My dear Diversity Journal Club,
First and foremost, my sincerest apologies for not having this blog to you sooner. I blame traveling and jetlag!
Computing power is increasing rapidly, and with it the questions we can ask in a range of fields. Tasks that seemed beyond reach, and then once took hours or even days, are now happening immediately and with enhanced flexibility. For my own work, I’ve coded in rudimentary R, then Matlab, and have used command line and remote servers to access powerful model code and run reams of data. Currently, I’m trying to learn Python and, more recently and with more difficulty, Julia (this language is not intuitive for me).
Despite the increasing importance of knowing how to code, it seems doing so runs along some familiar boundaries. A recent NPR story connected a decline in women coding with advertising of computers focused on boys. Girls no longer felt computers were “for them” and ended up avoiding coding, while boys taught themselves. The difference, of course, manifests itself later on – when young women also fail to enroll in coding classes, despite the increasing importance of coding in a multitude of fields.
Last week’s Diversity Journal Club focused on this NPR story, and the potential barriers to learning to code. Immediately, our topic seemed to strike a nerve.
People want to talk about coding.
Coding is a big deal these days. It’s increasing rapidly (exponentially even) in importance and application. In my line of work, it’s no longer recommended but required. You’re asked not if you code, but what languages you use. But learning to code is challenging – as was pointed out, it is literally like learning a new language.
The NPR story, and our discussion, highlighted how that challenge also falls out along gender, and other diversity, lines. We quickly got into how much support is critical, starts very early, and as InBabyAttachMode (@BabyAttachMode) put it: the “implicit and explicit statements about computers/coding being for boys is key”.
Indeed, although Evil Lucian (@FoolsExperiment) noted how much having a parent teach you general curiosity and the same skills along with your male siblings can be critical, this can be undermined when even those parents have still internalized our societal gender binary – and are “surprise to find [their daughter] there handing him tools instead of playing with Barbies.”
Implicit, and explicit, bias and stereotypes have concurrent outward consequences, like developing and seeking out new skills, or internal ones, like seeing yourself as capable or incapable of doing something and having confidence in your abilities.
We start to internalize things that can seem rather insignificant. If society, the media, advertising, other people (or their messages) tell us (even indirectly) that something isn’t for us, we tend to start believing it’s because we can’t do this thing.
In addition, those that are privileged with supporting messages and access, those who already have the skills and could teach you – don’t get the issue, or the barriers.
Moreover, they likely also got the message and also believe we can’t do this thing.
These barriers are pervasive, and translate widely. Any difficulties you may have in learning are tagged as personal limitations – not a place to offer support. The culture itself becomes another barrier, and extends far beyond “computers are for boys!” advertising.
In addition, the lack of diversity in anything can have more drastic consequences, and changing that inofitself can be crazy difficult. People hate giving up their privilege. To the coding and gaming topic, this has translated to men feeling ostracized (??) by women entering gaming spaces, despite the fact that it’s actually life-threatening (hashtag-Gamergate) for women.
There’s also the myth that you have to learn it when you’re younger, so you might as well give up if you don’t already know it.
If you didn’t have a computer, or were told you shouldn’t want one, and now you need to know how to code, but it’s challenging and people are telling you “well, shoulda learned that already…”
To sum up: While the NPR story highlights the idea that girls stopped coding because advertising for computers targeted boys, because “boys like computer games and math, and girls like dolls”, the lack of girls in coding translates widely, and creates real barriers to women in coding, despite its increasing importance.
These biases and barriers are likely not just gendered.
It’s also about resources and access. If you couldn’t afford a computer, it didn’t matter your gender. We all know that socioeconomic class is often along racial lines as well. This is likely not just when you’re younger, but as you advance in your career – do you have access to computers and coding education? In addition, do you have the time to learn?
This made me wonder how these messages also run along other lines of diversity. To me, it seems that coding is really for white, privileged boys.
We did, however, wonder how much this was clouded by where we lived. As biochem belle (@biochembelle) pointed out, women were well-represented in Malaysia, and The New PI (@TheNewPI) noted computer science is popular with girls in the Middle East. We should be careful to avoid generalizing based on our own experiences – and what were they doing right? What can we learn from that?
Finally, Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) played @labroides and asked what we do about this?
We need education – starting at a young age, but also through higher ed. We need greater access to resources across the board.
We also need to “demistify” coding and math as for boys (@Doctor_PMS), and we need to show that many people code (@mccullermi), and that it can be learned at any stage in your career.
Getting us over the initial challenge of seeing ourselves as being able to code is also demonstrating, as NotThatKindaDr.Kline (@MichelleAKline) points out, that it’s not a “magical talent/gift”. Doing so may be very simple, too:
In addition, we should be making clear that coding can be critical for research, and is likely increasing in its importance. It’s not just about learning to code, it’s about why you should – about learning that it’s a skill, a part of research.
We also need to stop with the “coding wars”. As Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee) pointed out, it’s a field that can be “abusive towards ‘outsiders’”, and drawing lines around which languages are “right” or “better” also makes navigating the coding world that much more intimidating. @chenghlee went on to point out how focusing on a preferred language can be used to deride and exclude others, and Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci) noted it was “gate-keeping” that also drove newbies away.
I also think we just need to talk about this. We need to air this out. We need to a space to talk about our experiences, to understand we’re not alone in feeling this. That biases and their consequences are pervasive and systemic – and that they last.
Finally, there are little things we can each do to help learn coding ourselves.
Although Megan McCuller (@mccullermi) noted that we need hands-on experience too – and this can be a challenge. Laura Williams (@MicroWavesSci) followed up that “small doses of exposure” may help – but I have to agree that getting experience can be tough. For me, I often google the language I’m learning and “online tutorials” to get free exercises I can run myself. Of course, the Lynda classes I have access to via Princeton are also great – but have a cost! There are other free (http://www.codecademy.com/) pay-for (https://www.codeschool.com/) online schools too.
And, of course, one thing not to do:
GIRLS DON’T JUST LIKE PINK AND DOLLS, ALREADY.
Instead, maybe we start real conversations and real communities about this.
I think this is a fantastic idea – who’s with me?
In my personal opinion, the conversation around coding really crystalized much of the barriers across STEM fields. First, the messages we received from an early age and throughout our careers on what we can and cannot based solely on physical attributes and generalizations. These barriers are not necessarily obvious, but can be deeply internalized – both for those marginalized and those with access. Second, it’s not just the message, but the resources we have available. Not everyone can afford a computer at home to learn on, or goes to a school that has them widely available. These resource barriers can extend beyond high school graduation. For instance, in addition to programs for personal computer purchases, my current home, Princeton University, provides free access to Lydia courses. These offer a huge range of online tutorials for almost all the programming languages (I haven’t seen Julia there yet… I looked), from beginner to advanced. These offer a personalize way to learn programming, outside a classroom where it can be intimidating. I have no idea how much a Lydia subscription costs, but it may be an example of a resource not all institutions have. Third, our conversation also made clear, once again, the importance of community, of having people to commiserate with certainly, but also people you can identify with. People who make you feel normal, that the difficulties you have are normal – and not an actual personal failing.
Finally, some links and resources shared:
A Teenager Gets Grilled By Her Dad About Why She’s Not That Into Coding: https://medium.com/matter/you-should-learn-to-code-is-the-new-you-should-go-to-law-school-talk-dads-love-to-have-b03bd22b3c99
Beginning Perl for Bioinformatics: http://cbb.sjtu.edu.cn/course/database/beginning.pdf
The Intersection of Gender, race, and Cultural Boundaris, or Why is Computer Science in Malaysia Dominated by Women?: http://sss.sagepub.com/content/39/6/885.short
The reddit conversation over “When Women Stopped Coding”: http://www.reddit.com/r/TwoXChromosomes/comments/2jmq9u/when_women_stopped_coding/
Thank you to everyone who participated (apologies and let me know if I missed anyone or got anything typed in wrong)! Give these fine folks a follow…
Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci)
Megan McCuller (@mccullermi)
Rebecca Pollet (@rmpollet)
biochem belle (@biochembelle)
Alycia Mosley Austin (@AlyciaPhD)
Josue Ortega Caro (@josueortc)
Cheng H Lee (@chenghlee)
Elita Baldridge (@elitabaldridge)
Urbie Delgado (@urbie)
The New PI (@TheNewPI)
Caitlin Rivers (@cmyeaton)
Eric Lofgren (@GermsAndNumbers)
Bree Sxostek Barker (@MicroBreePhD)
Wandering Scientist (@wandsci)
Colin Quirke (@ColinQuirke)
Let It Go, 134 Times (@colinized)
Evil Lucian @FoolsExperiment
‘Til next week!
Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya – who could not join us last week).