Sometimes it takes someone saying something so gobsmackingly obvious that it makes people ashamed they didn’t realize it before, to clue people in that there might actually be a problem, and how to address it. This post, I truly hope, is one of those times.
Sometimes, men talk about the gender disparity in tech communities as if there’s some big mystery. I have to conclude that these guys haven’t talked to women who currently work in computer science academia and the tech industry, or who did and then left. As someone who was perceived as a girl or woman doing computer science for 12 years, my solution to the lack of women in tech is:
Stop telling women that they aren’t welcome and don’t belong.
Sounds pretty obvious, right? Well, you’d think. But read on to see what counts as telling them they don’t belong. A tip — it’s not just making the blatantly sexist comment, like Prof. Doaitse Swierstra’s saying that more women in Haskell’s programming school would make the program “more attractive”.
When I watched the video, what I heard after Prof. Swierstra’s comment about attractiveness was laughter. No one called him out; the discussion moved on. I might be wrong here, but the laughter didn’t sound like the nervous laughter of people who have recognized that they’ve just heard something terrible, but don’t know quite what to do about it, either (though I’m sure that was the reaction of some attendees). It sounded like the laughter of people who were amused by something funny.
It would have taken just one person to stand up at that moment and say, “That was sexist and it’s not acceptable here.” (That person would probably have to be a senior faculty member or researcher, someone of equal rank to Prof. Swierstra; challenging a male, senior researcher is not something a female grad student (or even maybe a male grad student) should be expected to do.) But nobody did. And that’s what really disappoints me. Structural sexism persists not because of the few people who do and say blatantly bad things, but because of the majority who tolerate them. People say things like the things Prof. Swierstra said because they are socially rewarded for it: they can get a few laughs. Also, they can display their membership in a high-status group (heterosexual men). Take the reward away, and the comments and actions that exclude go away too.
The whole story sounds like the old anecdote about wanting to attract more women to a product “so let’s make it pink” — looking for a silver bullet solution that doesn’t acknowledge the true nature of the problem. “Let’s get more women because it’ll become more ‘attractive’, wink wink nudge nudge” makes it sound like all you need is more women to make it more likely for women to join up, rather than addressing any sexism already rampant in the community. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding that the framing of the problem is actually prejudicial to women to begin with. It’s one of those things where a bunch of men say “we need more women because X-thing-that-hurts-women”, and women go “no fucking wonder you’ve got a problem”, and no self-awareness is ever achieved.
It’s terrible when that entrenched sexism comes from the top, and woe betide any lowly trench soldier that dares speak truth to power because they’ll get drummed out as trying to “tar” the leader’s reputation.
49 thoughts on “How to get more women in STEM? Stop telling them they don’t belong”
“So while Prof. Swierstra may have meant no harm — may indeed have meant to do good by encouraging efforts to increase women’s participation in the Haskell community — what matters is not his intent, but the effect of his words. (Everyone who’s ever written code knows that the compiler doesn’t care about your intent; extend that to your interactions with other people, and you might find yourself behaving more fairly).”
Is one of the best educational lines from that piece, at least for me. Thought I’d share it.
Jason, can you identify in specific terms what exactly should and can be done in the community to prevent the types of sexism, mysoginy and so in that you and others have identified? I have seen some dribs and drabs but thought you might have a consolidated list of specifics. Someone may have done this but I can’t find it and I thought if anyone might have a bead on it it would be you. I think we can stipulate that these behaviors are wrong so we have no disagreement regarding the behaviors, but I want to know what the fix is. Not the philosophic fix or the name calling fix, the time and action plan to address and fix these issues. Unfortunately I don’t think A+ addresses this question other than proclaiming it as a safe space, but that is a reprieve not an answer. Thanks.
eliott1: You could start out by refraining from publicly questioning the motives of people who speak up when they’re mistreated.
After that, you could learn how to spell “misogyny.”
Oh, and expecting a blogger to drop everything and write a “consolidated list of specifics” just for you is douchebag behavior. And expecting someone to have an answer to cultural biases that have persisted literally for MILLENNIA and are systemic, subtle, often unconscious, and deeply rooted in our society is willfully absurd. But how about this–if Jason writes up a complete list of how to fix misogyny, we’d love to see your complete action plan for ending racism!
Once the women have graduated from the STEM program, it doesn’t get a lot better. I started programming 25 years ago, and things were horrible then…and in some ways are no better. I work for a huge national company that claims to support women and makes the employees take hours of mandatory training every year, yet when we hired a subcontractor who was uber-religious, the women were taken aside and told he wouldn’t shake hands with us, so don’t approach him. Once he was in the office, suddenly we weren’t allowed near his cubicle, then not allowed to sit at the table in the big conference room if he was there, and then not allowed to visit the snack table (where we took turns leaving cookies/cupcakes/snacks on Fridays) until he visited and helped himself–our women cooties might corrupt his precious self.
The women who spoke up suddenly found themselves victims of funding cuts, and out of a job.
Karen: I am very lenient when it comes to posting URLs to things I largely agree with, from people who are honestly genuinely trying to do right by this world. It’s only spam if the link’s endpoint is unwelcome. 🙂
(Mind you, I did have to fix a double http:// in the link URL.)
Shameless Self-Promotion Ahead. Delete me if this isn’t appropriate; I’ll totally understand, and I apologize in advance.
I’ve been working on a Handy Guide to give people some specific ideas of how they can encourage more women to participate in environments dominated by men. It’s targeted specifically at the skeptical movement, but it’s not too hard to adapt to other situations. Many, many of the problems are the same.
Well, thank you, Jason, for both services!
I could get behind that… I’m sick of people being surprised when they find out I’m an engineer. I used to like being special and different but now I realise that was just my ego being stroked.
These days I want to respond with a sarcastic: “True story! There are also women doctors and accountants! Doh”
All that needs to happen is to make sure that everyone (boys and girls) who show an interest and proficiency in maths and science know of the benefits of a STEM career. By benefits I mean things like discovery, change, saving the world, challenge etc.
I find this trying to re-brand STEM as pink quite patronising and annoying. I didn’t study it because I could (or could not) play with other girls. I studied it because I’m good at it and enjoy it!
I’m probably over simplifying the problem but I’ll stand by what I said.
Ugh, so damn frustrating. I’m putting together some material for gender sensitivity training for the (very small) IT company that I work for. I’ll include Tim’s piece in the references.
One more good resource worth checking out, for those who haven’t – a series of online presentations on gender bias in STEM fields, by the cognitive scientist Virginia Valian. She descibes two key concepts: gender schemas and the accumulation of advantage. The brief summary is that gender schemas (hypotheses about what it means to be male or female, which assign different psychological traits to males and females) cause us to underrate women and overrate men in professional settings. Many small effects of these schemas add up, with the result that men accumulate more advantage than women do.
So called “equity feminists” in the US (like Cristina Hoff Sommers) have routinely slammed these studies, saying it is bad science — all the while trumpeting the bad science of “male-brain-female-brain” sex-typed interests and abilities. To me this tutorial is compelling because I’m already aware of my bias – that I sometimes view men and women at my workplace differently – i.e. overrating men and underrating women – and how I constantly have to to be careful of my own bias. I’ve seen bias in my colleagues, both in how they view themselves and in how they treat their male colleagues and female colleagues. I’ve seen evidence of the effect of these schemas on me when I took Harvard’s online “implicit association tests” too. “Equity feminists” like to use the phrase “there should be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome”. The catch is – what constitutes equality of opportunity? Can one truly call it equality of opportunity when there exist schemas which exert an influence on how we treat people belonging to minority and marginalised groups? When there exist social systems which exert a powerful and harmful influence on our lives, despite laws which seek to counter them?
I think studies like Valian’s should mention an important caveat though – a naive reader might conclude that it’s all cognitive i.e. all in the head. The more effective and long-term solution to these issues lies in dismantling the oppressive social SYSTEMS in which we participate – be it patriarchy, or casteism, or ableism, etc. Being aware of cognitive schemas and biases is important, no question – but it’s only a part of the solution. SYSTEMIC change is what we really need.
Do watch the tutorial – it’s in four parts, and both audio and transcript are available. The navigation is terrible – the slides take ages to load – I was able to get it to work faster by opening the next slide’s link in a second tab, which seemed to “nudge” the slide into opening in the current tab as well. 🙂
I’d just like to start a sincere slow clap for KarenX. I hadn’t seen your list before, but it’s great! 🙂
*gender sensitivity training*
So you watch south park too? What, you’re serous — oh god!
Instead of telling women what they Should be into, why not let them decide from themselves. Clearly women are not into STEM.
No amount of social engineering will change that.
*disappears in a puff of bullshit*
(Pace Douglas Adams.)
@12 – Thankfully, people don’t just stop there. They research into the social pressures that start early in childhood and lead to girls and women thinking they`re less competent at STEM fields, and to have less exposure to them. Check out, for example “Unlocking the Clubhouse”, CMU’s exploration of why they were not retaining female students in CS.
Or talk to one of my students from last year who was frustrated, because her male friend treated her as an equal, except when it came to programming projects or other computing tasks. Her parents thought it is a poor field for women as well. This is an upper year undergrad, with good marks and competence, already wondering if it’s worth it to work in a field she really enjoys.
Hell, walk into a “Toys R Us” and you’ll see a very clear image of what little girls and little boys are supposed to like doing.
50+ years ago women just weren’t interested in medicine or law – fields which now are about even between men and women. I guess we should just have left those fields alone too.
Whoa, whoa, guys, let’s not be so quick to discount Josh’s very thoughtful point.
Women just aren’t interested in high-status, challenging STEM studies and/or work. They must be choosing to be ghettoized in low-paying, low-status professions that men are choosing to not participate in.
It’s about FreedomTM and who is against FreedomTM (other than feminazis)??
Thanks Josh. Whew, that take such a load off my lady-brain. Huh, and here I thought I was being affected by systemic sexism when, really, I was choosing it. So, really, I want to be a second-class citizen.
You know what, Josh? You need to share this insight with Crommunist. I think you probably have a lot to tell him about racism and his choices.
Yeah. Nice women don’t want the vote!
I was really hoping Josh was a Poe. Really. I think today is going to be a day of disappointment.
One other thing that struck me in the OP, is that the Professor (meaning to or not) seemed to make reference to the illusion that only attractive women would be capable of or interested in STEM (in addition to the other, already pointed out, misogyny of his statement). I have a feeling if an overweight and conventionally unattractive woman were to express interest in his STEM program, he would not be saying the same things.
100+ years ago women just weren’t interested in anything but needlepoint, drawing, making bonnets, and playing piano. Unless they were lower class. Then they just weren’t interested in anything but doing laundry, sewing clothes, weaving cloth, and spinning yarn.
*dissolves into the chemicals at her lab bench since she must not exist*
Decided on my own to be a chemist. Not letting what you think of me stop me. And I help encourage the female STEM undergrads that I meet. So, want to tell me again what the color of the sky in your world is, Josh?
*oozes off to reform*
Yeah Josh, and women just aren’t that *into* atheism either, or else they’d stick with the movement in spite of all the rape threats.
Women just aren’t interested in serious things like politics. Which is why it’s unwise to allow them to vote.
Hey, leaders – if your fragile ego trumps female-outreach, stop lying to yourself that you care about female-outreach.
Hey, executive committee members – if fealty to your leader compels you to rabidly defend the fragile ego of your leader, and that rabid defense trumps female-outreach, stop lying to yourself that you care about female-outreach.
“It’s terrible when that entrenched sexism comes from the top, and woe betide any lowly trench soldier that dares speak truth to power because they’ll get drummed out as trying to “tar” the leader’s reputation.”
Exactly this. The “more attractive” comment was regrettable – a regrettable offense. But the true issue is the atmosphere of *burying* anyone who dare bring notice of the offense – such an atmosphere is shameful, and those who tolerate such an atmosphere are proven shameless.
Indeed, in my experience they say rather different things. The dichotomy in treatment is pretty shocking. I got a nice test when there were two women in my advanced computer science class, a quite conventionally attractive and well-dressed woman and then me, who is… not. Both of us were treating shabbily, but in markedly different ways.
Aw shit, I forgot that I didn’t exist. *redisappears*
Here was me thinking that my wife and I are both scientists, and we both have the same kind of doctorate from the same rather venerable institution, and that we keep publishing together… but no! Women aren’t into science! We been told!
So… does my wife not exist?
Then where did that toddler come from?
@24 … The stork, obviously!
I think that there is a more fundamental issue at hand here, and one that ubiquitous across the entire liberal worldview — the concept of an average.
This fundamental blind spot in liberalism is most pronounced in the race and IQ debate, but it equally applies to the feminism debate.
There are traits that are genetically determined that, for some reason, are more prevalent in females than in males and Vice Versa.
Indeed, the entire liberal versus right wing debate can be understood as Blank-Slatism versus Galtonism, the namesake of Darwin’s cousin.
But even if it turned out that blank-slaitm was true, and that everything is a social construct, that does not mean that the social constructs are useless.
It’s okay, I have a handy 3-step process for being a feminist ally.
1. Admit that misogynists exist.
2. Observe misogynists. Make note of the behaviors, speech patterns, and belief systems that are unique to misogynists.
3. Adopt behaviors, speech patterns, and belief systems that are easily distinguishable from those of misogynists.
This socialist would like to know why anybody thinks that the differences in the average statistical distribution of traits in various populations means that it’s okay to treat a given individual as a representative of some point on their population’s particular bell curve.
Another question: given that there is generally a lot of overlap between the population’s distributions, is there a mathematical cutoff for determining when it’s warranted to make policy decisions based on the assumption that the two populations should not be treated equally? 0.5 standard deviations? More less?
I eagerly await your answers.
“more women in Haskell’s programming school would make the program “more attractive””
Wait – isn’t that a reference to the idea that having women in the program would make it attractive to the male students as well? I think I understand what sexism you’re referring to, but I have a gripe with this from personal experience. Part of what made me decide to choose to study English language and literature, was because I welcomed being suddenly able to socialise with smart (and attractive) young women who could speak my first language fluently and being strongly repulsed by the other prospect I had of studying maths in the male-dominated technical school my brothers went to (despite having good results in maths at sec. school). I find the idea of joining any single-gender dominated field unpleasant, and especially back in my younger days, being able to socialise in a mixed-gender environment at study or work was important for me when choosing a study course.
Josh Minksy #26
Every trait you possess is influenced by your genes. No trait you possess is determined solely by your genes (with the exception of a trait of “possessing a particular gene”).
Beyond that, I’m afraid I don’t see a clear point being made in your post. What exactly are you trying to assert? Because it reads to me like you’re trying to claim (1) that “liberals” don’t understand what a population distribution is, and (2) that we should base our treatment of individuals on our observations/stereotypes of the subpopulation(s) they are included in.
That’s right, Josh. You stick to your guns. Women are genetically determined to wipe babies’ asses and make sandwiches. It’s SCIENCE (which we all know that liberals can’t do)!
You mean: Don’t act like Shoals Technology?
Compounded their errors by mocking people on Twitter (scrubbed and deleted the account) and then putting a not-pology on Facebook (also deleted)
Screen grabs were taken, much to their chagrin.
Did you watch the video? Here’s the link:
Skip ahead to minute 32. It’s an audience member responding to a presenter’s comment that they’re dealing with a restricted market (top 15% of developers).
“…to double the number of Haskell programmers is to find a woman for every man who can program.”
“It would also make these meetings much more (smirk) attractive to both of them”
“So I think also by promoting Haskell as a woman-friendly language…”
“…and you don’t have to convince them from (using a competing programming language?) because they usually don’t program. They leave it to us.”
(presenter) “I married the CEO of the last software company I worked at, so I think women and software are a good idea.”
That clip is a good example of the issue not necessarily being what is being said (“We should try to get more women to use Haskell”, “Involving women would make these meetings more welcoming for everyone”); it lies in how it’s said (“Ladies good for everyone ‘cuz they’re pretty!”) and in the response from others in the group (“Women can program!” -> “LOL!”; “Pretty ladies amirite!” -> “LOL!”).
I assume the offensiveness of the “woman-friendly” and “leave it to us” comments is self-evident.
It’s simply an empirical question. Is the frequency of significant traits equal between males and females. The answer is obviously a No.
It didn’t take even the most primitive humans very long to notice that men and women are not as tall or strong as one-another, on average.
I see no reason why the same observation would not hold for these so called ‘unequal outcomes’ in education.
We should obviously treat people equally and being racist and misogynistic is ‘mean.’ Notice that i used the word misogynistic,not sexist.
Josh I really struggle to see your point…
I mean, what do you need to program. Essentially problem solving skills. Perhaps a specific sub-set of problem solving skills.
There is no “problem solving” gene and since no two people will approach any problem the same way, not even men, how exactly can you use this to determine that women can’t or shouldn’t program?
Josh Minksy #38
And you seem to want to ascribe the existence of small differences on a population level to some fundamental difference between ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Otherwise your posting makes no point. Got any, you know, evidence for that?
What, that populations of men and women differ by some statistically significant but small effect size on some measure of ‘education’? I have no doubt that if you look hard enough you’ll find some.
But again you seem to want to ascribe such differences to some fundamental property of being ‘woman’ or ‘man’, without any evidence. What reason do you have to assume that men and women differ in their cognitive abilities? Or to assume that any such differences are intrinsic to being ‘man’ or ‘woman’?
If by ‘mean’ you mean ‘morally reprehensible’.
I think you need to re-read the possible definitions of ‘sexist’. Unless you meant to suggest that acting towards individual women as though they were sitting at the mean value of some measure obtained from a large population of women, or discriminating against individual women based on very small differences observed between large populations of men and women, is A-OK with you.
In the spirit of this post and comment #6, Haligonians might be interested in this talk at the Natural History Museum on Oct 1.
GIRLS and Science: Why it’s Important and How You can Support Them
Dr. Tamara Franz-Odendaal
The NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Atlantic Region) describes how she became a biologist specializing in craniofacial development and evolution. She will outline why it’s
important to encourage girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and medical (STEM) careers.
Really. First, I would bet I’ve studied more statistics, and mathematics in general, than you have – and so have many of the people who really study these issues. I don’t need to defend my credentials to you, and I know that poor statistical literacy crosses all ideological lines. Attack the specific science, not the qualifications of those who make the claims.
Also, read the actual literature, not just cherry-picked studies that support your thesis. For example, you clearly haven’t looked into “Unlocking the Clubhouse”. Small, possibly inherent differences are magnified by the socialization of small children. Even toddlers are treated differently, on average, depending on their sex. Other socialization differences lead to young women and men with similar achievement and “talent” levels to rate themselves differently. It’s a complex mix of influences, and traits which may be genetically influenced, but are not genetically determined.
Second, look across the science disciplines. Chemistry and (much of) psychology don’t require less math aptitude than the average CS student possesses, but they are less skewed in their ratios. Sure, I want my CS students to all be brilliant mathematicians, but they tend to skip out on math, and struggle with theory. Generally, they do well enough in computing jobs, though. Clearly, they don’t need to be tip of the curve math skills outliers to be successful.
Also, even if we lived in another world where women really were all that biologically different, on average, it would not justify treating me like “standard woman” and you like “standard man”. We each have talents, interests, that are ours alone. For example – I’m better at fixing a hole in drywall than my husband. He’s better at baking, and decorates a mean wedding cake. It’s stupid to hand him the sandpaper, and me a baking tray, without seeing what each of us can do.
Preview is my friend. Sorry for the big blockquote that didn’t end – typo in the closing tag I suppose this is now evidence that women are bad at detail oriented work, and particularly “coding”. Sorry women, one error means we’re all incompetent! Of course, the husband could fail calculus 3 twice without implying that he’s “bad at math”, let alone that men are “bad at math”. Ooh, I could have asked him to reply! The point is more valid if made by a man. Anyone want to look up the studies supporting that?
Stupidity aside, my point stands, though.
When people want to say that men perform better (on average) in some area than women like say, mathematics, most of the world isn’t exactly math literate. The men and women you are comparing would be educated people from relatively wealthy countries – you’re not even looking at average people to begin with, but (pardon the use of the term) freaks who have grown up in a strange, unusual environment that has only even existed for a short time given the whole of human history.
I’m always a bit amused by male IQ outliers argument. It seems to grossly overestimate the impact IQ (and similar measures of intelligence) has on success. Put simply, there are virtually no professions which require an IQ in the ranges where men might be more common than women for success. After a certain point, IQ means very little, even in supposedly high intelligence fields like physics or whatnot.
And of course, there’s the issue of numbers. The absolute number of those male outliers is not sufficient to explain extreme skews in fields like mathematics unless you assume that literally every one other them goes into that field.
Which points to the real purpose of the argument: apologism for sex discrimination.
Shawn, I can’t attend myself, but I’m going to promote that to a top-level post.
Also, feel free to comment with interesting meetups like this in the future, wherever they’re relevant. I’m subscribed to that meetup.com group, but look at the folder it goes to in my email only once in a blue moon.
Carolyn: got you covered.
Sincere thanks to you commenters who defend a rational and evidence-based worldview that accounts for psychology and sociology, against the libertarians who prefer an “I got mine, you go get yours, and if you can’t it’s your own fault” worldview. And I’m sorry I haven’t fought alongside you as much as I might like.
Seriously, you folks save my sanity some days.
Cool, thanks for the bump 🙂
…though to be absolutely clear, the talk is put on by the MNH. I’m only a cheerleader.
Based on my experiences, and obviously IMHO —
1.) More women will join STEM when they aren’t alternately ignored and treated as novelties, punch lines, sex toys, sexless viragos, and/or decoration.
2.) It would help immensely if girls in school were told that STEM is not a big mystery (well, not that way). Everything is based in language and logic. Once you realize that, you can take on anything.
Thanks for the fix Jason. This topic gets my rage on.
There there’s this:
In short, it’s a study that was done which proves, unequivocally, that there is gender bias in STEM fields, and that both male and female academics exercise it.
My thoughts on why this happens are many, but one which we don’t consider with enough depth in our forums, I’ll articulate briefly.
Women are socialized to be “feminine”, which of itself is a social construct, made obvious by the fact that the zone of what it means to be “feminine” has changed so much over the course of the last 100 years and is readily observable in the public record.
The feminization of girls is, in effect, teaching them how to act the way that society believes women should act, and that role has certain specific hallmarks: they should get excited about fashion, about anything that’s dyed pink, about anything that has lace or smells like perfume, about Disney princesses, about learning how to be a good housewife, about learning how to be a good mommy, etc.
And how does society view these feminized women who spend all of their intellectual resources on fashion, jewelry, shoes, hair styles that make them “look hot”, gossiping about boyfriends and other women? It views them as frivolous, stupid, vapid, infantile, petty, worthless.
Further, consider what we now know from studies on how depictions of women’s bodies as objects in media has warped our perception to the degree that pretty much everybody, when they view a female body, do not see a person but a thing (this study did side-by-side comparisons of how males in the same types of ads are still perceived as humans, while the women were not).
Putting those two things together, is it any wonder that most of our culture sees women as inferior by default? Now we have the studies to prove it.
The question is, what are we in the skeptic/secular community going to do about it?
Pro That Is Definitely Concerned About rolex watches Chill out and relax Whilst Grasping the Secrets to rolex watches http://is.gd/prSrlU Incredible Secret Of Methods You Can Crush rolex watches Without Having Any Past experiences! Enjoy — This Cover Nearly everything around rolex watches replica watch Never forget When You Could quite simply get the new rolex watches for free, And Decided not to ? The Amazing Secret Of How One Might Become an expert at rolex watches With Virtually No Practical knowledge!
Shorter editorial tells the indeniable info about rolex watches as well as how it can have an impact on your organization. The rolex watches lookup Dashboard widget http://www.wendybagus.com Burn Off rolex watches Difficulties Completely How come people are dead wrong concerning rolex watches and the reasons you have to read through this statement. http://v.gd/XwP9Ef rolex watches-woman has trialled the revolutionary method . . the steps to making a king’s ransom completely from scratch The rolex watches all your partners is speaking of
Comments are closed.