Gender Bias in Computing: Exploring Brotopia

When working in education, it often seems like big technology companies have it all. Whilst we’re tied to our desks, they can come and go as they please, whilst we’re marking through our holidays they’re getting flown to exotic locations, whilst we have to provide our own milk if we want to drink tea, they’re getting unlimited (high-quality) food on demand. Yet, we know that things aren’t equal, we know that women are underrepresented and we know that girls and young people have often decided by the end of primary school that a career in computing is not for them. Gender bias in computing is everywhere. This led me to Brotopia by Emily Chang with the main questions of how did we let this happen? What is happening to try and fix it?

Emily Chang’s Brotopia book cover.

Suggestions for Education

Upon reading this book, I propose several suggestions of how we can take the gender bias in computing issues highlighted and use them to make a positive contributions towards education. I hope that you’ll have time to read through my explanations for these, but I am also aware teachers never have time.

  1. Consider what you look for in ‘keen’ computing pupils as well as ‘why’ you think behaviour demonstrates interest.
  2. How are we measuring achievement and success and what are we doing to ensure the criteria is not bias?
  3. Could you develop units of work where success was given to a group rather than an individual?
  4. How do you develop your groups for group work? Are they as diverse as they can be? Do you teach children how to work successfully in those groups?
  5. Make time to celebrate success representing both men and women.
  6. Have conversations about the bias of the internet and how women are often misrepresented such as Wikipedia having fewer and less extensive articles about women.
  7. Be role models, no matter what gender, race or age you are.
  8. Teach the nature of trolls, how to avoid getting swept up in the frenzy and what to do if they experience it.
  9. Share examples of when the internet is used for good and how they can contribute to the Internet being a good place.
  10. Finally, whilst keeping your own mind open and aware of the differences in representation based on gender, race and age (as a way to eradicate it and confront unconscious bias), consider the benefits and drawbacks to sharing these with children.

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The Book

As someone who has an interest in technology, and the journey that it’s been on, I found this book both insightful and engaging throughout. I enjoyed fitting new information into the timeline I already understood, such as the development of the first Apple computer and the launch of Facebook. Beyond this, I also found myself relating to the book in other ways.

I am not in a ‘technical’ profession, and as a female primary school teacher I am actually in the majority, however, through my interest in computing I still find myself in situations where the gender bias of stereotypes, reactions and expectations ring true. It has always amazed me that with only 15% of primary school teachers being male (I actually thought the number would be a lot less, in a two form entry school, this would be 2 or 3 male teachers…currently we have 1) how can I run computing CPD and have the majority of attendees be male? The sad fact is many of the books statements are recognisable as beliefs, not just in Silicon Valley, but also in mainstream culture.

I am not going to retell and summarise the book chapter by chapter, firstly I’d never do it justice and secondly, if you want that, why not just read the book? However, there are some insights which it provides that I worry could shed some light into the attitudes of young people and their beliefs about computing as a subject.

Who should study computing?

The book explains how in the 50s and 60s, companies were desperate for more programmers who could fill the void in a entirely new area of employment, but they also had no idea what made a good programmer, so they created tools to help. Many companies had ‘aptitude’ tests which would look for a range of criteria, but then Cannon-Perry were recruited to research a “vocational interest scale” which would highlight those who would make successful programmers. To create this scale, Cannon and Perry used male programmers and looked for commonality across them. They concluded that, amongst other (largely white, male) traits, programmers “didn’t like people” and specifically looked for this when recruiting and training new programmers. They also noted a love of puzzles as a trait. Thus the stereotypical ‘computer geek’ was born. (Yes, there is a lot more to it than that, but you can see how something like this could plant that seed).

Personally, I find that I still fight this stereotype regularly. Whether it’s from other educators who don’t believe computing is ‘for everyone’, from parents who think it’s a waste of time, or from the children themselves who often believe the subject is ‘not for them’. I also think this is where the belief that computer science and mathematical ability are linked came from (for which this is little actual evidence). If we think back to the existing programmers in the 1950s, they had very little guidance in how to learn to program these machines. They *had* to like solving puzzles just to succeed. This is not to say that everyone needs this in the modern age where we know so much more about how to teach programming to people of any ages.

In School

Another question I think this raises, is around our unconscious biases. As educators, what behaviours do we recognise as those who are ‘interested’ in computing? Do we notice those children who talk enthusiastically about staying up into the night tirelessly working on projects by themselves? Again, fulfilling the ‘programmer’ stereotype… Do we believe that programming games with multiple levels is ‘real programming’ whilst programming art or animations is less noteworthy? These are things that I believe all educators need to think carefully about, I do not believe they are conscious choices, but examples of how such a deeply ingrained stereotype can impact our everyday lives.

Some people are just better…

One of the key themes throughout Brotopia, is the idea that those in Silicon Valley are specifically unique from the rest of the tech world. Whether those that work here are more ambitious, ruthless, or just conceited, is not for us to discuss, but the ongoing theme of certain traits defining those who are successful and the need to be individually recognised is huge. Phrases such as ‘people like us’ are banded around to justify the lack of diversity in teams, whilst the author is quick to point out that research actually favours diversity in teams in terms of success.

There is also an interesting discussion on ‘meritocracy’ and the idea that people only get promoted based on their effort and achievements. Yet, has an employee who secures a huge contract by using connections they gained from attending a prestigious university really achieved above and beyond that of someone who secures a smaller contract but built the relationship from scratch? As the book points out (as well as many other sources) meritocracy relies on a level playing field we don’t have.

In School

So what does this mean for schools? Firstly, the idea of meritocracy is often based on individual performance and research shows us that this does not appeal to many individuals who prefer collaboration. Whilst from secondary education and above, there are limitations on this due to exam expectations, within primary we’re lucky enough to have that flexibility. Rather than recognising individual achievements, what would the impact be of recognising a group? Of awarding praise and celebrating achievements not of individuals, but of the whole group? Suddenly there’s a call for groups to be more diverse to share those skills more widely. Equally, when we are forming groups, how are we organising them? Are we teaching children how to work with diverse groups of people and modelling the benefits of sharing skills and experiences this way? Or are we placing like with like?

Lowering Standards

The part of the book which resonated particularly strongly with me was the the idea that you would need to ‘lower your standards’ to be able to have fair representation within a team of employees. Firstly, let me pull out the old goldfish proverb, “If we measure a goldfish’s success, on its ability to walk, it will forever be seen as a failure” and then concur that the only way standards would have to be lowered to recruit more women is if the standards you’re comparing them to are the standard of being male – something which I totally agree, I do fall short of. In fact, generally we have all become so desensitised to the notion that men complain about women wanting equality that we just accept it.

Coincidentally, Friday was International Women’s Day and rather than a chance to enjoy and celebrate I always find it one of the most depressing insights into the state of our culture. Social media is flooded with men expressing the unfairness of International Women’s Day. Rather than a day to celebrate achievements, it becomes a day of having to justify those achievements and is another insight into the battles that women must face above and beyond that of their male peers.

In School

Again, what does this mean for the classroom? Having conversations with the children you work with about achievements of both men and women is so important. Not only does it challenge their existing stereotypes (not just about gender, but age and race too), but it gives them experiences that they have not yet had. They need to understand it’s not about recognising people as ‘better’ than others, but instead is a celebration that anyone can achieve.

I recently showed the children I teach some photos of scientists (from many disciplines within Science) who I follow on Twitter and asked them what they thought they did as a job. The vast majority of children (girls and boys) thought that the women were either Vloggers or Make-up Artists. These children were aged 7 – 11, so an argument could be made that they just don’t know many occupations. However, when the photo was of a man there was much more variety in their answers (as you would expect because of course you can’t tell what job someone does from a photo!)

Finally, I have heard many male colleagues over the years who have themselves expressed concerns about how to encourage girls as they themselves couldn’t be role models as white men. This is totally untrue. For male teachers to recognise the achievements of women in computing without snide comments is really important. Showing that you acknowledge men and women play equal roles in the advancement of computing and that the reason we want a balance is not to make men and women ‘the same’, but instead to acknowledge that the different perspective each gender brings offers the opportunity to create something better overall.

Trolls (not from the Billy Goat’s Gruff)

Another aspect of the book that I again see regularly is online trolls. These are accounts that target people and hurl abuse at them. They exist online under the notion of ‘free speech’ and have made certain areas of the web a no-go zone for certain groups of people. These are particularly prominent in online gaming where women game developers are few and far between and as such are frequently on the receiving end of hateful messages suggesting their contributions are more basic than their male counterparts and that they have to offer sexual favours in return for reviews.

The book asks an interesting question about the sites where such behaviours are most comment e.g. Twitter, Reddit and 4chan would have the same environments if they had women on the development team when they were created. Obviously, we will never know, but as the white man is the least likely candidate to suffer from online trolling, how could they possibly have considered the negative uses for their tool? Equally, the belief that it’s ‘not that bad’ and that you should ‘just ignore’ trolls is again based on very little experience of being attacked in your own home.

In School

This areas is one of the most crucial for education to address in my opinion. Knowing the young people we teach and seeing, tacking part in and internalising these internet experiences is terrifying. How are we teaching children about what to do in these situations? How do we stop them believing it’s ‘cool’ to join the masses in attacking today’s online victim?

Equally, we frequently ask the question – why don’t girls want to study computing? Yet, I have very rarely seen anyone consider the realities of what being a minority in these areas means. If you see a female game developer, repeatedly getting attacked publicly on social media are you going to want to be her? What about when you hear others suggesting that women just aren’t as good as their male counterparts? Whilst this is a much larger problem, there’s definitely grounds for not trying to challenge ‘the system’ because it may not be worth the fight.

Overall

I enjoyed Brotopia and I don’t think it is your traditional ‘man-bashing’ that many worry when you talk about this genre of book. It discusses the issues women face and will ring true with many, whilst highlighting the success stories of those who make it through. It’s important that more people are aware of the challenges some people face everyday, in an attempt for us all to support each other and combat it a small amount at a time.

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