Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has been a hot button topic for a few years, but how often do we hear what experience these women have in these fields at university level? Well, I am here to tell you (for Computer Science anyway) and give some suggestions on how we can help our future WISTEMS!
So, is this still a problem?
In a word, yes. I would love to sit here and tell you that being female makes no difference to your learning and how you are treated, but I would be lying. But that is why we here at The Code Zone want to open the conversation, so that we can make positive change!
So how was my learning effected?
One of the biggest ways that my learning was affected was group work. Group work is essential in computer science as, contrary to popular belief, most projects that professional computer scientists are involved with will have multiple members working on the same code. This means that they often work using techniques such as pair programming or mob programming. However, during group work at university, it was very common to be the only female in an all male group. Not only was this uncomfortable as a lot of women feel uneasy in a group of men but it often meant that our ideas or even just our presence was ignored. One of my fellow students was in a group where, at the end of the session, a member shook everyone’s hand except hers – she was the only female. I experienced my group meeting up for the first time and them ignoring the fact that I was there (I arrived first and told them where I was) and they found their own spot even though I was already there and set up.
Further to this, we are still getting lecturers and people in places if power making inappropriate comments. I have two examples of this. One being during a lecture, the lecturer decided to talk about how “women are better at multi-tasking as they were built to cook, clean, and look after kids all at the same time”. The lectures where he said these comments got deleted due to the backlash, which meant we had a whole lecture that we could not revise from due to their comments.
On another occasion a lecturer was introducing the lab mentors by name, he introduced all the men with their first name as usual but the once got to the only female he said, “the beautiful x”. On the surface these look like innocuous or even complimentary comments, but many of the female and male students made complaints. As a result of this every female on my course that I spoke to did not feel comfortable talking to the lecturer.
So, why am I telling you all this?
To raise awareness so that female students can feel safer in future.
Because there are things, we can do to combat these attitudes.
Okay, what can we do?
Firstly, you are reading this article! Being aware of the problem is very important as it forces us to look at our own behaviour and that of those around us.
Signing up to clubs like The Code Zone! Here at The Code Zone, we have a great mix of male and female children as well as male and female mentors. One of the things that was a problem, was that some of the men on my course did not know how interact with a female as a colleague. But here at The Code Zone, our coders can interact in an encouraging environment that does not focus on anything but the enjoyment, learning and creativity of our coders!
Encourage group projects from a younger age! We should not be waiting until we are older to start learning group project etiquette. There needs to be more chances for kids to work on team building within an academic atmosphere. There is a lot of encouragement within sports, but academic teamwork is very different and we need to be helping kids to understand how to successfully work as a group to achieve an academic goal. Coding is perfect for this as most coders work in groups. I think in future at The Code Zone we could consider a group game jam where a group works together to create a game to help with this.
Do not have a group with only one female! We should not be putting female coders in positions where they feel vulnerable or not listened to. Group work is a huge part of your overall grade at university, and you do not want to get marked down because you got ignored. This is distinctly less likely to happen when there is more than one female in a group.
More female computer science teachers! Even at university level I only came across two female computer science teachers (out for more than 20 lecturers). I truly believe we should be actively incentivising female teachers in STEM. When women see female teachers, they feel empowered which encourages them to consider following in their footsteps. Everyday Role Models are so important for encouragement.
Now this is in no way to say that men have it easy at university. Trust me, nobody has it easy in computer science. But there are barriers that women face that they should not. These things will not change overnight. Some of these things you can do at home, some if these things are much bigger changes. But so much of the battle is being aware so that you can affect the behaviour of yourself, those around you and your kids.
“I tell young people: Do not think of yourself, think of others. Think of the future that awaits you, think about what you can do and do not fear anything.”
Rita Levi – Montalcini, Italian neurologist and Nobel Prize winner in Physiology.