A few thoughts on being an ally

Written by: Cait Pickens

Primary Source: Computing Education

Alfred Thompson writes an awesome blog about CS education in K-12. You should read it, if you don’t already. Recently, he posted “Teachers and Role Models in CS Education.” I wanted to reply to the post with kudos for being an awesome ally and some thoughts about my own experiences on how impactful role models are in CS for me as a queer woman… But my comment turned into a novel, so I’m posting here! Note, it’s still a “comment” written to Alfred, but I think it may be interesting to others in CS education.

Hey Alfred! Thanks for posting this. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how impactful it is for me to have 2 really amazing female role models for my job at Google. It’s the first time that I’ve ever seen 2 strong, competent, educated, highly-involved, motivated women working on the same project (at manager level). The best part? They don’t always agree. I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance in CS to see 2 women disagree on a topic. In CS, we so rarely even have 2 women in a classroom / office / on a project. It’s something that is so pervasive in CS that I never even realized I hadn’t seen 2 women have differing opinions on a CS-related topic. Crazy, huh?

But yeah, I totally agree that even (especially?) the white males in the field can make a difference. My professor Titus Brown always believed in me and encouraged me to put myself out there. He taught me to invite myself to events, to speak up when I have an idea, to make myself stand out. That’s not something that comes naturally to me, and I usually would just get bulldozed in meetings otherwise. He also would always invite me to events and introduce me to any female CS contacts that he has (like at PyCon), helping me build a network of people like me who can help me navigate tough situations I face when he perhaps cannot. But most important, I think, is that he kept an open dialogue with me about gender issues in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the field as a whole. He would ask for my thoughts and opinions about situations, take suggestions for how to improve gender representation, and make sure that I knew I could speak up if I ever felt threatened in any way (which actually does happen).

A positive example? At the PyCon Testing Birds of a Feather event last year (which Titus helped host), one of the running jokes was that anyone presenting has to wear a labcoat (size medium, I believe). A lot of the guys at the event (1) had been drinking, (2) were pretty loud because it was an evening event, and (3) were already friends. There were several instances where men got up, tried to put on the labcoat, and found that it wouldn’t fit. A lot of raucous laughter would ensue and people would shout comments about the presenter’s weight. While it was all in good fun between friends, I couldn’t help but think: “I am never, ever going to stand up in front of these men and speak about anything. What if they make fun of me and my weight? What if they shout comments about my appearance? About me being a woman?” Titus and I talked about the event after, and he is working to make sure that the event is generally more welcoming and less intimidating this time around. He is using his influence in the Python community to make me (and the other women I saw at the event) feel safe.

But for every good example of an ally in the community, there are lots of examples of missed opportunities. I didn’t discover my love of CS until I got to college. Partially because I was scared away from my first ever programming class. As a freshman in high school, I signed up for an intro engineering and programming class. It was 30 students, and I was the only girl. Pretty standard, I think, for a lot of schools. During the first day, the guy next to me drew a picture of genitals on my assignment notebook (required to carry with you at all times at my high school). I was pretty stressed/upset, but I just erased the drawing and hoped that it wouldn’t happen again. The next day in class? We had to get up and move around, and when I got back to my school supplies, genitals had been drawn on every page of my assignment notebook, in permanent marker. And 3 guys nearby were laughing, brandishing a variety of permanent markers. I was 14 and mortified. And somehow, ashamed. I can’t explain why I felt shame, but I did. My options, as I saw them, were to (1) continue going to the class and deal with bullying from those guys and cry about it when I went home, (2) confront the guys (which I was way too shy for), or (3) talk to the teacher about it. The teacher was a typical programmer guy. I’m sure he was nice enough. But at 14, how do you start that conversation? “Excuse me, sir, those guys over there are drawing on my stuff and it’s inappropriate and I feel threatened. I want to be in this class, but they make me feel uncomfortable?” I certainly wasn’t that articulate at that age. And even if I had been, I was worried that the teacher would just tell them off and then the students would just target me even more because I was a tattle-tale. So what did I do? I dropped the class and didn’t try programming again for four years.

To this day, I’m not sure what that teacher could have done differently. But I think that opening the option for a dialogue, somehow, is super important. Making it clear that students can talk to you. That everyone should feel welcome and safe in the class, and if they don’t, then they need to speak up about it! We can’t expect our young female (and minority) students to know about impostor syndrome, stereotype threat, unconscious bias, and even outright chauvinism. It’s important to make a safe place for them until they can find enough courage to establish their own place, to stay committed to CS even when facing adversity…

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Cait Pickens
Cait Sydney Pickens is a graduate student at Michigan State University and a Noogler. Her research is in computer science education, and is advised by Bill Punch. In her (free?) time she does a lot of work with an organization called Software Carpentry that teaches computing tools and skills to scientists.
Cait Pickens

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