Having “The Talk” with students


Recently, I posted on my regular blog about two separate incidents at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. One was a male allies panel gone horribly awry, and the other (which was all over the news outlets the next day) was a statement from Microsoft’s CEO about how women should trust the system and not ask for raises.

While both incidents were certainly not fun to witness, they at least served to highlight yet again some of the barriers and issues that women in tech face every day: the expectations that they will be “team players” and not speak up for themselves (and the real consequences they face when they do dare to speak up), the tone-deafness of men, the not being listened to and having their experiences discounted, etc. And both incidents sparked much-needed conversations: the wider ones when Nadella’s comments hit the mainstream media and when conference participants tweeted their reactions to the panel and the plenary; and the more intimate ones at the conference, in the hallways among conference-goers, and at a follow-up session the next day where 3 of the 4 male allies panel participants sat and listened to women tell their stories. The incidents certainly sparked some intense conversations among the students we brought to the conference as well—more on this in a minute.

Interestingly, and coincidentally, in the week or so leading up to the conference I had several conversations back at my campus with students (all CS majors, mostly women) about their summer experiences in REUs and internships. Each one of them shared roughly the same experiences: while they loved the technical work and challenges for the most part, they were a bit taken aback by some elements of the environments they found themselves in. Some of them were the only woman in their group. Some didn’t feel listened to by their peers. In some cases, they saw their male peers receive preferential or differential treatment or get more challenging assignments. None of this is news to any woman who’s worked in tech or in science more generally, but for my students, this was in most cases their first perceived experience with any sort of gender-based bias related to their work.

Now, these experiences tell me two things. One, we’ve fostered a pretty darn good, supportive environment here, or at least for this subset of students. They’re either not experiencing the thousand paper cuts, or they’re not registering the paper cuts, or not registering many of them. In my conversations with my female colleagues in other science departments at my institution, this seems to be the general experience of many women students in science here.** And two, as a result, we’re not preparing them for the moment they go out into the Real World and realize that not all science/CS departments are as supportive as we are. (Good news, bad news?) In fact, the students at the conference mentioned this second point explicitly.

When this subject came up at the conference among our students, in light of the events that happened there and various mealtime conversations about summer experiences, the students joked that maybe we faculty should have “The Talk” with them before they went off to do internships or REUs or jobs, similar to the “birds and bees” talk they all got from their parents. Even as we joked, though, we realized that there may be some merit there: that somehow we should equip our students to deal with the less supportive managers, colleagues, and cultures that they will likely encounter beyond the bubble of our institution.***

This got me thinking. Suppose we did have “The Talk” with students.

  • What would this look like? A panel discussion? A Q&A? A set of tips? Role playing?
  • What studies, or data, if any, should we present? How much should be evidence and how much should be anecdote?
  • What information should we include? Some things that come to mind immediately are implicit bias, impostor syndrome, strategies for being heard, identifying allies and mentors and sponsors, evaluating a culture on an interview. I’m sure I’m missing a lot here.
  • Is this a “safe space”, women-only discussion? If so, do we only have women faculty present, or are the voices of male faculty appropriate here? If not, how do we ensure that the presence of men doesn’t shut down valuable discussion, and on the flip side, how do we include strategies for the male students to be better allies and colleagues to their female peers?

So I’d like to ask you, readers of this blog. If you could have “The Talk” with your students, how would you do it? Have you done this? If so, how did it go over and how did you do it? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!



** Certainly not all, and certainly not for women and men of color, I suspect. I don’t want to generalize too far and pat ourselves on the back too much, because surely we can still improve on our culture!

*** It goes without saying that yes, we should work to change the culture too, but I consider that a separate issue. We need to equip our students to work effectively within the existing structure so that they are enabled to change that culture from within.

8 thoughts on “Having “The Talk” with students

  1. I think this is a great idea. I cant’ really offer anything substantive (white male, at best I’m an ally-in-training), but the outline/questions you’ve asked about how to structure a ‘The Talk’ are the right ones. I could see it being a part of student advising even, though perhaps it’s best done at first as a group discussion. Preparing students for the vagaries and uncertainty of the ‘real world’ is good. And if they can know what a supportive culture looks like, they can change the places they go to be better for everyone.

  2. I think it would be helpful and very appropriate to bring in women working in the specific field to give “the talk”. Since this is a workplace issue and not an necessarily an academic issue, you need women (and men) from the trenches speaking about how things work in the real world, with concrete examples of skating their way through these challenges.
    I do not think my experiences as a woman in academics in a largely male field would really match being in a corporation/tech firm, even though I certainly think my “transit” through academics has probably been different from my male graduate school comrades.
    Fair warning and helpful hints at navigating this issue are needed.

  3. We don’t do anything like this, but on occasion, former students report back from grad school saying that they wished we had prepared them better for handling the difficult situations. Have you asked your alums? I recently started talking with some of our alums about this issue and it’s given me some interesting food for thought, though no clear cut answers about what to do. For all the diversity of opinions, there does seem to be a generally favorable response to what Andrea suggests — inviting a panel of alums. These women have experienced the Carleton culture, and have navigated a variety of work and lab environments. After that first panel, follow-up activities could be supported within the department.

  4. As a former CS student at Carleton and a current dev in The Real World ™, I’d love to participate in such a discussion with current students of all gender identities. I believe that safe spaces are important, but I also believe that a lot of potential allies go through life simply without realizing the realities of situations that women in tech face, so I’d like to get the message out to the next generation of our co-workers as early as possible.

  5. I like this idea a lot. My recommendation would be for “the talk” to be a cross between role playing and a performance. Our campus theater troupe does exactly that for sexual violence. The students do a performance and then stay in character for the question and answer period.

  6. Andrea and Melissa, I like the idea of bringing in alums. (Leah, you’re on my list of potential panelists!) I didn’t think about that as an option, but that’s probably way more valuable and timely than some of the other models I presented in this post.

  7. The performance idea is intriguing, Andy. I don’t think my institution has anything similar to your theater troupe, but there might be something local-ish (or maybe some of our theater students would be interested in taking something like this on?).

  8. I walk away from bad encounters much less shaken when (a) I can identify what’s going on and (b) have a plan for the situation. Since developing awareness and plans by my lonesome can take years, I’ve been grateful for the occasional warnings and suggestions my mentors have given.

    Like, if nearly 7 out of 10 interactions reduce to waiting out the mansplaining, where do you even start? “Burn everything down,” I hear, is not workplace-appropriate. The fellow lady scientists who’ve shared their approaches to Being Heard – they’re why I haven’t had to choose between sanity* and science.

    • Well. Within error, at least.

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