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.

being singled out – Tatiana Apandi interviewed by MacVoice

I just finished listening to a MacVoices interview with Tatiana Apandi about the Women In Tech series. Great interview, Tatiana!

One great point she made in the intervew was the distinction between being acknowledged or singled out for being different. They were discussing Nelly Yusupova’s article Be a Part of Influencing the Future. From the interview, around 12:30 in the audio file:

MacVoice: Do you think it’s really true that women experience fear in tech world?

Tatiana Apandi: Well.. you don’t take one person’s experience and say that’s all women. For her that was true, and I think that it can be true for a lot of people. When you go into a situation where you have to prove, not just yourself but an entire population… you are representative of something. That can be really a lot of pressure, and some people don’t mind it, but maybe don’t even notice it. But it’s there.

Personally, I do feel the Other a lot, just [from] people asking me questions [like] “So as an Asian what do you think of this…” I know what that’s like, that separation, and sometimes it does get uncomfortable to the point where I don’t want to participate anymore. So, I can relate to that, but I wouldn’t say that’s indicative of what women feel when they enter this field. Because its going to be different for every woman.

MV: That’s a very interesting statement. You take it out of the gender area and make it a bit more cultural. There are times when it is absolutely valid to ask a question from an Asian perspective, from a male perspective, from a female perspective… But there are times I guess [where it's not.] Maybe a lot of us have never even really about that. Even by coming to you and asking “why now” about a series of articles about women in tech – is that a sexist question? Did I ask a sexist question?

[laughter from both]

TA: I don’t think so. I think it’s an interesting question… I think its more that when you’re in a group that you consider your peers, or you’re considered to be… all the same, and a question [comes up that] forces you realize that you’re not part of this community. [If that question] singles you out [by] saying “what do you think as *this* representative” you’re no longer laughing and joking with that community. Now you’re part of something else and that’s where the uncomfortability comes in for me. Where you’re suddenly [thinking] “oh yeah, I’m not one of you, I’m different somehow.”

There’s more before and after that excerpt about conferences and the discomfort people have when navigating being social (“Do I go out of my way to invite the one woman in the room to lunch with the group? Or will that be misinterpreted”). And Tatiana discusses her motivations and what she’s trying to do with the series.

During the part of the interview I quoted, I thought of a classroom management story my husband told me the other day about being singled out. He’s teaching a unit on borders – focusing on the Mexico/USA border.

An important lesson for the kids is how some borders are arbitrary – in both good and bad ways. Here’s the story he told: A student was asked to stay after class, and some of her peers immediately teased her for being in trouble. When confronted, the student who started the teasing acknowledged that he’d just been “drawing a line” between himself and others, and that the effect was to make the first student feel as though she was on the wrong side of the line. Students should be able to handle a little gentle ribbing, but I thought the confrontation was a good and harmless lesson about how teasing can work to marginalize people in groups.

I really enjoyed working with Tatiana on my essay. Her voice and editing are the glue sticking our work together. She has a great perspective, and I’m happy she’s out there, representing the group.

a women-focused users group: the very, very beginning

I mentioned nearly a month ago that we were starting a group whose goal is to get more women involved in open source. We had our first group meeting this evening.

We decided on a “chaining” strategy for invitations – no broadcasts on mailing lists we aren’t subscribed to, and people should feel a bit responsible for the folks that they bring along. The accountability for group participation is one thing that I feel strongly about, and there was rough consensus, so looks like that will stand for now.

There was some talk about maintaining at least 50% women in the group. Ultimately, I don’t think a percentage will matter if we have a strong group identity. But it got me thinking – what are the elements of this group that will keep me interested and will continue to draw women in? And then, what can I do to help maintain the group’s identity and goals?

One idea I had was the socratic seminar. Another was a goal of 100% participation in every meeting. During today’s meeting, three of us mentioned that we’d gone to a series of user group meetings without ever saying a word. What I like about the 100% participation goal is that combined with a socratic seminar, it would be radically different from other user group meetings I’ve been to.

For structure, I thought we could have our show-and-tell, followed by an hour or so of group work, and then a post-group-work sharing. I think that the sharing piece is key. And if we keep ‘em short – and timed – I think it could be a very interesting.

We’ll see how things go. I offered to talk next month about the temporal database stuff I’ve been working on with Jeff. I asked for five minutes and thought it would be a nice jumping-off point for a smaller group to run off and work on database stuff for an hour. We’ll see if I can make a 5-minute presentation that is useful about temporal data.

group cohesiveness

A couple days ago, I had my mind blown by this Clay Shirky talk from 2003. It was like someone was sitting in the room where we had the women’s BoF at OSCON. He lists three group patterns: sex talk, vilification of outsiders/enemies, religious veneration. We managed to skip over the sex talk (although I did make a joke about auctioning off tickets to the women-only conference to men). But we dove right in with the other two.

It got me thinking about another project we’re working on – a programming group whose goal is to get more women involved in open source, and allows men. I’m not in leading it, but I really want it to succeed. I want to avoid the negativity and baggage that seems to follow women-specific groups.

There’s a list of things at the end of the talk “to design for.” Shirky’s talking about social software, but I think that a couple of the ideas apply to RL as well.

Having barriers to entry for groups, for example, helps strengthen the group identity. You need an identity before opening up participation – so that the group can protect itself when the inevitable attack-on-identity comes. Either in the form of subversion of purpose, or “you suck and shouldn’t exist”.

Hey, there was lots of good stuff in there. If you haven’t read it already, take a few minutes and enjoy.

And more about the new group — something cool already happened in the discussion. A participant pointed out that we should really be thinking about projects in terms of 2-4 person teams. I love that someone piped up with that right away. Deep communication, particularly about code, won’t happen without breaking up into small subgroups.

we need a hero

I spoke with a woman from a university that said she thought what we needed was a hero. Somebody that would inspire people outside our industry and rally the people inside it already. And they should still be living :)

I named a few possibilities – kc klaffy, Allison Randal, Evi Nemeth. If you’ve got others, leave them in the comments. Not sure I agree with the her, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

moving on from experiencing to changing the structure

I attended a “women in open source community ” BoF last night. I think that the intention for the BoF was good. But despite the efforts of the moderator, the discussion looped repeatedly on personal problems, and didn’t get very far into the meat of what we might really do to get more women into open source.

What if we looked beyond individual behavior and experience to the structures preventing women from participating?

Someone mentioned a recent study on a public university’s successful effort to increase female enrollment – presumably in a computer science program. We need information like this distilled from academic papers and organized as principles! Arm change-agents with facts and let them loose!

I think that our goal should aim for equal (50%!) representation across all computer-related fields. That is not going to happen without systemic change, or because a few people stop being jerks. It will only happen if the system that brings people into computer science and information technology puts a premium on gender equality.