$6.9M Federal Funding for CSER Digital Technologies @cseradelaide @UniofAdelaide @birmo @cpyne @sallyannw

Our research group, the Computer Science Education Research Group, has been working to support teachers involved in digital technologies for some time. The initial project was a collaboration between Google and the University of Adelaide, with amazing work from Sally-Ann Williams of Google to support us, to produce a support course that was free, open and recognised as professional development for teachers who were coming to terms with the new Digital Technologies (draft) curriculum. Today we are amazed and proud to announce $6.9 million dollars in Federal Funding over the next four years to take this project … well … just about everywhere.

You can read about what we’ve been doing here

I’ll now share Katrina’s message, slightly edited, to the rest of the school.

Today we hosted a visit from Ministers Birmingham and Pyne to announce a new funding agreement to support a national support program for Australian teachers within the Digital Technologies space.

Ministers Birmingham and Pyne confirmed that the Australian Government is providing $6.9 million over four years to the Computer Science Education Research Group at the University of Adelaide to support the roll out, on a national basis, of the teacher professional learning Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) supporting Australian primary and junior secondary teachers in developing skills in implementing the Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies.

The CSER MOOC program provides free professional development for Australian teachers in the area of Computer Science, and supports research into the learning and teaching of Computer Science in the K-12 space. As part of this new program, we will be able to support teachers in disadvantaged schools and Indigenous schools across Australia in accessing the CSER MOOCs. We will also be able to establish a national lending library program to provide access to the most recent and best digital technologies education equipment to every school.

The Ministers, along with our Executive Dean and the Vice-Chancellor accompanied us to visit a coding outreach event for children run this morning as part of the University’s Bright Sparks STEM holiday program.

Here’s the ministerial announcement.

Bright Sparks 21 Jan 2015 VC

Senator Birmingham, Minister Pyne, Professor Bebbington (VC of the University Adelaide) and A/Prof Katrina Falkner with one of the Bright Spark participants.

Let the Denial Begin

It is an awful fact that women are very underrepresented in my discipline, Computer Science, and as an aggregate across my faculty, which includes Engineering and Mathematics (so we’re the Technology, Engineering and Mathematics of STEM). I have heard almost every tired and discredited excuse for why this is the case but what has always angered me is the sheer weight of resistance to any research that (a) clearly demonstrates that bias exists to explain why this occurs, (b) identifies how performance can be manipulated through preconceptions and (c) requires people to consider that we are all more similar than current representation would indicate.

Yes, if I were to look around and say “Women are not going to graduate in large numbers because I see so few of them” then I would be accurate and yet, at the same time, completely missing the point. If I were to turn that around and ask “Why are so few women coming in to my degree?” then I have a useful question and, from various branches of research, the more rocks we turn over, the more we seem to find bias (conscious or otherwise) in both industry and academia that discourages women from participation in STEM.

A paper was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS, to its friends), entitled “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students”. (PNAS has an open access option but the key graphs and content are also covered in a Scientific American blog article.) The study was simple. Take a job application for  a lab manager position. Assign a name where half of the names are a recognisably male name, the other half are female. (The names John and Jennifer were chosen for this purpose as they had been pre-tested to be equivalent in terms of likability and recogniseability.) Get people to rate the application, including aspects like degree of mentoring offered and salary.

Let me summarise that: the name John or Jennifer is assigned to the same application materials. What we would expect, if there is no bias, is that we would see a similar ranking and equivalent salary offering. (All figures from the original paper, via the SciAm link.)

Oh. It appears that the mere presence of a woman’s name somehow altered reality so that an objective assessment of ability was warped through some sort of … I give up. Humour has escaped me. The name change has resulted in a systematic and significant downgrading of perceived ability. Let me get the next graph out of the way which is the salary offer.

And, equally mysteriously, having the name John is worth over $3,500 more than having the name Jennifer.

I should leap to note that it was both male and female scientists making this classification – which starts to lead us away from outright misogyny and towards ingrained and subtler prejudices. Did people resort to explicitly sexist reasoning to downgrade the candidates? No, they used sound reasoning to argue against the applicant’s competency. Except, of course, we draw back the curtain and suddenly reveal that our sound reasoning works one way when the applicant is a man, another if they are a woman.

Before you think “Oh, they must have targeted a given field, age group or gone after people who do or don’t have tenure”, the field, age and tenure status of the rating professors had no significant effect. This bias is pervasive among faculty, field, age, gender and status. The report also looked at mentoring and, regardless of the rater’s gender, they offered less mentoring to women.

Let’s be blunt. Study after study shows that if there are any gender differences at all, they are so small as to not even vaguely explain what we see in the representation of female students in certain fields and completely fails to explain their reduced progress in later life. However, the bias and stereotypes that people are operating under do not so much predict what will happen as shape what will happen. We are now aware of effects such as Stereotype Threat (Wiki link) that allows us to structure important situations in someone’s life so that the framing of the activity leaves them in a position where they reinforce the negative stereotype because of higher anxiety, relative to a non-stereotyped group. As an example, look at Osborne, Linking Stereotype Threat and Anxiety, where you can actually reduce the performance of girls on a maths test through reminding them that they are girls and that girls tend to do worse on test than boys. Osborne then compared this with a group where the difference was identified but a far more positive statement was made (the participants were told that despite the difference, there were situations where girls performed as well or better). The first scenario (girls do worse) was a high Stereotype Threat scenario (high ST), the second is low ST. Here’s the graph from Wikipedia that is a redrawing of the one in the paper that shows the results.

The effect of Stereotype Threat (ST) on math test scores for girls and boys. Data from Osborne (2007) (via Wikipedia)

That is the impact of an explicit stereotype in action – suddenly, when framed fairly and without an explicit stereotype or implicit bias, we see that people are far more similar than we thought. If anything, we have partially inverted the stereotype.

To return to my first paragraph, I said:

what has always angered me is the sheer weight of resistance to any research that (a) clearly demonstrates that bias exists to explain why this occurs, (b) identifies how performance can be manipulated through preconceptions and (c) requires people to consider that we are all more similar than current representation would indicate.

The PNAS paper, among others, clearly shows that the biasses exist. A simple name change is enough, as long as it’s a woman’s name. The demonstrated existence of stereotype threat shows us how performance can be manipulated through preconception. (And it’s important to note that stereotype threat is as powerful against minorities as woman – anyone who is part of a stereotype can be manipulated through their own increased or reduced anxiety.) So let me finally discuss the consideration of all of this and the title of this post.

I am expecting to get at least one person howling me down. Someone who will tear apart all of this because this cannot, possibly, under any circumstances be true. Someone who will start talking about our “African ancestors” to start arguing the Savanna-distribution of roles, as if our hominid predecessors ever had to apply to be a lab manager anywhere. Most of you, I hope, will read this and know all of this far too well. Some of you will reflect on this and, like me, examine yourself very carefully to find out if you have been using this bias or if you have been framing things, while trying to help, in a way that really didn’t help at all.

Some of you, who are my students, will read this and will see that research that you have done is reflected in these figures. Yes, we treat women differently and we appear, in these circumstances, to treat them less well. This does not, under any circumstances, mean that we have to accept this or, in any way, respect this as an established tradition or a desirable status quo. But the detection of an insidious and pervasive bias, that spans a community, shows us how hard my point (c) actually is.

We must first accept that there is a problem. There is a problem. Denying it will achieve nothing. Arguing minutiae will achieve nothing. We have to change the way that we react and be honest with ourselves that, sometimes, our treasured objectivity is actually nothing of the kind.

A Disappointing Reality

I read metafilter.com relatively regularly because aggregators help funnel information and their filter bias is not completely exclusive. An article that popped up recently dealt with the Kickstarter project of Anita Sarkeesian, who was asking for $6,000 to make a web series about “tropes vs women in video games”. There’s a New Statesman link here that you can follow for the whole unpleasant story but, assuming you’re in a hurry, let me summarise it for you.

  1. Blogger sees, from copious amounts of evidence, that video games seem to have trouble depicting women in reasonable and non-stereotyped ways.
  2. Blogger decides to set off Kickstarter to get money to produce a web series discussing this, money to cover research, playing more games and producing videos. (Blogger already has a track record in doing similar things for film.)
  3. Blogger becomes the target of attack, persistent, personal, vicious, violent, sick and twisted attacks from a skulking pit of suck that we call the Internet.

Anita Sarkeesian in her Kickstarter movie. (This image from newstatesmen.com.)

Here is a direct quote from Sarkeesian:

The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as “terrorism”, as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website.  These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen “jokes” to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape.  All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.

You know what makes my heart sink? “The typical <x> jokes” because, of course, as a woman, I’m sorry, as a known woman on the Internet, she has seen and heard at least some of this before, just because she’s a woman. On her Wikipedia page, to quote the New Statesman article:

There are also references to Sarkeesian being “of Jewish descent”, an “entitled <racial epithet>” and having a “masters degree in Whining” (because why stick to one prejudice, when you can have them all?)

I can’t give you any more quotes because I try to keep this blog generally readable and there’s not much more I can say without having to ‘Adult rate’ this post.

Last year I attended a public seminar given by Professor Caroll Seron, who was a visiting international scholar in sociology and law at Flinders University, usually at UC Irvine, with talk entitled “The Changing Landscape of Women in the Professions: Why women study law and not engineering”. I went along, as an educator in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), I’m always looking for insight into why our female enrolments are so low and how we can improve them. What was most depressing about Professor Seron’s talk was that young women have similar reasons for going into engineering, they tend to do better financially but they tend to get relegated to gender roles once they go into work experience or work place environments, and then they leave. That is, a big group of mostly men will get the women to do what they think women should be doing, rather than letting them practice as engineers with their male counterparts.

It should come as no surprise that if you run a two-speed environment, or a free/constrained partitioning, the people that you are excluding will get the message and then they’ll leave. Which leaves fewer women in engineering, which gives us the same ‘women’s work’ nonsense workplaces.

So, much as I would like to think that it’s only the mindless Internet trolls that would act in such an obvious way, Professor Seron’s work suggests that the insidious attack on the validity of women in certain parts of the workplace is happening everywhere, every day. Until we address it, until we fix our culture, until we recognise that professional qualifications represent a capacity to do a job, regardless of which genitals we have, then what happened to Anita Sarkeesian is just a more obvious and, in some horrific ways, more honest account of how women are thought of every day, if they have the audacity to enter a ‘male sphere’.

Someone asked me for a name for a metadata repository today – for research and education. I suggested Hypatia. 2000 years and we haven’t got this rubbish sorted out yet? Seriously? Let’s strive for better.