Tag Archives: careers

Test tubes and beakers by zhouxuan12345678

How can I tell if my outreach to women is effective?

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question answered by guest poster Erin Hardee, who works in university STEM outreach and blogs at Let’s Talk About Science.

How do you know that volunteer work you’re doing to encourage women to enter technology is effective? I get asked fairly often to volunteer from programs such as technology summer camps, mentoring, promotional websites and science fairs, and I’ve often wondered whether they are worthwhile.

While I like to think that every little bit helps, the fact is that programs targeted towards youth often have unintended consequences. Take the example of “girls in technology summer camp”. Maybe girls that attend technology summer camp would rather spend their vacation doing other things, and walk away annoyed and less inclined towards careers in technology than they were before. Maybe the girls that choose to attend are all girls that were planning to enter [science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)] careers in the first place, and it has no effect. Even worse, maybe summer camps cause girls to make poorly-informed decisions to go into technical careers. Maybe they present an incomplete view which causes attendees to pursue STEM degrees, only to drop out when they realize what the degree is really about. Maybe they don’t realistically present the aptitudes required, and encourage attendees who are unlikely to succeed to pursue certain careers.

While the outcomes above might not be likely, they are possible, and as I do more of this type of work, I’d like to better understand its impact. As a minimum, I’d like to make sure that my work isn’t actually discouraging girls from entering the field, and at best I’d like to figure out what type of activity, per hour spent, has the most impact.

Does anyone know of any research on this subject, or have any thoughts in general?

Firstly, kudos for getting involved in outreach work – it’s great that you’re so committed to helping encourage the next generation of women into exciting and rewarding STEM careers!

Secondly, this is an interesting question. One of my favourite things about science in general and scientists in particular is the desire for evidence to support their stances. It’s perfectly reasonable to inquire about effective outreach and indeed, any outreach programme worth its salt should be asking the questions ‘is this effective?’ and ‘how do we make it more so?’. Unfortunately, those questions then lead to the meta-questions of ‘how do we define effectiveness?’ and ‘how do we measure it?’, which are far more woolly and hard to pin down.

From your question it seems like you have several different criteria for what could make a programme effective, and none of these are invalid. It could be that it provides an accurate, well-rounded view of what a particular degree is like in order to appeal to the ‘right kind’ of person, or it encourages everybody regardless of pre-existing interest to consider STEM subjects. These of course are two different aims, and it’s important to consider which we want our outreach to achieve when we’re planning and executing it. Is one necessarily better than the other?

Add to the mix the fact that there are so many types of outreach you could be doing and that they all link to different intended outcomes and it becomes very hard to measure them all to one standard. An outreach programme for a particular engineering school within a university may consider ‘success’ to be an increase in women applying for their school, whereas a wider-reaching, more generalised outreach programme may measure success in the number of woman who tick ‘I am more interested in science than I was before’ after attending an activity. The outcomes are also rather self-selecting; a summer camp may look more successful at recruiting young people into STEM subjects, but usually because the people who choose to attend them are already interested in those subjects to begin with. So unfortunately the question about which activity has the most impact per hour spent is nearly impossible to answer, at least when considering the wide range of possible outreach activities and the huge range of audiences and goals.

It is possible to reflect a little on why women choose to study STEM subjects and reverse-engineer the sort of outreach which would provide those influences. In this article a variety of factors are highlighted that show things like spending time outdoors and doing math problems and logic games were more positively influential for girls than boys. These are things that could possibly be worked into an outreach programme to make STEM subjects even more enticing to women. An even bigger influence seems to be classes and teachers – something I will touch upon a little later.

The good news is that even without rigorous data it’s possible to make sure your work is not in vain; instead of worrying about trying to find the most effective outreach activity, I’d recommend instead maximising effectiveness with the outreach you’re already doing by following these steps:

Remember what drew you to STEM in the first place and share your passion and enthusiasm.

The best spokespeople for STEM subjects will always be the people who are passionate about what they do and are able to share that with the people around them. Make sure you communicate that passion well, also — work on your presentation and communication skills so you can get your message across clearly and enjoyably for your audience.

Work with a programme whose methods and aims you agree with/enjoy.

There are lots of different outreach approaches out there run by a variety of groups and people*. Find the one you enjoy most; as above, you’re going to be most effective when you’re having fun. It’s better to have a positive impact on a smaller group (for example) than to force yourself to work with large crowds and to be miserable the whole time.

Evaluate your programme and look for ways to improve it.

Good outreach programmes should always have a clearly-defined evaluation programme to monitor effectiveness and give means for improvement. If the programme you’re working with doesn’t have this, work with them to create one!

Talk to the people you’re working with and ask their opinions.

The best way of figuring out how effective you’re being is to ask the people you’re communicating with, right then and there. Talk to them about what they find interesting about science (or maths, or engineering, or technology) and how you can help them explore that. Ask them what they feel the barriers are, what sort of support would help them, and what sort of things they’d like to see or do in the future. Feedback like that can be immediate and very helpful, especially when paired with effective formal evaluation.

Outreach can be effective on an individual level; aim for that as much as a general effectiveness.

While there’s a lot to be said about raising the awareness of the importance of STEM with the general public, when it comes down to it you’re really trying to affect individuals. Try and connect with the people you’re working with, find out what makes them tick and share your experiences. If someone is swithering or unsure about their options all it might take is one good personal experience to encourage them to pursue technology over another option.

Consider other options you might not have thought of.

We all know that working with young people is an effective way of encouraging more people into STEM, but think about other ways you might be able to positively influence their experiences. It’s been shown that good classroom experiences positively affect the uptake of STEM subjects later in life, so providing science and technology teachers with training which gives them more confidence in the classroom might actually positively affect a whole class. Providing equipment for clubs or access to journals for students can also contribute to a better experience in schools and an increased likelihood of STEM uptake.

Lastly, all the outreach in the world is only worth so much if the environment that recruits are entering is unwelcoming or toxic to them.

Therefore it’s also incredibly important to improve the STEM environment for women in order to retain them after they’ve entered. Work with your company or university to support women entering the area and make sure your voice is heard on important matters of monitoring and equality!

Outreach resources




Further reading

Linkspam smash! (13 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.

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

Activist careers for those with a geek background

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

I’m a doctoral student in physics, currently writing my thesis and I’m going to be looking for a job come summer. The problem is that I’ve had a long, shitty, depressed time of grad school, and I don’t really want to keep doing physics, at least not right away – I got involved with trans* activism while I was transitioning and didn’t have a bathroom I felt like I could use, and since that I’ve also done safe space trainings, small-scale community organising, and successfully got the university to adopt a trans-inclusive student health plan.

At the moment I’d much rather continue my activism than get a postdoc or whatever, so my question is what sorts of jobs might be available to a geek activist with a doctorate in physics (rather than something more directly applicable), or where should I even start looking?

So, what I did here (or rather, what Valerie Aurora started and we did) was found an entire non-profit from scratch to employ our geek selves as feminist activists. Possibly that wasn’t what you wanted to hear though, it’s not the easy way to a career in activism. If there is one? Can anyone shed light on this that doesn’t involve applying for tax exempt status in the United States?

Increasing your programming skill

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

I’m a geek feminist trying to get into IT, specifically object-oriented programming and Flash/Actionscript. What I’m having the most problems with is practice – I’m taking some Continuing Ed courses because I have a totally different day job, but I still don’t feel like I’m gaining much skill in programming, probably also because I know exactly what I WANT to learn, but I haven’t found anything yet that covers it.

What I’m wondering is, for the typical programmer/developer job path, how do you figure out how to solve programming problems that aren’t covered in your classes? Do you just search through the language documentation (e.g. Java API) looking for relevant code?

This is in many ways closely related to an earlier AAGF question about finding newbie coding problems, but also a little broader: programmers, when you were learning, did you go to the puzzle sites, or work through language docs, or work on open source, or something else?

“I was crippled by Impostor Syndrome”: One woman’s story

This is one woman’s anonymous story about Impostor Syndrome and how it affected her geek career. It ultimately caused her to drop out of a profession she loved due to lack of confidence in her abilities, when by all objective accounts she was exceptionally skilled. This story will ring true for many women in geek fields.

If you are having similar problems (fear of being exposed, feeling like a fraud, lack of self-confidence), you’re not alone! Please read about Impostor Syndrome on the Geek Feminism wiki. If you have any tips on overcoming it, please edit the wiki page!

I don’t recall how I first came across the Wikipedia entry for Impostor Syndrome (IS). I do however clearly recall the massive lightbulb that went off and the feeling of finally having a name to describe this ‘weirdness’ I’d always felt. There were other identifiers for various kinds of weirdness I’d always possessed. Gifted kid. Asperger’s Syndrome. A nameless combination of both with a variety of checklist characteristics.

IS was something else entirely. The more I read about it, the more I realised it was exactly why I’d felt so afraid and self conscious to further my career, to ‘do more’. I’d say it pretty much ruined my career prospects and further debilitated me.

My love for computers began when I was nine. I’m almost forty now and from the time I got my first computer I knew I was going to work in that field. I eventually earned a bachelors degree in a computing discipline and I was set to make that my path in life. I felt my degree was a waste of time and I only scored highly in the subjects that interested me. I walked out of there being mostly self taught.

Continue reading

Career change to programming

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. This is the last post from round 4. Round 5 will run in the second half of 2011.

I have a 24 year old niece who is currently working as a fashion designer but is thinking about changing careers and getting a Computer Science degree. After two years in her job she has discovered that she doesn’t fit in very well with the culture or with her co-workers. She does really well with the graphic design programs (while all her co-workers are computer phobic), and she took some programming classes back in high school, so I think she can do it.

Since I’m an old geek feminist myself I’d like to encourage her in whatever way I can. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to work for more than 10 years due to health issues so my knowledge of what skills are needed, and what job opportunities exist out there, is pretty outdated. My question is this (and I hope it can be phrased in a way that provides general help for anyone in this situation, not just my niece) –

Any advice on how to make this career change easier? She’s looking at going back to get a master’s in computer science (she would have to take a lot of basic math/science first) but I’d love to hear other suggestions. Are there informal venues where she could learn? Conferences or clubs or something like that? What are the best online places where newbies can hang out and learn? What programming projects could a beginner work on to get some hands-on experience that would make them more employable? What would help to give her confidence in her ability?

For example, back when I got my own degree (1978–1982), I worked at several different programming jobs on campus, mostly to pay my way through school, but it turned out that the work experience was invaluable when I started looking for a full-time job. Is this type of thing still relevant or is it hopelessly old fashioned?

IT careers for the older geek woman

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question.

Okay, I’m an older geek woman (turned 39 this year) who’s done some time on helldesk, and is currently studying for a BSc in Computer Science and Games Technology (double major). I started the degree because I’ve been applying for jobs pretty steadily, and I’ve been sent along to interviews on a fairly regular basis where I’m able to answer the questions, and I figure I come across as competent, but I never actually get the job, and neither do I hear back about why I didn’t get it. I’ve started to work on the default assumption that I’m disadvantaged in the IT market by being too female, too old, and suffering from “Not Pretty Enough” (I am not and never have been a pretty little thing; any attractiveness I have comes from my mind). I also have chronic depression, which means I really don’t want to be in a situation where I’m constantly attempting to push gravy uphill with a fork in regards to getting my abilities recognised.

Realistically, what would my career path options be?

Commenters, just a caution on this. A lot of people here work in IT, so a lot of people may want to comment. Great! But actual stories of non-traditional entry into IT are going to be much more useful than “well, I graduated at 22 and went into a graduate program, but here’s a theory I just came up with on the fly about what I’d probably try if I was in the questioner’s situation…” Did you yourself enter IT in your thirties or forties (or when older again), particularly as a woman or outsider? If not, have you seen someone else do it? If not, do you know of any studies or resources?

Also, please watch for privilege in your comments. Volunteering IT skills, participating in networking or common-interest groups, developing FLOSS and so on all take privilege of various kinds. If these are part of your recommendations or your own experience you can share them, but don’t imply anything like “well, if you really wanted to work in IT you’d…” or “well, if you were really passionate about IT you’d be…”

Update: please also indicate your geographical location(s) as precisely as you feel comfortable with. The IT job market varies a fair bit around the world and the questioner and other women in her position may want to weigh your advice according to conditions in their local area. (Special note to people in the US: shorthand for your cities like “SF”, “LA” and “NYC” are not always well understood outside the US.)

Linkspammers burning their bras (29th May, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

It’s tragic when people think linkspam is a dirty word (May 8th, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.