This newsletter provides a monthly recap of the biggest headlines about women and computing, news about NCWIT, and links to resources to equip you as change leaders for increasing women’s participation in technology. Practices or content of the news presented are not vetted or endorsed by NCWIT.
NCWIT Senior Social Scientist Dr. Wendy DuBow explains the impact of microaggressions and how victims and aggressors can choose to react. “There’s a power play going on, even if it’s unconscious,” said DuBow.
Inspired by teachers creating Bitmoji virtual classrooms, NCWIT has assembled a set of interactive elements to help teachers make all students feel welcome and to maintain and enhance their interest in computing. By adding the elements to their own virtual classrooms, teachers can maintain a positive classroom climate, show students “possible selves” in computing, maintain student interest, and show them career and other opportunities (including NCWIT opportunities, of course).
What counts as influence in tech today? The easy answers that come to mind might include money, position, power, fame, reputation, or perhaps simply being in the right place at the right time. They would also be the wrong answers. Oh, these may be notable proxies for business influence in general, but when we look at how innovation actually happens in the tech industry today, we see three primary ingredients that deserve far more attention: Teams, Culture, and Problems.
First and foremost, innovation in tech happens at the team level. This runs counter to the persistent and (persistently wrong) notion in tech today that innovation occurs at the level of the individual. We at NCWIT like to call this the “Myth of the Young Rockstar.” So powerful is this notion that it has shaped our concept for what “top talent” looks like for a generation, distorting our view of who we should all stumble over each other to hire. Get the best and the brightest individuals in the room, and you will get the best and the brightest results. Right? No… Not always… Not even most times.
Fascinating research by Woolley and Malone put this assumption to the test by comparing the collective intelligence of types of teams – teams with the highest individual IQs and teams with, well… not. It turned out that the individual IQs of team members did not predict higher collective intelligence of the team. What did? The number of women on the team. Hmm… wonder why. (More on that shortly.)
Meanwhile, a lot of research has since emerged demonstrating that teams are “where it’s at” for innovation – from patent studies to team cognition and decision-making seen in approaches, such as team leadership theory, agile, scrum, and others. The bottom line is kind of like that baseball movie, “Moneyball,” where Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) discovers a new way of valuing individual players to make the best team at a much lower cost and then beats the pants off most of the other high-dollar teams in the league. (By the way, this movie is based on a true story.) In tech, scrambling to hire that hotshot rockstar just out of MIT instead of analyzing your team’s cognitive innovation structure and finding the perfect fit for that empty chair is, well… you see where we’re going with that.
So we get it – innovation, teams, research. So what do we do with that? This brings us to culture. Consider again that result showing the more women on a team, the greater the collective intelligence of the team. What’s going on there? It turns out, the presence of women around the table correlated with the amount of turn-taking and fewer interruptions in team talk. And guess what – the more voices heard, the better the decision-making and the greater the team’s ability to solve complex problems faster and better than the smart boys in the other room. Inclusive culture and inclusive leadership of more diverse teams is at the heart of this idea.
With so much focus on hiring more diversity in tech, the big pitfall is failing to create a culture where diversity thrives. For example, think of your own team. How do you make decisions? Hierarchically? With or without much group input? Do you defer to the experts for the challenge at hand? Or scrum master? Is it minority-rule by an “insider group,” or majority-rule like a vote? Is it consensus-building or collaboration?
The way teams approach decision-making tells us about their culture, how inclusive they are, and how they think about innovation. It also tells us how individuals can successfully influence innovation. Culture and influence create each other: What counts as effective influence indicates the kind of culture you have. Conversely, the culture you have determines what kinds of influence are effective. This mutually-defining cycle challenges traditional assumptions about how influence in tech works, which we call the “Myth of Meritocracy,” or the idea that the best ideas and most qualified people are the most influential. The only thing that matters is how skilled you are at your job. Getting hired, getting promoted, getting that corner office – all based on merit. The only problem with that sweet bedtime story is that it just isn’t true, and piles of research show that. Merit is part of it, but influence also depends on who is exerting it and the expectations and biases associated with that person: gender, ethnicity, age, title, etc. Simply stated — influence is not that simple.
So what does this mean for leaders? It’s not enough to assemble a diverse team. In order to reap the innovative potential of that diversity, leaders must activate those different viewpoints and life experiences and encourage influence for ALL team members. S/he must also be able to deal with the conflict that sometimes results. For inclusive leadership is much harder than the experience of most tech leaders today – which is leading homogenous teams who look alike, act alike, and think alike (because that’s who they hired). In heterogeneous teams we’re not seeking “cultural fits,” but rather “cultural misfits.” Leaders need to be prepared as inclusive leaders to make it work. And, that means understanding inclusive culture and its relationship to innovation and team cognition – like turn-taking for example, but harder stuff too.
The good news is that we know more about this than ever before. The bad news, for some at least, is that now leaders need to put a bunch of social science tools into their toolboxes and abandon older biased ideas about how the world works.
Which brings us to the final ingredient of innovation – problems. Assembling diverse teams and creating inclusive team cultures is all well and good, but innovation is the result of rubbing up against hard problems where that diversity needs to be constructively activated for team-decisions to solve those problems. There are two kinds of problems where this happens: (1) Needs-based problems that involve fixes for existing tech, like finding solutions for how to better orient the iPhone’s internal antennae for left-handers, or how to shut off Trump’s Twitter feed, and; (2) Gauntlet problems that boldly conjure entirely new challenges to be solved, like creating the iPhone in the first place, or think Tesla, or Apollo. Like jazz ensembles, tech teams have to improvise their way through unknown solo-sections in both categories of problems. And like those jazz players, each member must be skilled, must influence the others and respond to others’ influence, and must have the right stage upon which to forge something never heard before.
On August 11, 2020 the NCWIT K-12 Alliance held a Virtual Convening on the topic of “Back to School and Virtual Resources.” (View slides and video at ncwit.org/k-12-updates.) In a special presentation for K-12 Alliance member representatives, NCWIT Senior Research Scientist Lecia Barker talked about classroom climate and why it’s so important, offered research-based strategies that educators can use to promote positive classroom climate for all students, and even introduced a new resource for creating virtual classrooms.
“Teachers do more than just teach students,” Dr. Barker emphasized. “They inspire and motivate students. They want to motivate students toward positive academic and social behaviors.” These academic behaviors include such things as completing assignments, doing well on tests, staying engaged in the face of difficulties, taking additional courses in the subject, and potentially deciding to major in computing or consider a career in the field.
“Research shows that a supportive, positive classroom climate leads to motivation toward a variety of academic tasks,” Dr. Barker explained. It’s also an important factor in helping students develop a positive self-concept relative to the subject, including the belief that they have what it takes to succeed in a computing class, and that their contributions to the class are valuable.
The content of the curriculum is only part of what students learn in school. Learning also happens in students’ interactions with the environment, with each other, and with educators. Their experience of the environment shapes their expectations, values, self-perception, and more. Teachers can exert a powerful influence by establishing classroom culture in which students expect to be successful, feel like they belong, and develop an interest in the material.
Dr. Barker shared several practical strategies from educators for creating a supportive and inclusive classroom climate by fostering a sense of affiliation and belonging. These suggestions included:
promoting friendship among students by offering opportunities to get to know one another such as icebreakers, polls, games, and other non-graded tasks
normalizing and rewarding collaboration and helping one another through such practices as pair programming, peer feedback, and randomized group assignment
establishing supportive relationships between teachers and students by making personal connections
building choice and self-expression into student assignments, such as “choose your own adventure” activities or those that let students identify a problem and develop a solution
avoiding communicating stereotypes either verbally or through the physical environment; interrupting bias and microaggressions when they occur; and making sure that students themselves understand and practice how to interrupt bias in action
At the end of the session, participants were invited to share their own ideas for promoting a positive classroom climate in a virtual learning environment.
Dr. Barker also introduced a new NCWIT resource for educators: “Virtual Classroom Décor for Computer Science and Tech Educators.” Inspired by teachers creating Bitmoji virtual classrooms, this set of interactive elements helps teachers make all students feel welcome and to maintain and enhance their interest in computing. Access this resource, along with the full webinar and annotated slide deck, at ncwit.org/virtual-classroom.
In February and March 2020, NCWIT hosted a three-part series of online panel discussions called “The Color of Our Future: An Online Conversation Series on the Empowerment and Inclusion of Black Women & Girls in Tech.” Timed to coincide with both Black History Month and Women’s History Month, the series celebrated Black women and girls’ contributions to the computing field while also exploring the barriers and challenges that still exist. This online conversation series is part of the broader NCWIT effort, The Color of Our Future, a thematic strategy that anchors NCWIT programs, initiatives, and research-based resources that take an intersectional approach to broadening the meaningful participation of underrepresented women and girls of color (Black, Latinx, and Native American) to positively impact the future of computing.
Below is a summary of key takeaways from Conversation #2 of the series focused on broadening the participation of Black women in the postsecondary computing education space, both as students and as faculty. Access the full-length video and PPT presentation from this conversation online: www.ncwit.org/the-color-of-our-future.
While all women remain underrepresented in computing education, there is a critical shortage of women of color (including Black women) earning computing degrees across the post-secondary computing landscape. According to the Women of Color in Computing Data Brief released by the Kapor Center in 2018, three percent of bachelor’s degree earners are Black women, and only two percent of doctoral degree recipients are Black women.
Panelists for this session included University of Maryland Baltimore County Computer Science Education Faculty Member Deborah Kariuki; Kapor Center Chief Research Officer Allison Scott; and Claflin University Associate Professor of Computer Science Cheryl Swanier. Major themes of the discussion included unique and specific challenges impacting Black women in higher education, and strategies for supporting Black women at every level in academia.
Black women face complex barriers to full participation in postsecondary computing education.
Black women students and faculty may experience isolation. As Deborah Kariuki reflected, “In a class there could be 100 people, and there’s just that one Black female student in a class. That is not a fun place.” Students may lack access to social networks in which other students share valuable information about what different classes or professors are like. Kariuki added, “If you have to work and put yourself through school, you’re not going to avail yourself of too many things happening on campus, even though that would be a good experience. And maybe you might miss out on things like research because that does not pay… and that means that when you go to get jobs, you’re missing some of the aspects that would have helped you.”
Black women students and faculty may also experience challenges related to racial bias. Cheryl Swanier noted, “Black women [faculty] are sometimes exploited in many different ways – sometimes they are given assignments that are mediocre, maybe the salaries are not comparable, and sometimes when Black women make mistakes, their mistakes are remembered, as opposed to their colleagues or their counterparts, or maybe even their mistakes are even amplified.”
Policy changes are needed to address these and other challenges.
As Allison Scott pointed out, when schools set barriers to declaring a computing major as a way of dealing with surging enrollment, these restrictions can disproportionately impact students from underrepresented groups. For example, she said, “if we have arbitrary cutoffs like a 3.5 GPA or some sort of criteria to enter into a computing major, that might also be having a negative impact on who” is able to access the major, “even if the students have interest.”
Individuals and departments can both work to increase the numbers of Black women in postsecondary computing education by focusing on recruitment, retention, and mentorship.
Deborah Kariuki observed that students who are mentored by professors tend to get more opportunities to attend conferences, apply for internships, and participate in research projects, so it’s important for faculty to take an active role in mentoring Black women students. Cheryl Swanier shared, “One way I mentor my students is by advising student organizations. We don’t just talk about computing stuff; we also talk about their future, we talk about issues that they are facing, whether it’s imposter syndrome where they don’t feel like they’re good enough… or the next steps in respect to their major.”
Near-peer role models can also make a big difference in supporting people from underrepresented groups in computing majors. Swanier recalled that in one of her teaching jobs, she recruited freshman women into computing classes by bringing some of her current students into a freshman orientation session. The students “told [the incoming freshmen] about their experiences, and not only that, they invited them to participate in the computing organizations” on campus.
Intersectionality is a critical and necessary concept to develop effective programs to broaden the participation of women and girls in computing. Learn more:
“Intersectionality 101” includes a background and overview of the concept, in addition to key readings and resources related to women and girls of color in STEM and computing. // ncwit.org/Intersectionality101
“Learning About Intersectionality: Videos That Spark Discussion” provides a slide deck with accompanying videos and discussion questions for learning about the complexity of gender, the concept of intersectionality, and how to have productive discussions about race. // ncwit.org/intersectionality-videos
Intuit is currently sponsoring our research into how influence works in tech innovation and how it is distributed along identity categories of gender, ethnicity, age, class and others. Ultimately this study aims to help teams identify: (1) Existing types of influence that may foster exclusion, and; (2) Actionable ways that both individuals and teams can utilize more inclusive forms of influence to enhance innovative potential. If you’d like to help us, please take this 10-minute survey.