Equity – or the lack thereof – is a challenging thing to talk about. For people who recognize it’s a problem, it isn’t necessary to reiterate, because they’re already aware of the problem. People who don’t think it’s a problem tend to zone out – “this again?” – or be unconvinced.
Issues around gender inequity in schools first came to public attention in the mid 1990’s, when Myra and David Sadker published Failing at Fairness, which showed that girls were being subtly discriminated against in schools, even by well-intentioned teachers. Initially there was a lot of fanfare, and I remember teachers really thinking about trying to have more equitable classrooms. One of the major points of notice was inequitable participation in class discussions – the Sadkers really demonstrated that boys got called on more and got more teacher interaction than girls did. This is still happening, even after decades of teachers trying to be more equitable.
One interesting finding has to do with the perception of who talks more. A friend of mine kept track of who talked, during a discussion between her high school students. At the end of the discussion, she asked students who had talked the most, and everyone (boys and girls) agreed that it had been one girl. It turns out that nope, several boys had participated more, but no one perceived them as speaking as much as they had. This is backed up by research – people overestimate how much women speak and underestimate how much men speak in public.
A recent study looked at the interaction of gender and race in student participation in middle school classes. The headline “How White Boys Become Geniuses” is a hint to the findings. It stuck out to me because the findings are so similar to our perceptions of computer scientists. Sure, we all agree that girls can do it, but all our cultural references of geniuses are men, usually white men. From the article: “This research has broader relevance for explaining men’s dominance in fields that place a premium on what is perceived as “raw intelligence.” And it provides insight into how they gain entrance into the C-Suite. As one teacher said, “Jacob’s a full-package kid. He’s super nice, he’s brilliant and he’s a well-rounded kid. He likes sports and all this stuff . . . He’s going to be the next Elon Musk or something,” implying that Jacob, a white boy, is destined to become a CEO.”
It seems to me that it is even more crucial to overcome this tendency in computer science than it is in disciplines with less of an ingrained stereotype about who is a genius. The question is how? Twenty years of little progress suggests it is hard, but one way is to start by counting – count who you call on, count who calls out and how you handle it, count the number of complements you give students. In Better, Atul Gawande suggests that a fast and easy way towards improvement is just to start counting things you think need improvement, and go from there. What can you count?