Tag Archives: outreach

Test tubes and beakers by zhouxuan12345678

11 reasons we’re still not there yet: Women in science

Erin Hardee works in university STEM outreach and blogs at Let’s Talk About Science, where this was originally posted.

It is not uncommon, when reading articles about the difficulties that women in science face, to come across comments citing that female enrolment in undergraduate and masters programs has skyrocketed in recent years and thus, it is posited, the problem really isn’t a problem any more. While it is true that the number of female students in tertiary institutions has grown faster than men that is only one part of the picture and certainly not an indicator that equality has been attained.

Below I will highlight all the ways in which women in science are not yet equal to men in science and link to appropriate studies and articles for proof.

1. Women in science only outnumber men in undergraduate and masters degrees enrolments. When you look at number of graduates produced, undergraduate figures are balanced between male and female. When you look beyond that, “men surpass women in virtually all countries at the highest levels of education, accounting for 56% of all PhD graduates and 71% of researchers.” (study above) That means the people actually doing science (that is, research beyond undergraduate/masters level) are still overwhelmingly male.

2. It’s not just academia, either. In commercial work female scientists are woefully underrepresented, with no more than 10% of Science Advisory Boards made up by women (and this figure has dropped as time went on, not risen).

3. It’s projected that there will not be a 50/50 split of female and male scientists in STEM fields within the 21st century, perhaps because (among other reasons):

4. Women receive patents 40% as often as men;

5. And they also receive far less funding when they launch a new business than their male counterparts.

6. In terms of compensation, in the EU female scientists earned on average between 25% and 40% less than male scientists in the public sector

Now, some may argue that the reason for these figures are that female scientists just aren’t doing work that’s as good as male scientists, and rather than engage with that statement as an offensive opinion (which it surely is), I instead offer the following figures:

7. Both male and female scientists were more likely to hire a male candidate for a laboratory manager position over a female candidate. They also offered the male candidate a higher starting salary and were more likely to offer mentoring to a male candidate – despite the fact that the CVs were identical save for the candidate names.

8. Male candidates were also more likely to be rated as having done adequate amounts of teaching, research, and service experience than an identical female candidate.

9. Male authors were rated as producing work with greater scientific quality than female authors, especially when their work was deemed to be ‘male-typed’.

I’m not suggesting that the majority of people involved in those studies (or in STEM fields as a whole) are actively discriminating against women, but it is undeniable that there is an unconscious bias by both men and women against women going into these fields. Although more anecdotal, it’s also worth pointing out:

10. A woman who runs a popular science blog on Facebook who ‘revealed’ her gender was overrun with a deluge of comments ranging from shocked to misogynistic* – when her gender was never the focus of the initial post in the first place.

11. Reporting on female scientists focuses heavily on their families and domestic achievements in a way that male scientists would never be subjected to; while it may be important to highlight the challenges they faced in their time in science, what does it matter that she made a mean beef stroganoff?

Maybe taken individually any one of these statistics or stories might be explainable – a blip in the system or a quirk of circumstance. Taken together, however, they illustrate that things are not equal yet, and we have a long way to go until they are. It will take more than quotas or laws to put things right; men and women alike need to examine their actions and the reasoning behind them and strive to be as unbiased and fair as possible. The resulting equality for women won’t just help them, but everybody involved.

*as any internet-based feminist will tell you, read the comments at your own risk (both on the Facebook post and the Guardian article).

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

Being Visible

Being a member of an under-represented group in a technical field can be very isolating. There is often pressure to be the best possible representative of your group, so that others like you are given a chance down the line. And when networking occurs through channels you aren’t privy to, discussions include background you don’t share, and other people’s best-intentioned advice assumes you are just like them, it can get very lonely very quickly.

But there’s a weird corollary to this, which is once a workplace, department, or project realizes it doesn’t have as many women/minorities/outsiders as it perhaps ought to, there is often a push to make the under-represented groups more visible. This might be for recruitment purposes, when a workplace reasons that maybe if they show that there are women already present, they will be able to attract more. Or, to create more inclusive management practices, maybe if an executive committee makes decisions for a department, its racial makeup should reflect that of the department. And the intention—to give the under-represented group more sway or more face time—is laudable; while it’s not the only needed step, it can help significantly. However, if most group members are white and male, these efforts mean that women and minorities may be tapped disproportionately to do outreach and governance work.

On the one hand, this can be great if outreach and governance are things you, the individual group member, are interested in doing. There certainly is a kind of soft power there, to shape your project environment, or to affect the sort of people attracted to it. But often, those tasks aren’t directly rewarded as much as the same time spent doing the actual project work would be. This means that the people asked to do more of what is effectively volunteer work are at a disadvantage for actual job advancement. Even if you want one woman on every governance committee, asking the same one or two women to shoulder that burden when it outstrips the burdens of their male colleagues is unfair. In fact, it’s especially unfair considering that women are already pressured to set fewer boundaries on their time and be more available to volunteer work for free than men are.

What’s more, there is a peculiar disparity in being the only minority in the room for most meetings, while being almost omnipresent in publicity videos and images. If the makeup of an organization is 90% white men, but they tune their outreach to imply otherwise, what does that say? Is it likely to help draw under-represented groups into technical fields, even though it does nothing to address the pipeline or the experiences of those who are already there? Is it misleading, since it doesn’t represent the actual state of the organization or the environment that new recruits enter into? Or is it an acceptable deception to tweak the numbers so that people realize that white men are not the only scientists, programmers, or engineers out there?

It’s good when an organization is aware of representation issues and cares enough to make efforts to address them. However, these efforts sometimes cause issues for the individual members of under-represented groups, by placing extra demands on their time and by asking them to be more visible than everyone else. And not everyone wants to be visible in the first place! But for those who do, the key is to give the time you have to spare while guarding the rest. And if you know of other women or minorities who may be willing to contribute to outreach or governance, you can see if they’ll help split the load. It can be isolating in technical fields when you are thrust into the spotlight, but you aren’t necessarily alone.

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

Quick hit: Apply for paid internships in open source, running Jan-March 2013

GNOME Outreach Program for Women

Máirín Duffy’s GNOME Outreach Program for Women logo

You might have heard about GNOME’s Outreach Program for Women, which pays USD$5000 stipends for three-month internships for women to work on GNOME. There are opportunities for work in coding, marketing, design, documentation, testing, and more, and you don’t have to have any open source experience or programming experience to apply.

Well, in the upcoming round of internships, there are eight mentoring projects offering at least 17 internship placements in total, and I’m proud to say that one of them is Wikimedia, the project that supports Wikipedia. (I’m the Engineering Community Manager for Wikimedia and basically buttonholed GNOME’s Marina Zhurakhinskaya at a conference in October specifically to ask whether Wikimedia could participate in this program, and I am delighted that we are taking part.) Other projects participating include Deltacloud, Fedora, GNOME, JBoss, Mozilla, OpenStack and Tor.

Any woman interested in working on these projects is welcome to apply, provided she is available for a full-time internship during this time period (more details). This program is open to anyone who identifies herself as a woman.

Please take a look and start the application process as soon as you can, since the application process includes getting in touch with a mentor and completing a small task. And help us spread the word!

Google, gossip, and gamification: comparing and contrasting technical learning styles

I just ran across Karen Rustad’s “How to teach programming: shy, practical people edition.” She cared more about making practical things than about what she perceived as “coding,” so her early technical life centered on HyperCard and making webpages, rather than boring faffing about with “mathematical curiosities.” Finally she came across a project she wanted to help, and scratching that itch meant learning more programming:

Basically what revived my interest was having the opportunity to work on OpenHatch. Getting thrown into web app development and all the associated languages and tools — Python, Django, git, Agile, bash and other command line nonsense — all at once? Yeah, it was a lot. But Python out of context is just a toy. Django out of context is plausible, but hard. Git out of context … wouldn’t’ve made any dang sense. So sure, I couldn’t remember half the git commands (Asheesh eventually made a wiki page for me :P) and I had to look up how to restart the Django development server practically every dang time. But I made do, and I learned it, because the context totally freaking motivated me to. Because *finally* code had a purpose — it was clear, finally, how it could be self-expressive and useful to me. Learning these tools meant I could help make OpenHatch exist. Like, fuck yes.

Different people learn in different ways, and for different reasons.

I figure I learn how to tinker in software, especially in open source, via three methods:

  • Google
  • gossip
  • gamification

I learn to search the Net well, iterating on keywords and site: and so on; I fall into or develop a network of folks who won’t think I’m stupid for asking questions; and I play little games with myself, or write them, feeling the thrill of the challenge, leveling up little by little.

I was missing all of these when I tried to Learn To Program.

Continue reading

Can you accomplish more with a female instructor?

I don’t get what the bit about Obama and Desperate Housewives at the start of this article from Slate entitled “Pscyh-out sexism” is trying to say, but the research summarized later sounds interesting. Here’s a quote about the first study:

The psychologists asked female students studying biology, chemistry, and engineering to take a very tough math test. All the students were greeted by a senior math major who wore a T-shirt displaying Einstein’s E=mc2 equation. For some volunteers, the math major was male. For others, the math major was female. This tiny tweak made a difference: Women attempted more questions on the tough math test when they were greeted by a female math major rather than a male math major. On psychological tests that measured their unconscious attitudes toward math, the female students showed a stronger self-identification with math when the math major who had greeted them was female. When they were greeted by the male math major, women had significantly higher negative attitudes toward math.

In the next study, they found that university-level women asked fewer questions in class and in office hours after a term with a male prof than they did after a term with a female one. And in the final study, they found that women had more confidence with a female teacher… even if tests showed that they were outperforming their male colleagues.

The latter two studies could be for reasons other than the gender of the teacher: previous studies have shown that although fewer women reach the level of prof, those who do tend to be exceptional so it might be their innate talents and not as much their gender that allows them to reach their students better. But still, it’s an interesting selection of research, and really speaks to why outreach from women’s groups like my local CU-WISE can be especially valuable! We do a variety of events for younger women including helping at summer camps, science fairs, and visiting schools.

So next time you wonder if it’s worth doing an outreach event, remember that your smiling face may be just what another young woman needs to get her to try that little bit harder!

This was originally written for the CU-WISE blog and has been altered slightly for GF.

Dot Diva: The Webisode

This is an amended version of a post I wrote for the CU-WISE blog (my local Women in Science and Engineering group). See below for additional comments to geek feminism readers.

Dot Diva logo

This Wednesday fun is actually something connected to CUWISE: We met the fine folk working on Dot Diva at GHC09 and got to hear about some of their plans to make computing seem like a cool career for girls. While most of us seem to focus on fun outreach science programs, they took things in a different direction: seeing as crime shows like CSI have increased the public interest in careers in forensics, they thought perhaps TV would be the best way to make younger girls realise that computer science is actually pretty cool.

They’ve released the first episode of Dot Diva:

KATE, a sarcastic fan of alt- and indie-rock. ALI, a lover of kittens, chick flicks, and the mall. Two girls with NOTHING in common… except for being ace programmers at a seriously-crazy video game company.

As they work to launch Rocklette’s first-ever game, these two Dot Divas have to outwit their smarmy boss, Kate’s doofus boyfriend, and the spy within their midst.

If the video embed doesn’t work for you, click here to view the video

I wasn’t too sure about the first episode initially, since it seemed like they were throwing a lot of the stereotypes in there, but I think they dealt with them ok for a first look, and I expect we’ll be seeing more nuanced stuff as the characters develop. I found myself caught up in their story despite my initial feelings of awkwardness. One thing I really loved was how different the two women main characters are, while still both being programmers.

Now, I’m actually guessing some of our readers here on Geek Feminism are going to be irked by this video because it’s once again conventionally pretty young women depicting geeks, but I’d really like to hear comments about more than their appearances here. Would this show have appealed to you as a tween (their target demographic)? What else would you want to see? What other stereotypes would you like to see them deal with and maybe overcome? What else do you think could make the career of programmer appeal more to girls? Do you think this actually does make it more appealing to girls? Have you shown it to girls you know? What do they think?

Please be constructive in your comments — remember the women who produced this are genuinely trying to help the image of computer programmers in a way beyond Barbie, and that they actually have a decent amount of media savvy but likely had to choose their battles to make something appealing to both their sponsors and their target demographic.

Note: I’ll be taking a heavier hand to moderation here than I usually do because I don’t feel like hosting a whole lot of hate towards this project, though I do think readers may have interesting suggestions, criticisms and ideas for future episodes. If you’d like to rant, you may wish to keep a copy of your post for your own blog, or find a way to balance it with constructive ideas.