Unlocking the clubhouse: cultural resistance and learning communities

I finished reading “Unlocking the clubhouse” on Saturday, finally. The book is only about 150 pages long, but it’s full of useful information about increasing participation of women in computer science.

The chapter that most stuck with me was chapter 6, “Persistence and Resistance: Staying in Computer Science.” I have said more than once, in a tongue-in-cheek way, that Code-n-Splode‘s mantra for men who think that we should not have the “dude token” policy should be: “It’s just not about you.”

My feeling is that establishing a culture where female voices dominate, rather than are assimilated in, creates a social environment that’s fundamentally different. And that that difference is *good*. I wouldn’t say that the book totally supports that notion, but it points out situations where women found peer groups that did not conform to a male hacker stereotype, and that foundation of social support helped them stay in their course of study.

The students referred to in the paragraph are undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon University:

Women who accept the prevailing culture as the norm and who continuously compare themselves to this norm and find themselves coming up short are the ones who suffer the most.

The majority of women struggle to find a place where they can feel comfortable in the prevailing culture…

Ironically, it is in this area of relationship to culture that international women may have an edge. The international women do not as readily use the U.S. male hacker as their reference group. Since they are not fully part of this culture, their reference group is elsewhere. Many international students have alternative success norms and social bonds that protect them. Other priorities are dominant, and with these come other scales for self-evaluation.

So, rather than bringing their cultural norms to the hacker culture and modifying it, the international women have their own social structures which exist outside of the dominant culture. “Cultural resistance” was the title for this section, and it’s a great way of characterizing the lack of assimilation.

I have more than a few times heard women-specific groups discouraged because of they emphasize differences that the dominant culture feels should be unimportant. I’m interested in further research that discusses the effects of splinter groups, particularly when they are created for women.

The second interesting topic in this chapter concerned learning communities.

Former University of California calculus professor Uri Treisman (1992) believes that a supportive learning community is critically important for the success of minority students in math and science.

The story went on to describe Professor Treisman’s observation that Asian students tended to socialize *and* study in supportive groups, which tended to help students stick with the courses and get better grades. He established similar groups for Hispanic and African American students, and found across several universities and colleges that these groups helped retention. Our observations and the resulting user group for women mirrors that Professor’s experience.

There’s a special connection created when you live and engage with material in a supportive learning community. They take time to create, and are a bit harder to maintain outside of an academic context (where life, work and diverging interests can be a bit more challenging to coordinate).

Code-n-splode has been fairly quiet about its successes, but I think now is the time for us to start talking a bit more about how well the group has succeeded.

Photo courtesy of DrPantzo under a Creative Commons License.

5 thoughts on Unlocking the clubhouse: cultural resistance and learning communities

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  1. I think men do mentor each other, but it can often feel like a tough love approach. (aside: I read something a few months ago that told me that techy women should nix the word “feel” from their professional/semi-professional vocabulary — which I think is crap.) Anyway, I agree that peer-to-peer mentoring amongst women is going to be most effective when it serves that particular community’s needs rather than emulating the existing community.

  2. Hey Deb,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I was definitely *not* meaning to say that men do not mentor each other, or that men do not mentor women! They do! I am a happy recipient of much wonderful mentoring from men.

    My point about women-focused groups is more that having them is a good in-and-of itself. The experience of creating and maintaining them is a learning opportunity for everyone – observers and participants alike.

    Perhaps I should clarify that in a future post.


  3. I hadn’t come across the “unlocking the clubhouse” book until you mentioned it. I’ll grab a copy.

    If the synopsis on amazon is anything to go by, I’m guessing they suggest that many girls are put off the technical fields long before they hit the workplace. I’ve somewhat been of that opinion myself for a while (I’m a female developer who was very nearly put off all through school but managed to persevere through the stereotyping).

    I must admit, I have a bit of disdain for women-only groups (adults, in industry – I just can’t get over the segregation), but maybe I could be convinced of their benefit if they’re making a specific effort to get *young* women, pre-career, maybe even still in middle-school, involved with activities and groups that consist of their peers and successful women AND men already in industry.

    • Yeah, there’s a lot in there about barriers that crop up early, and continue on throughout women’s lives. BUT — there’s a case study in practical changes that teachers and professors can make *now* that have impacts in as little time as a year! This is truly important information for anyone who is an advocate in this space. We *do* *not* have to wait for an entirely new generation of math/comp sci savvy youth to change computing (and specifically open source) culture.