Where to after we do the required reading?

In my latest Ask a Geek Feminist round (questions still being accepted!), I wrote:

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

A questioner writes in response to me saying:

Actually I think it would be a very good idea to have another discussion of “What are some things each of us can do to help improve gender ratio in STEM?”

The resources page you link to is extremely valuable but it’s challenging to go from there to specific actions. I think there’s enough energy in the area that a post on this would be very well timed, and could highlight existing Geek Feminism resources.

Mainly what I want to avoid with that proviso is going around and around and around with the same theories and potential solutions that have been outlined, tried and discussed for years by hard working academics, activists and people on the ground as if it’s novel territory. (Because our comments policy doesn’t allow it, you don’t see it a lot, but we get a lot of “last week, I noticed that my CS class is 95% males, and then I thought about my sister and her friends and how they don’t like computers. Have you ever considered that women don’t like computers, Geek Feminism blog?”) But our questioner does suggest a different, more in-depth, tack to me. Thanks questioner!

So, for people actively working on women-in-STEM (science, tech, mathematics, engineering) problems, what have your successful approaches been? Are there any follow-up activities, groups or research you wish you could do but don’t have resources? Have you created resources that you are ready to share and are looking for takers? Could you provide expertise of some sort to related projects?

And on the other hand what looked good but didn’t pan out, and do you have any ideas why?

10 thoughts on “Where to after we do the required reading?

  1. JennaMcWilliams

    I don’t work directly in STEM, but I’m excited to see the push toward a consideration of how to “go on” once we’ve sketched out the edges of the problem. I’m looking forward to seeing the conversation that emerges from this.

  2. Helen Huntingdon

    Well, one thing that I did see working, though I didn’t grasp its significance at the time, was a math department faculty’s approach to getting women involved in a math contest.

    They simply decided it was worth putting work, and if need be, money into. All agreed that if they wanted to raise the overall scores for their school, they couldn’t afford to artificially lose more than half their talent pool.

    So they started asking individual women, and whatever problems were raised got added to the list of resources they provided. Childcare? Got it — the school childcare center would be available, paid for by the math department. In-home childcare? Okay, a faculty member would volunteer to go babysit your kids, or pay your babysitter. Need transportation? A faculty member will drive you or get you whatever transport you need. Not sure what you’re facing? Prep sessions offered. None of the above? Name it, and we’ll help you with it, if you can just participate.

    In two years of this, they reached gender parity, not in participation, but in the top scorers. The top four, then the top ten, then the top twenty, were half women.

    Me? I showed up for the donuts.

    What doesn’t work is creating Programs or Committees on Women or whatever. I’ve never seen those accomplish much of anything, usually because they carefully avoid touching on any real issues lest they upset anyone. If a department or other organization is actually making reducing white male affirmative action a priority, it won’t be farmed off to some committee, but will instead be a priority at all meetings made clear to all members.

    1. John

      The colleges of Cambridge University `went mixed’ (in most cases, that meant started admitting women as students; one started admitting men; there are still three all-female colleges) during the 70s and 80s and the typical trigger, I gather, was falling academic performance and perhaps being regarded as a bit of a sportsman’s college. I think this generally acheived its aim of boosting the college’s ranking within the University (the `Tompkins Table’).

    2. Lindsey Kuper

      The fact that you mention childcare as the first reason why women weren’t participating in the contest points up the fact that a lot of women are already working a “second shift” of housework or child care and don’t have time for extracurricular activities. I’ve noticed that at my university, the only extracurricular events that ever mention “childcare provided” in their advertising are ones that are already primarily women’s groups. That’s a gigantic, neon-sign hint with regard to what other groups who want more women to join should do.

      1. jon

        Very true, Lindsey. Providing childcare sends a strong signal that the event wants to include women — so it often helps attract even those who don’t have kids. When I was at Microsoft we did “Mashup Day” events (similar to Yahoo’s Hack Days but with a broader range of activities) and although we missed it at first, added in childcare. Even though there were typically one or two kids there (if I remember correctly), we all felt that doing it noticeably changed the vibe.

        Does anybody have any best practices for child-care options for multi-day conferences at hotels and universities?


    3. Helen Huntingdon

      I forgot to explicitly mention they achieved their goal of raising their contest rank against other schools as well, of course. Several of the faculty mentioned in my hearing that other schools asked how they had managed such an abrupt rise in their scores, and they said the just did what it took to get the missing half the talent pool.

      The motivations aren’t always different, of course. When they asked me, they found out my only obstacle was apathy — I didn’t really see the point of a math contest — I already know I’m a smartypants, so it’s not like I have to go to a contest to prove it. But they had some practice with apathy as the main obstacle, and between frequent reminders that my presence was very much wanted and making sure they had *good* donuts, lots of them, and chocolate milk since that was what I wanted with my donuts, I was willing to haul my butt in there on a Saturday morning and sit the exams. (The choice of Saturday morning was also do to the effort to get women to participate — that was the best slot they could find to get around work/childcare schedules.) Their willingness to keep reminding me and to get me yummy donuts and chocolate milk did get them exactly what they wanted — I was one of their high scorers who made their rankings jump abruptly.

      It also didn’t hurt when I realized I was winning prize money on top of donuts.

      1. Helen Huntingdon

        Oh, and eldercare also came up. By the time they were asking me, they were firing off all kinds of offers of things they would provide if I needed — childcare, eldercare, transportation, anything. They mentioned in one case they got a volunteer to go take someone’s dogs for their usual Saturday morning games in the park since they need the dogs’ owner to sit the exams and her children and husband couldn’t be trusted to bother. More second shift work.

        I have to hand it to them — they made exactly the realization you brought up Lindsey — that the second shift on top of the rest leaves no spare time for extras, so if they wanted these women to come, they were going to have to provide relief from that for the couple of hours needed. And rather than decide they just didn’t want to make that much effort, they kept to their goal of raising their school’s ranking, correctly realizing that without the full talent pool that would not happen.

  3. lala

    At my high school, there was an advanced math class available which required students to take a difficult math test in order to enroll in the class. In order to join the class, you had to request to take the test and high scorers had the option to take the class. When I was at the school, the class was 100% males. I think it was generally assumed that this was because females weren’t interested in the class.

    After I left the school, I found out that they had changed it a little so that every qualified student was required to take the test, rather than a student specifically requesting it. Then, any qualified students would be informed that they could take the advanced class. After this change, the class was about half females, with females slightly outnumbering males. My mom worked at the school, so I got some inside info. :-)

    I guess the lesson is that we can’t just expect women to step up to the plate and deem themselves qualified, because there are too many self-esteem issues preventing women from doing so. We kind of need to tell women that they are qualified instead of waiting for them to tell us.

    1. Lindsey Kuper

      After I left the school, I found out that they had changed it a little so that every qualified student was required to take the test, rather than a student specifically requesting it. Then, any qualified students would be informed that they could take the advanced class. After this change, the class was about half females, with females slightly outnumbering males.

      That’s an amazing story, and worthy of attention. I told it to my boyfriend, and he said, “They removed the ‘self-aggrandizing bastard’ bar!”

      Self-esteem issues might be the problem some of the time, but I think that often the problem is that women have been socialized to believe that to publicly express that they think well of themselves is unacceptably self-aggrandizing behavior. So, the women’s self-esteem per se might have been fine, but they still didn’t feel comfortable taking the test, because it would have meant going public with the fact that they thought they had a shot at passing!

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