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.



Every single valedictory

Monday marks my sixth valedictory dinner. The sixth class of year twelves who will take a piece of my heart with them as they fly free into their amazing futures.

For my first valedictory dinner as a High School teacher I sang in a choir of people who felt more like friends than students. I couldn’t wrap my head around saying goodbye to them, even as I dwelt on their extraordinary potential.

It was impossible to imagine feeling that way about another class. They taught me everything about becoming a teacher, a huge amount about being human, and quite a lot about computer science – PhD or no.

Yet every year a new class enmeshes itself in my heart – winning my admiration, my trust, and my affection. I know teachers are supposed to be dispassionate – calmly objective observers of studentkind – but I can’t operate that way. Each new class has a claim on my heart like no other.

I don’t teach year twelve classes, but my year elevens are profoundly special to me, and I love seeing them around the corridors once they move on into year twelve, and finding out what they are up to. I always get teary when they leave. With any luck next year I will see them around Facebook, or when they come back and visit, so that I don’t really have to say goodbye.

Last year’s year elevens taught and challenged me in a host of new ways. They took on extraordinary challenges and produced amazing results. From the ones who were outspoken and passionate during class discussions to the ones who sat quietly, and when pressed would add just one well chosen but deeply insightful comment that sealed the debate.

From the ones who had been programming for years and took on the craziest problems, to the ones meeting programming for the first time who came away with astounding skills. Not to mention the one who wasn’t actually in the class but aced it anyway.

From the shy ones to the ones who are still seeking me out to talk to me about their projects. From start to finish, pass to high distinction, these are my people.

We shared insights into the nature of intelligence, and the need for privacy. We solved problems and questioned orthodoxy. We evaluated some amazingly unusable websites, and learnt new approaches to user centered design. We tackled real problems in computational science with some very bizarre data sets. And we gave variables some truly inexplicable names.

We stretched and challenged each other, and we laughed quite a lot. We searched, sorted, and danced our way through Computer Science and out into a wider understanding of ourselves, computation, science, and the world.

In just a few short days they will be done with school, and face the relentless barrage of those daunting exams, but whatever the outcome each and every one of them is a searingly bright star in the firmament of the world. Each and every one of them will light up the world in their own unique way.

Some of them will no doubt go on into Computer Science, and some won’t. But if they learnt as much from me as I learnt from them, they’ll have a great foundation for whatever they choose to do.



Are we afraid of connecting?

As my year 12s finished school this year, they gradually found me on Facebook. I’m loving this different way to connect, and the confidence that we will keep in touch. These people have a special place in my heart, as all my students do. Once you’re one of “my kids” it lasts a lifetime.

It’s been interesting connecting with them and flicking back through their timelines, because I have learnt a lot about them that I didn’t know before. I suspect some of them have learnt a lot about me the same way.

For example I now know that one of them plays the piano alarmingly well – and although I had a great relationship with this student, somehow I’d never found that out.

I also know that another is a lot more politically aware than I ever realized – and that our politics are very closely aligned. Think of the conversations we could have had!

I know that still another came from a school just around the corner from my house, and that we have friends in common. Also that he is a loyal and loving friend (which, to be honest, did not come as a surprise).

I know that another is an amazing athlete, has a part time job, and stayed up all night to finish one of my assignments (sorry!).

And one has the most incredible artistic talent – how did I miss that??

I know which ones are in long term relationships, which ones have strong ties with friends from their previous schools, and which ones have pets. I know what music they like, what issues they are passionate about, and what they believe in.

Of course, not everybody posts much on facebook, but for the most part being connected this way has enhanced my understanding of them – and no doubt their understanding of me.

Yet there is an unofficial, unwritten rule that teachers don’t friend students on Facebook. And I can understand why – kids don’t need to see pictures of their teachers getting blind drunk on Saturday night (although really, if that’s what’s going on your Facebook feed then you’ve got some serious questions to ask yourself, teacher or not). But in this increasingly public and online world, not much is private anymore. The chances are that students can find those pics of you if the pics are online, especially if someone else put them there and they’re not careful with their privacy settings.

I also understand that there is concern about blurring the boundaries between teachers and students. That some people feel the more formal, distant relationship maintained by using teacher’s surnames and never seeing them outside the school grounds is an important ingredient in maintaining discipline and avoiding “inappropriate” relationships forming, especially between young teachers and students who may be only a handful of years younger. Yet going on camps inevitably blurs these boundaries anyway – sometimes first names are allowed on camp, casual clothes are worn, and interaction is inevitably more casual and less constrained.

The truth is that we are all going to have to be professional and draw the line at times, whether we are connected on facebook or not. And it’s true that sometimes knowing where the line should be is tricky.

But I do wonder if we are losing opportunities to reach our students, to build meaningful connections and understand them better. Of course I know that sometimes teachers and students cross the boundaries, but I am becoming more and more convinced that in trying to avoid that we have swung far too far in the other direction. We have all but banned touch between teachers and students, and if you are never allowed to pat them on the shoulder, hug them in times of stress, or hold their hands when they are scared, surely touch becomes far more highly charged and problematic when it does happen?

And, as teachers, our duty is to support and nurture our students as much as to educate them, and as social mammals, touch is a crucial part of that.

One of my students was once so overwhelmed by having passed an assignment that she cried out “oh! Can I have a hug???” and I gave her one. Telling this story in the staffroom later got a whole lot of horrified looks. “oh, you took such a risk! I’d never do that!” they said. How tragic it is, and how impoverished our interactions, that this is where we have arrived. In a place where we can’t touch, mustn’t acknowledge each other as human beings with lives outside the classroom, and draw careful boxes around our private lives. We are more concerned with not putting ourselves “at risk” of an accusation than with the emotional needs of our students.

Similarly never interacting outside school, never recognising that we are multi-dimensional human beings, not simply students and teachers, might actually create an unrealistic portrait-style image of each other that intensifies the risk of unrealistic and inappropriate relationships.

I think these nice safe lines that we are drawing are far outside the range of what’s reasonable. I think that in protecting ourselves we might just be leaving our teaching impoverished.  As one of my former students said to me last night (on facebook, as it happens): “But to be honest, I reckon I’d be way more likely to pay more attention in class and have a better attitude to learning if I had a better relationship with my teachers.”

I’m really not sure. Social media is a whole new minefield that we, as a society, have yet to really understand, for all we have dived into it headfirst. We don’t actually know which way these connections might lead us, so maybe it’s sensible to plump for the most conservative option.

So what do you think? Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater here? Are we protecting our kids, or are we actually depriving them of meaningful connections with their teachers?


We are so connected these days. So switched on. So linked in, if you’ll pardon the pun. Watching my girls during their swimming lessons, I can be texting someone, facebook chatting with someone else, and checking my email all at the same time.

For keeping track of friends it’s wonderful. For knowing what loved ones overseas are up to, it’s amazing. Sharing photos – brilliant (although I must admit I am a trifle paranoid and refuse to post photos of my kids on facebook – it’s facebook’s policy that they can do whatever the hell they like with my photos that I find disturbing).

For keeping in touch, for really communicating? It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, I think it’s widening the disconnect, and replacing real community with a digital facsimile that just doesn’t stack up.

It’s wonderful for getting to know people on a surface level – I have connected with parents from my daughters’ school on there, and we know each other’s politics much better than we would have otherwise.  We share opinions on world events, and connect over things that perhaps we wouldn’t have found out otherwise.

When I’m lost in a strange place
Scared and alone
When I’m wishing for home
That’s when I think of you

But time and again I find that I think I know what’s going on in all my facebook friends’ lives. As though they must surely post everything significant that they do or feel online. As though clicking “like” or making a passing comment on their status is actually communicating. Really connecting.

It’s not.

We are social animals. Seeing each other’s faces is important. Touching each other, even if it’s just a hand shake, is crucial to us both physiologically and psychologically.

There are things even I won’t post on facebook, or on my blog (astounding, I know). There are feelings and traumas in my life that I can’t share online. There are connections I can’t make digitally that flow effortlessly over coffee.

This is not to say that it’s not possible to connect electronically. I have friends overseas with whom I have built intense and enduring friendships largely via email. But that’s personal, one to one email. It’s not public status swapping on facebook. It’s a direct and personal communication. Sometimes it’s even possible to share things via email that would be much harder to share face to face.

The danger, I think, lies in believing we know what’s going on in each other’s lives on the basis of our public personae. We run the risk of facebook usurping our real community. Filling a space in our busy lives that would otherwise be filled by calling each other, or catching up for coffee. “No need to do that,” I think. “She’s fine, just busy.” When in reality I have no idea how she actually is.

I saw a great post (on facebook!) the other day suggesting that the reason we feel insecure is that we are comparing our “behind the scenes” with everyone else’s “highlights reel”. And I think it goes deeper. I think we are replacing our in-depth, behind-the-scenes tours with glimpses of the highlights reels. We’re never even looking into each other’s eyes anymore.

I’m always thinking of you
It’s all that I can do
I’d go mad not being with you
If not for the thought of you
The promise of dreams come true
I’d go mad not being with you

That’s when I think of you – 1927.

I think it’s time I made a conscious effort to get off the computer (my goodness, how many times have I said that?) and call people. Organise more coffees. Have more dinner parties. Arrange more reunions. Tonight I’m blogging about it. Tomorrow I’m going to start doing it. I wake early. Why not join me? You can call anytime.

Digital Natives

Lately I’m starting to feel that I’m languishing on the wrong side of the digital divide. I’m starting to wonder if I’m really cut out for technology. I realise that this is a rather strange reflection for a teacher of Information Technology with a PhD in Computer Science. Perhaps it’s time to start calling me Dr Strange. It wouldn’t be the first time.

A few weeks ago I tried very hard to leave facebook. I was increasingly unhappy with the way facebook kept arbitrarily changing its sharing protocols so that information I had locked down under tight privacy settings kept getting made public in various surreptitious ways, which I only found out about when friends started posting warnings. (Fortunately these types of warnings tend to go viral fairly fast.)

I was also getting frustrated that facebook kept dictating what information I wanted to see, and who I wanted to interact with. Despite me repeatedly changing my settings to say “I want to see everything from everyone with equal priority”, it kept resetting the interface so that it could choose what I saw, the order in which I saw it, and who I was really friends with.

The internet is increasingly filtered, shaped and redirected by companies like facebook and google. They show you what they think you want to see, but also what they think they can make money out of you seeing. Google search results, on which we rely so heavily these days, are heavily biased in favour of paying customers and strange ranking rules. We see what Google wants us to see – after all, how often do you page through to the 3rd page of results, let alone the 10th? The information on the first page is likely to be all that ever makes it into your brain.

Sadly my attempt to ditch facebook hasn’t worked. I have too many friends on facebook who I am, I have to confess, better connected with because of facebook. I love the interaction, and seeing who responds when I share something I found particularly funny, poignant, or outrageous. I love the political conversations and the funny ones. I love that I can poke fun at English or Maths teachers and start small riots among my friends.

It’s a vital, interactive community. I am more connected with friends who live overseas. I have reconnected with old friends, and I find commonalities with them via facebook that I never would have guessed. It’s also a way to share news – although it’s highly suspect for that, because of its aforesaid tendency to hide or reveal posts according to its own bizarre agenda.

When the outside temperature rises
And the meaning is oh so clear
One thousand and one yellow daffodils
Begin to dance in front of you – oh dear
Are they trying to tell you something
You’re missing that one final screw
You’re simply not in the pink my dear
To be honest you haven’t got a clue

I never closed my account, and I will probably start posting there again soon, because I miss it. I hoped that friends would travel over to google+, but it hasn’t taken off among my circles yet. Posting on google+ at the moment feels a little like flinging bread pellets into an echoing abyss.

Most of my students are active on social media all day every day. I have to work hard to keep them engaged and off chat during class. They carry phones everywhere they go, and are highly responsive to them. And I admit that, under stress, I love to be able to text or chat with close friends and get sympathetic or encouraging responses. It helps me feel connected and supported.

At the same time, though, all this connectivity seems to take a toll. I wind up feeling frayed around the edges. It’s only when I step away from it, and stand outside sniffing the breeze and listening to the birds, that the frayed edges of my soul start to knit together. It’s stillness, meditation and peace that allow me to calm down. All my electronic gadgets conspire to deny me these things. They wind me up. It’s too tempting to sit hunched over my laptop browsing facebook, rather than going outside to breathe and reravel myself. The internet seems determined to keep me unravelled and buzzing.

I’m knitting with only one needle
Unravelling fast it’s true
I’m driving only three wheels these days
But my dear how about you

I’m going slightly mad
I’m going slightly mad
It finally happened

I am sure that my year 11s, reading this, would label me old fashioned, perhaps even curmudgeonly. I know that my kids rail against our restrictions on “screen time”, and are constantly seeking ways around those limits. They want nothing more than to be permanently logged in. Yet rather than relaxing their limits, I think I need to beef up my own. I need to prioritise the ravelling of my soul over the answering of my email. Just let me check who’s on facebook…

Silence isn’t as golden as it used to be

So don’t call me the tune – 

I will walk away

At my yoga class on Saturday, someone’s phone began to buzz part way through. It was on silent.  Silently buzzing.  It was a slightly startling pointer to the ways that technology is redefining our lives. Silence is not what it used to be.

It’s not just silence that is being redefined. Being uncontactable for any length of time tends to be received with shock, if not downright displeasure. People call mobiles just to chat, rather than for urgent conversations. I try to discourage people from using my mobile for anything that’s not desperately urgent, but I find myself fighting a desperate rearguard action – it’s quite likely that this battle is already lost.

And yet, despite this high degree of electronic availability, actual communication has plummeted. People text, rather than call. Worse still, they assume that chatting on facebook replaces telephone or even face to face contact. Birthday messages get written on electronic walls, and the answer to “what’s up?” is taken at face value, when no-one can actually  see your face. I could have tears streaming down my face, or be doubled over in pain, yet I can type “ok”, and be believed.

Electronic contact can be fantastic. Sometimes it allows you to have conversations that would be painfully difficult face to face. It makes contact with distant friends trivially easy. It is an incredible gift to be able to skype with a friend half way around the world. It has been my salvation when I have been ill and housebound. But when it replaces face to face contact, it is no longer a gift. Then it becomes a curse.

Just got to touch someone,

yeah, I want to be the one

So don’t call me the tune, I will walk away

One Country – Midnight Oil

We insist on people being readily contactable. We leap into action the moment the phone rings. And yet we have so little to say. It keeps coming back, for me, to community. When we interacted regularly with our neighbours, in a bygone era, people would notice if there was something up. When we interact via facebook, seven kinds of hell can be going on in our lives, and no-one need ever know. I could be hobbling around on a broken leg, and most of the people I call friends would never know if I didn’t post about it on facebook.

In my darker moments I fret that everyone else has a social life that doesn’t include me. There have been a few of those darker moments lately, as I battle chronic pain and the resulting exhaustion. But what if the truth is actually much more depressing than that? What if not having a community is the new normal?

A recent news story tells of a woman in Sydney who died up to 8 years ago, and nobody noticed. To be fair, she was 87 and probably died before facebook became popular. And these kinds of stories have popped up from time to time for years. But…I can’t help wondering. Are we replacing real life with virtual? Do our communities actually exist? What does it mean if your friends stop appearing in your facebook newsfeed?  And how long would it take for you to notice?

Sometimes I crave silence and a book – but the silence I crave definitely doesn’t buzz. More often I crave people, and the contact I crave is not with dots on a screen.

The good, the bad and the ugly of Facebook

My post about traumatic defriending prompted some very strong responses on the subject of facebook. Many people who were once staunch fans loathe facebook now – and that’s even without considering the privacy concerns (which most of us seem content to sweep under the carpet). Facebook was a leech on their lives, was the overall message. They were much happier without it. Or they had never signed up, because of various inherent flaws in the whole idea.

It has prompted me to examine my own attitudes to facebook. I was highly resistant to it at first – adamant that I would not be a part of it. I am a bit paranoid about privacy, and I’m still not comfortable with facebook’s attitude to that – but then, I have my entire electronic life on gmail, and I’m not convinced I can trust them either, so blackballing facebook on privacy grounds would be a little arbitrary for me.

I eventually created myself a facebook account in order to look at a friend’s photos. In no time a long-lost friend had found me there, and the rest is history. I don’t play games or enable any facebook apps, mostly for privacy reasons – using any facebook applications gives the application writer access to all of your facebook data. You can’t set any restrictions. And even if I trusted facebook itself (hah!), how do I even know who wrote these apps, and what they are going to do with the data?

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ’em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

It is certainly true that facebook is a time leech. A friend of mine used to have a fascinating screen saver (back when screen savers, and indeed computers, were relatively rare and primitive) that he called “soul sucker”, because anyone in the room when it came on would find themselves staring at it blankly. Facebook is definitely a candidate for soul sucker status, even if you don’t play games. I have to exercise considerable self control to keep myself from being sucked into the psychological equivalent of a black hole, updating my status, looking at the status of others, looking at photos, and trawling people’s friend lists for someone I might know.

But, like most technology, the good, the bad and the ugly are all in the way you use it. For instance, when I first signed up I had a tendency to leave birthday messages on it for people I would once have called. Now I generally choose to make the call instead. Facebook is no substitute for face to face or at least voice to voice contact. The ugly, I think, is when you use facebook as a substitute for real life interaction.

Out there things can happen, and frequently do
To people as brainy and footsy as you.

The good is in the renewed contact with people I had otherwise lost touch with. Some of that contact drops off again, as it turns out there was a reason we had drifted apart, but sometimes it actually brings us closer together. I can post a query to facebook (like “where do I find a purple fairy broach for my 3 year old???”) and get a host of useful answers within minutes. I learn things about the lives of work colleagues that I didn’t already know, and when I am in a slump for some reason, I can often find entertainment and sympathy through facebook, when I might otherwise be too deeply slumped to lift the phone.

And when you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun
Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

With facebook, unslumping yourself can sometimes be a little easier – like yesterday, when I posted just two words (“Bloody reflux”), and quickly got a host of sympathetic responses that made me feel much happier, despite having had no sleep due to my 3 year old’s reflux the night before.

Sometimes I find common ground through status updates, where friends share hobbies or concerns that I didn’t expect. Facebook is also a most effective way to advertise my blog – I suspect that over 50% of my readers find out about new posts via facebook (Hi there! :-).

Sadly, the bad of facebook is legion. Privacy concerns, people posting way too much information, surreptitious defriending, cyber-stalking – these are all serious issues. Or, at least, they can be. By and large the positives for me still outweigh the negatives. I have fairly paranoid security settings (only friends can see my stuff, not friends of friends, who could be anyone!), and there are new ways of creating groups so that not all of your “friends” can see everything you post. I don’t usually bother with those, though – these days I understand that facebook is not private at all, so I don’t post anything I wouldn’t want publicly visible.

Overall I think that the problem is that we have not developed sensible, compassionate etiquette around the relatively new technology of social networking. When you get right down to it, whatever the technology, we always need to remember to treat each other with respect, compassion and kindness. New technologies offer us new ways to be inconsiderate and cruel – but we can see, and hence avoid them if we try.

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

Facebook can be a positive force, but only if we consciously and deliberately use it positively. In that respect we are somewhat at the mercy of our facebook friends. One person using it unpleasantly can sour the experience for everyone. But that’s life itself, isn’t it?

*All quotes in this piece come from Dr Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”