Books inspiration WISE women in computer science

GHC: Sheryl Sandberg, Maria Klawe and Telle Whitney in Conversation

leaninFirst real event of the conference, and sadly we were running a few minutes late, but I got to see most of this amazing conversation.

Came into the middle of a conversation about women being described as “aggressive” – part of the bitch/pushover dichotomy. If you’re a pushover, you don’t get things because you “didn’t ask”, and situations aren’t fixed because you “didn’t complain” but if you ask, and complain… it’s easy to get branded as “aggressive”. An alarming number of women in the room put their hands up when Sheryl Sandberg asked who had been described as aggressive.

Great comment from Maria Klawe (President of Harvey Mudd), that the response to Sandberg’s book shows why she wrote it! I’ve definitely found a lot of the criticism to Lean In (Amazon) overstated – I thought that Sandberg did clearly recognise the level of privilege she herself had experienced, and despite the title, the book is heavily about the ways in which the world could better accommodate women.

Maria Klawe asked, if they had a magic wand, what would they change.

Sandberg talked about her daughter asking why all the presidents of the US were “boys”, and a friend’s son in Germany saying he couldn’t be Chancellor because he wasn’t a girl. This gendering of careers is bad for everyone. She quoted Jocelyn, Facebook’s director of Engineering, who says in Engineering you bootstrap a problem, and then you find a real answer. And her niece, who went to a summer camp to make a video game, but was really disappointed and discouraged to discover that they were only making shooting and driving games – she wanted to make a word game. Luckily for her, the instructor went home and looked it up.

She says she doesn’t give specific career advice, as people take it too seriously (and she often lacks context), but she did tell an intern not to be a management consultant! I love this.

Made a great point – we don’t have to stay, but she hopes more do. I like this – I’m very into the availability of CS, engineering, as an option, not coercing people to take it! Although something I often point out to people is that once they go less technical, it’s really hard to go back.

She feels she herself would would be better at her job with a more technical background, and this is likely true everywhere.

Telle Whitney‘s (CEO of Anita Borg) magic wand wish, is for everyone at the conference to ask for what they want, and recounts her story of being underpaid. And, 50% of product development being women.

We want to change the world.

Why the Lean In Foundation? To help women be as ambitious as they want to be. They have built a community of 300,000 in just 6 months, with expert lectures. Took an existing course, and put it online, making it free and available to everyone.

Lean In Circles – evidence is that peers make a big difference, and Sandberg talked about how when she was thinking about joining Google and Facebook, her mentors discouraged her, but peers said “yes, do that!” There’s a plan and curriculum for circles, but you don’t have to use it – just meet up!

Moving on to what they do differently at Harvey Mudd – plummeting numbers since the 80s, but Harvey Mudd is reaching parity. What have they done that others can emulate?

They found that there were three main reasons why high school girls weren’t interested in Computer Science:

  1. “Boring”
  2. They think they won’t be good at it.
  3. They don’t want to associate with the people who work in CS.

In order to change things around they:

  • Take all first year girls who want to go to GHC.
  • Made it interesting, with a complete redesign of the first year course.
  • Made it not scary – there’s a split stream, and the stream for students with no CS experience is “gold” (with experience is “black”).

What they found is not that students took one course and decided to go into CS, but that they took one course and then felt they could take another one. The next one is also fun, and after that, they can get a job (internship, I guess?) at a company like Facebook, or Google.

Now 48% of their graduating class in Computer Science are female.

I wrote ages ago about how having terrible programming courses for non-CS majors was a huge missed opportunity, it’s great to see Harvey Mudd really capitalising on that, and recognising that it’s a process of not-dropping out, rather than a one-off decision.

Now they have 441 students taking their first year CS class, 160 from Mudd, but the rest from other nearby schools. Now they have the problem that there are so many students in their CS classes! Good problem to have!

Sandberg talked about how the US economy will be short 1.4 million Software Engineers by 2020, and that getting to 40% women would go a long way to closing that gap.

Whitney talks about the impact of the Grace Hopper conference – there are so many women here, and it’s full of examples of women in this field, which students lack. At 4600 people this year, the conference has tremendous impact. People come here, and it helps change their lives – she talks about one girl who decided to go to grad school. The studies show that this conference has an impact on retention, but it’s once a year, Lean In circles are year-round.

Other things they are doing at Mudd, is using the ideas from their first year CS class to develop a MOOC (massive open online course) for high school students, which will be available from 2014. They have the idea of allowing students to choose their exercises (which all teach the same thing), which allows them to pick things that match their interests – lots of different kinds of people love CS!

They have made their first year curriculum widely available, and it’s being used by other universities, and Klawe gives a lot of talks about how to adapt to get more women in. She mentions universities having “not invented here syndrome” and instead trying to start a dialog, which I have seen elsewhere too – I think it’s unfortunate, there’s a lot of data, and the solutions are pretty clear… it’s just hard work. Companies/universities who insist on studying their own data to come to their own assessment of the issues are, in my opinion, just wasting time and energy.

What can everyone do to encourage women to empower themselves? Women are the best encouragement for other women, and so they are announcing the partnership between ABI and Lean In. Encouraging women to create circles, where they can discuss gender issues and be honest.

What would you do, if you weren’t afraid?

Go and do it, when you leave GHC.

Harvey Mudd can be replicated, and more women will see more women – they will want it too. Technology is a great career for women, with the flexibility.

“Sometimes, and even today, the experience can be pretty horrible” – one way to address the gap is to bring women back.

Woman in the audience asks about helping her high school daughter, whose interest in computers is fading because of geeky boys. She wants a Lean In circle for high school girls (I think this is an awesome idea!). Need to help her find a group of people to support and peer mentor, and they arrange to find a group after the session. So cute!

Another audience question about supply chains and relying on minerals that were sourced using slavery. Really interesting answers on this, laws are changing apparently (Klawe is on the board of Microsoft).

Most destructive thing that has happened around gender, is that we have stopped mentioning it. Sandberg talks about a conversation her brother had with a potential hire about thinking about having children (and how he would support that) – Sandberg makes the point that it’s not illegal to talk about having children, it’s illegal to discriminate on that basis.

Sandberg told a story about another conference she was at – where a guy said “most women aren’t as competent as Sheryl” (notice competent – not brilliant?). Another comment from the same event – a guy saying was that his wife was worried about him hiring young women in case he slept with them… and he might. (Guys actually get up on stage and spout this kind of nonsense! It’s insane!)

Audience question about retention – women dropping off at 7-10 years, and at senior/director level. They get tired of competing. What would level the playing field?

Sandberg talks about a study that concludes that women don’t want power, because men get paid more, men get more respect, and so – men like it more. She suggest that women might want it, if they were paid fairly and respected.

Talking about the likability penalty, saying to a little girl that if daddy does well at work people like him more, and if mommy does well at work people like her less, the little girl’s conclusion is – then I would be less good at work.

Men do less work in the home, and the result it – success comes with a higher tradeoff for women.

Analogy of a marathon – men are being cheered on, told they are doing great. Women, get asked why they are running, told they shouldn’t be there. Asks how many people have been asked “should you be working?” – worrying amount of hands go up (especially considering many women here are students).

Klawe talks about the proffesional development offered for women and minorities at IBM, says she would like to see that in all tech companies.

A student talks about one of her friends dropping out of CS, and asks exactly what Harvey Mudd is doing differently. Includes: python, modular (choices of problems), team-based, help in labs, and fun! (Robots!)

Audience question: what about people who say women-only events are harmful, make us look bad, like we need them to get ahead – how to respond to them?

Sandberg says it’s because talking about gender isn’t OK, and we have to acknowledge issues and address them because not addressing it clearly isn’t working – the numbers aren’t changing – women only made up 14% of C-level executives, and that was true 10 years ago, too.

“I am a feminist” – Sandberg says, but only 25% of women in the US will say that. However 60% will say they believe in the definition of feminism – equality. We need this conference, because it works.

Klawe: When things are made better for women, everyone benefits.

Whitney: “There was a time when it was hard to get people to come to the Hopper conference. But then they saw the results.”

Sandberg: Tech will change the world. To do so in the right way, we need women leading along with men.