed to apply! — is a project sponsoring Open Source development by students (largely university students, students who won’t be 18 by April 26 can’t apply) over the northern summer period. Google pays a stipend for students to work on a contribution to a project over summer. Open Source projects are selected as mentoring organisations, students apply by submitting a project proposal to a project, and some of those proposals are accepted. Applications close April 9.

So I thought I’d do a post in the spirit of Skud’s GF classifieds. If you are a mentor or part of a mentoring organisation for Google SoC and you’d like to bring your project to the attention of readers here, please post a description in comments at any time before April 9. The more you can say the better:

  • Do you have link to a list of ideas for projects?
  • Can applicants make contact with you or your mentors in order to discuss their application before submitting?
  • Are previous years’ students available to discuss their experiences?
  • What kind of skills are you looking for?

Of course, if your project has made a commitment to diversity in some way, then feel free to tell us about that.

Students who are interested in applying: this is a big process, don’t wait for the official opening to get to work on researching and talking to mentoring organisations, as there are only two weeks between the open and close of applications. Here’s some starting points:

Note: obviously Google SoC projects accept applications from people of any gender. The reason for this post is to level the playing field at the awareness level. By posting here, what you’re doing is hopefully increasing the visibility of your project among interested women, rather than excluding anyone else from applying.

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.

Linkspamming ’round the clock (9th January, 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).

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Some of my best friends are linkspammers (2nd November, 2009)

  • The Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision 2010 awards, honouring “women making significant contributions in the areas of Innovation, Social Impact and Leadership” are taking nominations until December 11.
  • the f word looked at salaries of men and women in science, engineering and technology on October 30, Equal Pay Day.
  • David Eaves examines the alleged structurelessness of FLOSS through Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structurelessness
  • Felicia Day is taking all the fun out of galaxies colliding.
  • Sun Labs has a technical report out on the success of their mentoring programs.
  • Matt Zimmerman, who writes here, was interviewed by Amber Graner, and mentions his goals regarding women’s participation in the Ubuntu community.
  • Mary Alice Crim reports on a workshop at the National NOW conference to explore feminists’ roles in shaping Internet policy: The Internet is a feminist issue
  • Stephanie Pearl-McPhee was called away from the SOAR conference (a professional event) by family needs, and she’s not buying any pressure for a mother not to complain about having to do that.
  • Casey Johnston (herself a woman gamer) wrote 10 Reasons NOT to Date a Girl Gamer aimed at heterosexual men. The wow_ladies community on LiveJournal tried to figure out what was up with it; tongue-in-cheek?
  • Australian video game review TV show Good Game replaced host Jeremy Ray with Stephanie Bendixsen and Ray alleged that his gender was the primary reason. Sarah Stokely had a look at the PR issues involved.
  • MindTouch has a list of the most influential people in Open Source (from an executive/business perspective) which doesn’t include any women. Mozilla Corporation’s chairperson Mitchell Baker (herself a woman) was not impressed at either women or Mozilla as a whole not appearing.

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