So angry about girls in STEM right now

I tell you, if one more person tells me that they think girls aren’t into tech because girls just don’t have the aptitude for it, I am going to go off like a firecracker. In fact, I think it’s firecracker time right now.

I can hardly believe that we are STILL, in 2017, saying girls go into biology because they are more nurturing, but I have heard this line repeatedly over the last few months. First of all, saying that boys are less nurturing is simply absurd and offensive. And secondly, suggesting that nurturing people should not go into computer science is how we wind up with software like Centrelink’s robodebt system that completely fails to take actual people into account. In an age of ever increasing artificial intelligence, we need a diverse and compassionate Computer Science workforce more than ever before, lest we  wind up with our whole lives controlled by systems that are rigid, uncompromising, and quite antithetical to human happiness.

Now, leaving nurturing natures aside, it is true that girls in STEM overwhelmingly go into Biology-based areas, and that “harder” sciences such as Physics and Computer Science have far more men than women. This is often touted as proof. Women, they say, just aren’t choosing Computing and Physics. They’re just not that into it.

But here’s the thing. As a society, as an education system, and as parents, we are constantly pushing girls towards “girly” things, even without realising it.

Quick: Picture a Computer Scientist. One of my students recently told me that when I asked him to do that, he pictured me, because I’m the only Computer Scientist he has met, but it seems he’s in the minority. A google image search for “Computer Scientist” produced 33 men on the first 8 rows, to only 6 women. That’s actually a much better ratio than I was expecting. Trying it with “programmer” got 35-3. Google, society, and almost every film or tv show we’ve ever watched is telling us that Computer Scientists and programmers are men.

Interestingly, a similar count for “Biologist” shows 24 men and 23 women, despite the fact that women make up 58% of Biology graduates in the US. Go figure.

We give boys tech toys, we give girls barbies and soft toys. And even if we try to be gender neutral in our own parenting, the gifts they get at birthdays will be overwhelmingly gender-skewed, and they will constantly see the kids around them playing with the things they are “supposed” to like. This kind of thing has a powerful impact on a child’s developing sense of identity. Girls who manage to break out of this mould and choose “boy” games/activities/clothes/hairstyles get sooo much pushback (having a daughter with short hair I can attest to this personally) that it is even more unlikely that other, less bold girls will take the risk.

It is, I admit, possible that gender plays a part in aptitude, but you can only say it’s proven if you provide a level playing field, with equal pressures and opportunities from birth and then see a gender difference. We are so far from this, worldwide, that we couldn’t even see it with a telescope.

Studies overwhelmingly show that we hire people who fit our stereotype, and our stereotype of “technical people” is men. We judge competence based on gender all the time, while being completely unaware that we are doing it. Even women in tech are more likely to judge a man than a woman as competent, even when all other factors are identical. We have been really well trained.

Girls are also pushed out of STEM by “invisible” factors, such as vocal boys in class who know a lot of tech stuff already, and therefore leave girls (and also inexperienced boys) feeling as though they are no good at it. They are pushed out by teachers subtly implying that they don’t belong. They are pushed out by all the people who are surprised that they are studying “boy” subjects. They are pushed out by being the only woman in the room. And they are pushed out by their male colleagues who tend to belittle and underestimate them because of their gender. Not to mention outright sexual harassment.

But the final nail in the coffin of the gender based aptitude myth is Harvey Mudd College. When Harvey Mudd decided 10% of CS graduates being female was not enough, they tackled these factors directly. They asked the more vocal, advanced students to keep their questions for afterwards. They hired more women to teach the courses. They stream their courses so that people with no programming background can learn without feeling inadequate next to people who have been programming forever. And it worked. Fast. Harvey Mudd now has 55% female CS graduates.

It’s not rocket science. But we have to stop saying “we shouldn’t push girls into careers they’re not good at” and we have to start saying “what are the factors keeping girls out, and how can we change them? ”

What if, for every time girls get nudged away from technical areas, they got nudged back?

What if, instead of saying “Oh, there just aren’t any women interested”, engineering companies went out to schools and started trying to recruit girls into STEM early. What if every girl, at some point in her schooling, had an engineer (or computer scientist, or physicist) (whether male or female) look her in the eye and say “You could be an engineer/computer scientist/physicist.” And mean it.

It’s so much easier to be complacent and say “there is no problem”. Companies, and universities, need to put their time and energy where their complacency is. Get out there and actively recruit women. Have “professional experience” days for girls so they can find out what it’s like to be an engineer. Give them engineers to talk to. Take girls seriously.

In my Computer Science classes in both year 10 and year 11, I have beginner girls who are picking up the concepts super fast. And, despite myself, I’m still surprised by it. As a female in Computer Science, I am still deeply conditioned to accept the stereotypes. If we don’t force ourselves to see beyond them, we can’t possibly make change.

Even if there’s a gender skew in aptitude (which, given that Computer Science was largely founded by women, I find difficult to believe), it means nothing in any specific case. A bell curve of aptitude tells you about populations, but not about a person.

So it’s time we started believing in our students, both male and female. It’s time we actually believe it when we tell them they can be anything they want to be. And it’s time we gave them the opportunities to find out what that might be.

 

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RUOk? is an everyday thing…

A friend of mine succumbed to depression recently. It persuaded him, presumably, that life was too hard, that he was too worthless, and it pushed him over the edge. I won’t eulogise Wally here – many people knew him better than I and can be far more eloquent than I ever could. We were distant friends, but I will always remember him as a happy person – a positive influence on the world. If I picture his face, it is smiling. He was a happy person who made people happy. I hope I will eventually be remembered as fondly as he is.

Yet he struggled. I only know that now because the struggle, in the end, overcame him.

This was going to be a ranty post about feminism, arguing to win instead of to find the truth, and manipulative behaviour. I was going to get all cranky up in the world’s face. But you know what? There’s enough cranky in the world without me adding to it. And anyway, a funny thing happened when I was getting all righteously indignant about the way I’d been treated… I started noticing the people who don’t do that.

I am incredibly lucky, and my life is full of people who choose to lift me up rather than slap me down. Who won’t hesitate to pull me up when I’m being a jerk, and who catch me when I stumble. I have so much love around me.

But there are still days when I feel isolated and alone. Most of us have very little community around us now. I’m not religious, but I am aware of what we miss out on in the absence of a highly prevalent, organised religion. We don’t, for the most part, know our neighbours. We don’t have the safety net of a community wrapped around us. And sometimes we get caught up in getting up, going to work, and coming home alone. Even when we have close friends who would not hesitate to reach out to us if they knew we needed it, we can feel desperately alone.

It’s days like those when life can seem too hard, and when an illness like depression can so easily overwhelm us. Sometimes reaching out for help is more than we can manage. Although we may have plenty of loved ones, we don’t necessarily see them every day, and we are not necessarily in their field of view when we fall over.

Some times in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow

But, if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong. 

I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.

For, it won’t be long, til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

Lean on Me, Bill Withers

Yesterday I spent an hour fuming and then a lot more hours contemplating the positives in my life. And that was, in large part, the influence of a couple of friends – one over coffee, one over the internet – who helped me turn things around and make a pretty sucky experience into one that will change my life for the better. I was lucky. But luck is sometimes what you make it, so I’m making a point of spending the weekend with some of the people who lift me up.

The more people I talk to about this, the more I realise that there are a lot of us out there feeling very isolated. And we’re all feeling alone in this feeling even though it is, dare I say it, actually almost universal.

So I’m making a conscious effort to reach out and reconnect. Face to face as much as possible, but also online. Life chips away at us sometimes. I need to rebuild my foundations with the help of the people who make them stronger.

It’s easy to get busy and caught up in the rush of the day to day. It’s easy to forget that there are friends a street, a suburb, a country, or a world away who are equally caught up, equally isolated, and equally keen to connect. Don’t wait to fall over. Reach out and help someone else up.

 

The time of my life

I’m spending a lot of time this weekend trying to catch up on my marking and get ahead on my lesson planning. Because I’m teaching Science for the first time, I’ve been sending a few emails checking on different details. From two different teachers I’ve had emails back almost immediately, answering my questions and apologising that they couldn’t do so in more detail, or fix other things, because they were out. They promised to get to it ASAP.

But it’s the weekend! When you think about it, it’s really disturbing that they felt they had to respond while they were out, and even more disturbing that they also felt they needed to apologise for not doing more. ON THE WEEKEND.

Unfortunately, this is normal. Not merely in education. Most professional roles seem to expect people to be on constantly, at least as long as they’re awake. To some extent we have done this to ourselves with our fervent embrace of the smartphone, but in other ways the “productivity” expectations of our workplaces have done it to us.

I love my smartphone, I have to admit. I have close friends interstate and overseas, and with a smartphone those friends are in my pocket all the time. I love that. I can reach out when I feel stressed, tired, lonely, or when I have good news to share, and have someone reach back. That’s priceless.

But it was months ago that I turned off work email notifications on my phone. Last week I also turned them off for my personal email. Because when I saw those emails come through, I felt obliged to respond to them immediately. An immediate response was almost never truly necessary, but as soon as I saw it, it nagged at me until I responded. Which led to me walking out of my daughter’s school after the drop off in the morning, answering email. Or pausing in the supermarket to reply to a query. Or waiting in line for the cinema typing frantically in response to an email that could very easily have waited until Monday.

Some time ago an article showed up on Facebook about how Universities wouldn’t be able to sort the diversity issue until they accepted 40 hour weeks as reasonable. A friend shared it along with a comment about how people get treated when they are part time. And it struck me (although my friend didn’t necessarily mean it that way) that 40 hours per week has, indeed, become part time. That a full time workload sees many of my friends working 60 or 70 hour weeks – and that’s just the ones who try to have a life. 80 hour weeks are not uncommon. And this is taken for granted as normal.

Indeed, people who try to advocate for more reasonable workloads are often asked if they are really serious about the job, or the organisation. “Do you want this job?” can be both question and threat.

The thing is, we know from many studies that this is both bad for workers and bad for the organisation. There have been numerous studies showing that real productivity goes up when working hours go down. Longer working hours, with their accompanying tiredness and stress, lead to bad decisions. Lack of work-life balance damages both work and life. We know this. But as far as I can tell from looking around me, working hours and expectations are both on the rise.

We’re slowly killing ourselves in the name of doing bad work, and lots of it. Heart disease and other stress-related illnesses are on the rise, and our response to that is to push harder. It’s like an arms race. When everyone else is working harder it’s hard to dial back without both feeling guilty and looking bad.

It’s time that we all banded together and said “this is not ok”. France has made a good start, by legislating the right to switch off. Organisations can take control for themselves, by banning out of hours email and placing limits on working hours. As individuals, we can stop contributing to the problem by not sending out of hours email ourselves, and by not replying to it until we’re next at work. We could even be really radical and not read them until it’s work time (but that one will be a challenge for me, at least!).

Let’s face it, urgent requests that are actually urgent don’t come via email. No-one will die if you don’t read your email until Monday. Not finishing a report or not getting your marking done this instant has never been listed as the cause of death on any real life death certificate. But working too hard can literally kill you.