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.