Sunday 30 June 2019

Ultimately they just think you're dumb: the experiences of female computer scientists in the UK

It is well documented that there is a problem recruiting and retaining women in technology. People talk about a 'leaky pipeline' with girls and women being lost at all stages - the proportion of females gradually reducing through school, university and during work. This is a problem for a country committed to social justice and fair access to opportunities, and for the technology industry, as it is not capitalising on the talents of women. 

We already know a fair bit about what's going on and why this happens. First, women don't get the same levels of early exposure to computers that boys do. Computer games, which are a key route into developing an interest in the field, are developed by, aimed at and played by men and boys. Boys too seem to get more access to computers at school and at home. Second, there is a masculine culture associated with technology-related environments. The stereotypes (which do, to an extent reflect the reality) indicate that technology is a male dominated field, filled with coding-obsessed geeks, where women just don't belong. This is off putting to many women both as they are contemplating their own future careers, and when they actually start their first jobs. Finally, it's confidence. Despite the reality that women and girls are perfectly adept at coding and well able to hold their own academically in this field, women believe that they are less capable than men in this arena. 

A lot of research has been done in this field, but despite all of this understanding and the vast sums of money that have been poured into initiatives to change things, there has been little shift in the proportion of women choosing and sticking in technology. Clearly we are missing something.

My colleague Anke Plagnol and I decided to take another look, a deeper one, to explore the experiences of female computer science students studying in the UK. We found 200 students (male and female) to fill in a survey, and then followed up with in-depth interviews with 20 female students. 

Some of what we found echoes findings we have seen elsewhere: the women have lower confidence than the men; they feel that they are less likely to fit in within the industry, and this seems to make them feel less sure about their career plans. But we were really struck by the extent and strength of the messages that these women had been getting from all angles, all their lives, reinforcing the idea that they are just not cut out for technology.  The participants had been told by their parents, their school teachers, university professors, employers, colleagues, fellow students and even each other, that women's brains just don't work in the right way to succeed in this field. Every one of the women we interviewed had experienced and witnessed multiple incidents where their achievements were undervalued ('you only got that job because you are a girl'; 'they let girls into these courses with lower grades'); their ability questioned ('you won't be able to manage this'; 'perhaps you could ask your [male] colleague to help?') or their ideas dismissed. As one of the women summed up 'ultimately, they just think you're dumb'. 

No wonder this relentless barrage takes its toll on women's confidence and choices. 

The other really interesting thing to emerge from the interviews was that there might be a problem (for some women) with the way that computer science is taught in universities. People, in general, are split into those who are motivated by agency (which means they like to learn independently aiming to master a topic on their own, and are stimulated by competition), or commune (which means they prefer to work collaboratively, learning through being taught and supported by a tutor). In general, men are more likely to be motivated by agency and women by commune. But the computer science classroom is highly agentic. Students are expected to learn things on their own, and are not encouraged to team up, to help each other understand the more complicated ideas, or ask for help from their tutors. Departments too encourage students by setting up competitions. This approach just doesn't suit communal learners (mostly although not exclusively women) who enjoy and gain confidence from working collaboratively, and who need more input from their tutors to feel sure that they are doing the right thing. And the agentic teaching style adopted in computer science classrooms seems to make women feel less enthusiastic about their subject and less confident about their ability to succeed.

But where should this lead us? You might argue that we simply need to make the classrooms more communal, offering more support, and more opportunities for genuine collaboration. But it's not quite as simple as that. Technology evolves at such a pace that the industry needs its workers to be self-directed learners. Making the classrooms less agentic could actually end up doing the students and the industry a disservice. 

But I wonder if it might be possible to find some kind of compromise? One in which students are taught to be self-directive, rather than tutors assuming from the star that they are comfortable with this approach to learning. Students could be given more support at the start, but encouraged to own their own learning, and taught strategies for working things out by themselves. And surely developing skills in collaborative working would be valuable for the industry? So perhaps close collaborations (not just group projects where everyone takes on their own tasks) could be encouraged alongside some of the existing focus on individual competition. 

This suggestion that the pedagogical culture might not suit women as well as men is, I think, a new one and I think is definitely worth pursuing. It would be interesting to see if we could measure the degree of agency within a computer science classroom, and to find out whether we can generalise these findings - is it generally true that computer science classes in fact serving the agentic learners better? And how easy would it be to teach people who are naturally communal learners to be more confident about learning independently?

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