Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Reflections Following a Women in Science Workshop

The number of women pursuing careers in STEM fields has increased over the last few decades, yet, there are still major gender gaps in the areas of mathematics, computer science, engineering and physics (Hill, Corbettt and St Rose, 2010). In the US, women make up close to 50% of the work force yet the percentage of STEM jobs occupied by women is only 25% (Beede, Julian, Langdon, McKittrick, Khan, and Doms, 2011). Part of this gap may be linked to biases and stereotypes that suggest "boys are better than girls" at math. These stereotypes can affect a girl's performance on tests and her perceived skill at math, ultimately influencing her decision to pursue a career and education in fields that require a foundation in mathematics and computing (Shapiro and Williams, 2011; Gunderson, Ramirez, Levine, and Beilock, 2012).

How does this relate to Software Carpentry? Software Carpentry's mission is "to teach researchers basic lab skills for scientific computing." Given that female participants may experience an added anxiety related to gender biases when learning computing skills, Software Carpentry instructors should be aware of these stereotypes and how they might affect their learners. Further, workshops with at least one female instructor can counteract these stereotypes by showing that women are skillful in computing tasks.

But how much intervention is necessary and could extra support for women actually be a detriment? Following a Data and Software Carpentry workshop for Women in Science at the University of British Columbia, we have thought about the advantages and disadvantages of holding a workshop for women only. We have posed the following question:

"Is a women-only Software Carpentry workshop helpful or harmful for increasing the number of women in STEM?" A few points in each category are given below.

Helpful

  • Given that gender biases exist and have been shown to affect female performance in math and computing tasks, it is plausible that a women-only environment can relieve some anxiety that women face when learning computing skills. By removing the chance for comparison with male peers during a workshop, women feel more supported and comfortable developing a new skill set, as suggested by participant feedback.
  • Women in male-dominated fields sometimes struggle to make connections with female peers and colleagues. Women-only workshops can serve as a networking opportunity where women can connect with peers facing similar issues.
  • Participants in a Software Carpentry workshop can feel vulnerable because they often acknowledge that they lack a skill set required for their work. This vulnerability can be amplified for women who also face gender biases and stereotypes. Being surrounded by peers facing a similar issue can reduce the feeling of vulnerability and remove barriers to learning.
  • In a women-only environment, female instructors can also feel more supported and have less pressure to prove themselves to a potentially skeptical audience influenced by gender bias. Positive experiences for female instructors can help retain more female instructors who can demonstrate that computing skills are accessible to all genders.

Harmful

  • Is it fair to select participation at a Software Carpentry workshop based on gender? Opportunities to participate in workshops should be available to all genders, as these are skills that are lacking across much of the scientific community. Hosting women-only workshops where no mixed-gender opportunity exists can be seen as discriminatory and unfair.
  • The gender gap in STEM fields does not need to be resolved by women only. Ideally, genders should work together to help close the gap. Women-only events can diminish opportunities for collaboration between genders.
  • Women-only workshops can be perceived as promoting gender segregation. Do males and females really need to be separated in order to learn effectively? If the ultimate goal is to increase the number of women in STEM fields, then women and men will need to practice working and learning togehter.

Our experiences

Beyond sharing our thoughts on this topic, we would also like to share our experiences planning and teaching a women-only Software Carpentry workshop. Here are some thoughts from the instructors:

In leading up to the WiSE workshop, I felt conflicted about it being not open and available to men. This was especially the case when the topic of this workshop came up in their presence. I think this was due to my feelings that excluding a group from a Software Carpentry workshop runs in opposition to Software Carpentry's mandate and my feelings as a feminist that men and women should have equal opportunities in the workplace. Despite these negative feelings before the workshop, I think the workshop went as well as any other I have taught at and nothing was "missing". Afterwards though, I still do question whether we have workshops that exclude men, or any other group for that matter.

My personal thoughts on how to better address gender inequality in STEM and computing with regards to Software Carpentry workshops in the future is to still advertise and label workshops as for promoting WiSE and ensure that there is at least 50% female instructors at such workshops (so as to have strong female presence for role models), but other than that place no restrictions on who registers. At such a workshop I am happy for men to be there and be part of the discussion about gender inequality in STEM and computing and what we can do about it.

— Tiffany Timbers

I'm no stranger to women-only events. As a grad student in applied mathematics, I was one of the only women in my lab. I attended several networking and social events meant to engage women in the department. In my view, these types of events help women meet other women in male-dominated fields. Now, during my postdoc I'm finding that more of my peers and colleagues are female which is great! While I think it is important for women to seek out other women as mentors and peers, I'm not sure that women-only events are the only way to decrease the gender gap in STEM. Even in a field like math, where there is a very clear imbalance between genders, there is a lot of push back to hosting women-only events. I think we should make an effort to show that women are successful in these fields by putting them in the spotlight whenever possible.

In the case of our workshop and participant feedback, I was surprised to see that many of the participants described a fear or anxiety when trying to learn programming skills. There was also some show of support for the women-only environment.

— Nancy Soontiens

More information

Of course, we are not the only people who have thought about this issue. You might consider reading Katy Huff's blog post about women-only events. Katy points out the women-only events at conferences can actually make women feel isolated from the broader community, especially when run in parallel to other conference events. She also argues that by holding women-only events we could be missing opportunites to collaborate with non-female allies supportive of decreasing the gender gap in STEM fields.

There are many other interesting posts about gender gaps in programming and STEM fields. A few are listed below.

  • GitHub code and gender: http://alyssafrazee.com/gender-and-github-code.html
  • Coding literacy: http://m.motherjones.com/media/2014/06/computer-science-programming-code-diversity-sexism-education

References

Beede, D. N., Julian, T. A., Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Khan, B., and Doms, M. E. (2011). Women in STEM: A gender gap to innovation. Economics and Statistics Administration Issue Brief, (04-11).

Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., Levine, S. C., and Beilock, S. L. (2012). The role of parents and teachers in the development of gender-related math attitudes. Sex Roles, 66(3-4), 153-166.

Hill, C., Corbett, C., and St Rose, A. (2010). Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. American Association of University Women. 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Shapiro, J. and Williams, A. (2011). The Role of Stereotype Threats in Undermining Girls' and Women's Performance and Interest in STEM Fields. Sex Roles. 66:175-183

WORKSHOPS · WOMEN IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

Dialogue & Discussion

You can review our commenting policy here.