Tag Archives: women in technology

In defense of Women in Tech (WiT) groups

This is a guest post by Coral Sheldon-Hess, a web developer and librarian in Anchorage, Alaska.
She blogs at sheldon-hess.org/coral and tweets as @web_kunoichi.

This post originally appeared on Coral’s blog.

I’ve been rolling this post around in my head for a couple of days, in between attending conference and binge-(re)watching Firefly.

It turns out, I have put a lot of time and effort—and, more importantly, thought—into creating and running a WiT group, so I have a lot to say on this topic. Also, Rebecca Stavick’s post isn’t the first anti-WiT-post I’ve read by a woman (great response to that one, here), never mind dealing with men’s arguments against these groups; so I’ve had time to think through a lot of these issues.

Myth #1 – Meeting as a group of women isn’t valuable in a male-dominated field.

Rosie the RiveterI really liked Eric Phetteplace’s response on Twitter, but I’m going to add a bit, since I have more than 280 characters to play with.

Networking is incredibly important to moving forward in one’s career, maybe especially so in tech circles, where everything moves so quickly and invitations to work on cool projects, or give important talks, depend so heavily on who knows you. So, on the surface, sure, it makes sense to get face time with male colleagues, and nobody is suggesting you shouldn’t.

But networking within a group of women is also incredibly valuable. Take the Merrill Lynch Four, who met and shared information and talked up one another’s work; they all ultimately ended up better off for it. Self-promotion can be hard for women, but promoting the work of other women? It’s easy to do, it’s never frowned upon, and it’s very effective! Also, it’s only possible if you can get into an environment where 1) you’re talking to other women, 2) about work-related stuff, and 3) you won’t be interrupted by men, who are, on average, better at self-promotion and are therefore likely to dominate the discussion.

Myth #2 – Learning with women is less valuable than learning in a gender-mixed group.

I think most people are aware that women have a lower level of confidence than equally competent men, in STEM subjects, as explored in the Fiorentine paper from 1988, comparing male and female medical students. (Short version: women consistently rated themselves lower on every attribute than their equally capable male colleagues.) You can find a bunch of respectable academic citations about differences in teacher behavior toward male and female students here, but I can also tell you, from six years’ worth of personal experience in male-dominated STEM classrooms: women get very little opportunity to talk, even if they are brave enough to do so. Which they aren’t, on average, due to the confidence gap: women report being afraid of asking stupid questions in front of their far more confident male peers, in part because they tend to misinterpret increased confidence as increased competence.

xkcd: How it works (Two male figures: "Wow you suck at math", male and female figure: "Wow girls suck at math")There is also a legitimate concern, when a woman is outnumbered by men in a STEM setting, that anything she does wrong will be extrapolated unfairly out to all women.

Women in a male-dominated environment, trying to learn about a field that’s generally viewed as male-dominated, also suffer from stereotype threat, which is made worse by prominent tech industry assholes (sorry, but he is) who make incorrect sweeping generalizations like “You have to have started programming at the age of 13 to be any good.” That is, as Philip Guo will tell you, total crap.

Do you know how you go about combating stereotype threat for women? Logic dictates—and now a study shows—that female role models are essential.

So, there it is: female-dominated classrooms, with female instructors, are an obvious win, for women learning technology concepts.

Myth #3 – These groups support gender stereotypes by using “dumbed-down language” and female-coded fonts/colors.

Anchorage Programming Workshop logoAt first, I was totally on board with the idea that pink is problematic, which is why we chose a nice, bright blue-green for Anchorage Programming Workshop, with a logo featuring the Venus mirror to try to emphasize the “for women” aspect. Neither of the hosts for the group is overly feminine in our manner or dress, and we didn’t want to risk excluding other women who don’t identify with pink and rounded fonts. “Our group is for all women!” – that was our intended message.

But you know what? We ended up with pissed off dudes approaching our booth at the Anchorage Maker Faire and parents lamenting that we wouldn’t teach their sons how to code. Until we changed our RSVP form, we got guys RSVPing for our events and then not showing up after receiving the email (that went to all participants) emphasizing that “men are welcome, provided they are the guests of female-identified participants.”

I don’t think we’d get as much of that if we had gone with pink. So… I actually kind of respect the other groups’ forethought, on that count.

As for the “dumbed down language” thing, you know what? “Dumbed down” is so very rarely applicable that I propose we strike it from the lexicon. Making something approachable and friendly, so it doesn’t frighten off someone with low confidence, is a good thing! It’s also really hard to do, so, PROTIP: people who have put a lot of effort into making something usable get really angry when you use a phrase that dismisses their efforts and implies that incomprehensibility is a good goal.

Anything written by a competent instructor for an audience of new people will look “dumbed down” (argh) to an expert; that’s sort of the point. If you go look at the intro video and first week of CS50x, a freshman-level CS class at Harvard and online, you’ll see the same kind of language, the same reassuring tone. Because that is the right way to approach an introduction to technology. It has nothing to do with gender.

We do agree on one thing, sort of:

WiT groups—actually, all technology groups—need to do everything they can to be open to people who aren’t “exactly the same” as one another. Most WiT groups are really good about using “female-identified” as their descriptor, rather than just “female,” which is code that they are LGBT-friendly. Most have codes of conduct, which help advertise their commitment to diversity. Some are explicitly for women of color. These are all great! (And already happening, just, you know, for the record…) That isn’t to say any given WiT group shouldn’t work harder to increase the diversity of its participants; I just disagree that gender is the only path to diversity.

I find anti-WiT rhetoric frustrating, because it’s coming from both sides: men feel left out and want to tell us all about it, and women feel compelled to share their knee-jerk reactions to the color pink. Nobody starts with the assumption “This is a valid approach, based on good research and careful plans,” even though that is, in fact, the case. The arguments against these programs are shallow and easily countered, with only a few minutes’ research, yet they just keep coming.

Fact: WiT groups are a benefit to women and to the technology community at large, and their pedagogy and branding are, for the most part, well thought out and well implemented. They are worthwhile, and they deserve support. If you think they can be improved, volunteer to help, instead of tearing them down with grumpy blog posts.

“fraction quilt — two rows to go” by r0ssie

Anita’s Quilt

This is a guest post by Gail Carmichael. Gail is a PhD student in computer science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is passionate about computer science education and outreach, and is on the Advisory Board for the Anita Borg Institute. She blogs regularly at The Female Perspective of Computer Science.

'fraction quilt --- two rows to go' by r0ssie

“fraction quilt — two rows to go” by r0ssie

One of the big hurdles of getting more women into tech is making sure they know the job exists and providing more visible role models. Like my newest high school mentee recently said: “You hear women talk about becoming doctors, lawyers, and that sort of thing. Nobody ever talks about becoming a computer scientist!”

Enter Anita’s Quilt. A project of the Advisory Board of the Anita Borg Institute (of which I’m a member), Anita’s Quilt is an ongoing dialog of inspirational stories from women in tech supporting each other and individually striving to have more impact as technologists. We know things aren’t perfect for women in our industry; the Quilt is about giving people enough concrete ideas so they feel capable of taking actions.

We believe a personal story has the power to inspire, transform and shape others’ stories. With that in mind, Anita’s Quilt features a wide range of stories coming from undergraduate students to Turing Award winners (the Turing Award is the top prize for computer scientists). Stories are organized into campaigns. The Systers collection that came first showcased stories from some of the very first Systers (members of the technical-women-only Systers mailing list) as well as more recent members. The next campaign was all about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and included stories about how the conference started and the impact it has had on attendees. The current cycle is called Legends and Visionaries, and includes a story featuring Anita Borg herself as well as one of those aforementioned Turing Award winners, Barbara Liskov.

So here we have a powerful tool to inform and inspire women around the world about careers in computer science and engineering. But we need your help. We need you to share the Anita’s Quilt website with your communities both online and in real life. We also need you to share individual stories. Read a few, pick your favourites, and tweet a line about why you liked it. Help draw attention to the women you found most inspiring. Hopefully, with your help, we can help the Quilt grow along with its impact!

Group of male-type and female-type body symbols, 8 male, 2 female

Being Visible

Being a member of an under-represented group in a technical field can be very isolating. There is often pressure to be the best possible representative of your group, so that others like you are given a chance down the line. And when networking occurs through channels you aren’t privy to, discussions include background you don’t share, and other people’s best-intentioned advice assumes you are just like them, it can get very lonely very quickly.

But there’s a weird corollary to this, which is once a workplace, department, or project realizes it doesn’t have as many women/minorities/outsiders as it perhaps ought to, there is often a push to make the under-represented groups more visible. This might be for recruitment purposes, when a workplace reasons that maybe if they show that there are women already present, they will be able to attract more. Or, to create more inclusive management practices, maybe if an executive committee makes decisions for a department, its racial makeup should reflect that of the department. And the intention—to give the under-represented group more sway or more face time—is laudable; while it’s not the only needed step, it can help significantly. However, if most group members are white and male, these efforts mean that women and minorities may be tapped disproportionately to do outreach and governance work.

On the one hand, this can be great if outreach and governance are things you, the individual group member, are interested in doing. There certainly is a kind of soft power there, to shape your project environment, or to affect the sort of people attracted to it. But often, those tasks aren’t directly rewarded as much as the same time spent doing the actual project work would be. This means that the people asked to do more of what is effectively volunteer work are at a disadvantage for actual job advancement. Even if you want one woman on every governance committee, asking the same one or two women to shoulder that burden when it outstrips the burdens of their male colleagues is unfair. In fact, it’s especially unfair considering that women are already pressured to set fewer boundaries on their time and be more available to volunteer work for free than men are.

What’s more, there is a peculiar disparity in being the only minority in the room for most meetings, while being almost omnipresent in publicity videos and images. If the makeup of an organization is 90% white men, but they tune their outreach to imply otherwise, what does that say? Is it likely to help draw under-represented groups into technical fields, even though it does nothing to address the pipeline or the experiences of those who are already there? Is it misleading, since it doesn’t represent the actual state of the organization or the environment that new recruits enter into? Or is it an acceptable deception to tweak the numbers so that people realize that white men are not the only scientists, programmers, or engineers out there?

It’s good when an organization is aware of representation issues and cares enough to make efforts to address them. However, these efforts sometimes cause issues for the individual members of under-represented groups, by placing extra demands on their time and by asking them to be more visible than everyone else. And not everyone wants to be visible in the first place! But for those who do, the key is to give the time you have to spare while guarding the rest. And if you know of other women or minorities who may be willing to contribute to outreach or governance, you can see if they’ll help split the load. It can be isolating in technical fields when you are thrust into the spotlight, but you aren’t necessarily alone.

My Little Linkspam: URLs are magic (22 January 2013)

  • Gender in Twitter: Styles, stances, and social networks: “By clustering Twitter feeds, we find a range of styles and interests that reflects the multifaceted interaction between gender and language.”
  • New X-Men Relaunch Will Feature an All Women Team, Albeit Still Drawn By Men: “A relaunch of X-Men is going to feature an all-lady series, including all of my favorite female characters: Jubilee, Kitty Pride, Storm, Rogue, Rachel Grey, and Psylocke. X-Men has a history of featuring strong females, and I have high hopes for how well this series will be written even though it is authored and drawn by two men, because really, this would have been the perfect opportunity for a female writer and artist.”
  • Sexism In Gaming: A Response To Gabrielle Toledano: “[W]hat Toledano fails to comprehend is that gaming, like everything else, is an ecosystem – and right now, at every single level of participation, women are feeling the effects of sexism.”
  • The Panasonic Toughpad Press Conference: “A man in charge of something important just made a SEX PISS JOKE at the Panasonic Press Conference and that’s all fine. I don’t understand. I don’t understand. Is that fine? Is this just what happens at tech events? I want to have a lie down.”
  • The Great Face-Paint Debate: “The anti-‘superficiality’ thread in geek culture promotes often veers into femmephobic territory. Spending $30 on a single t-shirt with a particular geek darling’s logo emblazoned on it is considered admirable, while spending $30 on an entire outfit that reads “fancy” or “overdressed” (i.e. coordinated and feminine) is unthinkable.”
  • Women take future of coding in own hands: “Howard acknowledges that there are plenty of coding classes out there, but in approaching a predominantly male profession, many women prefer to learn without the typical “bravado,” as she termed the hyper-competitive nature of coding groups or hackathons.”
  • Sigh.: “Can I not even escape getting punched in the face by the unattainable “idealized” female body in my nerdy writer space?”
  • The Feministing Five: Reshma Saujani: “Girls want to leverage the power of technology to help others, and I knew we had to teach more girls the skills they needed to do that. The girls we taught last summer all opted to build products to give back to their communities.”

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.

Rocky Horror Linkspam Show (6 November, 2012)

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.

Closeup of a slide staged on a microscope stand

Cultural Forces in Geek Inspiration

An interesting survey by an Indiana University science education researcher and Scientific American reported the following about what sparks people’s interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields:

Based on data from a randomized sample of universities and online volunteers who completed a survey, men and women who pursue STEM degrees tend to become interested in science in elementary school. When asked which people and experiences helped to spark their interest, women were more likely than men to select a teacher, a class at school, solving math problems and spending time outdoors, whereas men were more influenced by tinkering, building and reading. As men and women enter college, passion for the field far outweighs all other influences as the main reason for their persistence.

They have some nice graphical representations of their results as well, but it’s worth adding a bit of cultural context here.

“Tinkering” and “building” represent a broad class of activities that boys are pushed toward and girls are pushed away from. These activities can not only provide inspiration for STEM degrees, but also function as practice for laboratory work and problem solving, which is to say as practice for STEM degrees and careers. When Lego sets aimed at boys encourage more creativity and agency than Lego sets aimed at girls, there are real consequences down the line. It is great that so many men are lead to STEM degrees from tinkering and building. But unless we accept the lone tinkerer as an archetype for any gender, this path to a geeky career will be less likely for most women.

Two of the stronger factors for women entering STEM degrees, “a teacher” and “a class at school”, comprise structural external encouragement. It makes perfect sense that this would be more important for the under-represented gender in any field. If a girl doesn’t see people like her in a certain career, she may not consider it seriously as an option, unless she is directed there by something external like a class or a teacher. The good news here is that external factors can make a difference in bringing people to STEM careers, especially under-represented groups.

The largest percentage of respondents (38%) said that the drive to be in STEM came from “self”, and by the time college rolls around, “passion for the field” is the most popular reason to persist (three times as popular as the next three reasons). But still, these self-directed passionate scientists add up to less than half the total! For the rest of the group, and if we want to increase the number of women in STEM fields, it’s critical to have a culture that values science and mentors that seek out and encourage potential scientists.

Grace Hopper: Sorry I missed that. I was busy inventing the compiler.

Quick hit: WHO invented the internet?

I’m betting there’s some of you who’ll want to discuss this awful article that starts by claiming that MEN invented the internet. But rather than quote the irritating original article in this post, I’m going to quote part of this rebuttal from Xeni Jardin:

You guys, ladies suck at technology and the New York Times is ON IT.

Radia “Mother of the Internet” Perlman and the ghosts of RADM Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace and every woman who worked in technology for the past 150 years frown upon you, sir. Women may have been invisible, but the work we did laid the groundwork for more visible advancements now credited to more famous men.

“Men are credited with inventing the internet.” There. Fixed it for you.


I ragequit this article like, 10 times, and couldn’t get past that awful opening line.

Read the rest of the rebuttal on BoingBoing, or read the original article.

So, uh, yeah. Here’s a post so you can have a comment thread on the topic that is moderated by feminists.