Friday, August 16, 2013

Making the Most of Your Messaging in 'Women in Computer Science' Outreach

If you've ever done outreach with girls to try to get them into computer science, you may have wondered what the best way to do it is.  After all, we've been at this a while, and yet we haven't seen the level of progress we had hoped for.  What is going wrong?

I have a formula that I've used in my outreach for the last 6 or 7 years now.  It goes something like this:
  • I introduce myself with fun pictures of my family and hobbies.  I also include a photo of me at the Golden Gate Bridge so I can talk about how companies like Google support women in CS through scholarships and gatherings.
  • I ask the girls what computer science is, then explain that it's really all about problem solving.  I go through several domains to show how computing is connected, and if there's time, I ask them for their hobbies and give some possible connections there.  I also show a video from University of Washington on various pathways in computer science to drive home the point that CS is really diverse.
  • Our discussion then turns to the issue of women in CS.  I show some graphs that illustrate the problem, then ask the girls to discuss three questions in small groups before we bring it up with everyone: (1) Why don't girls go into computer science? (2) Why is this a bad thing? (3) What would make you interested in trying computer science in high school or college? This is followed by the great little video on women in CS from Google.
  • Finally, I do a hands-on activity to showcase a real computer science problem (typically, a CS Unplugged activity).
This formula has served me well.  In my mini-course, I have this discussion on the first morning of five full days of learning about computer science and videogames.  I do pre-course and post-course surveys to see how the girls' attitudes change, and generally the trend is positive.  Even when they aren't sure about CS being a good career for them, they are interested in pursuing some courses in the future.  (You can see some results here, here, and here.)

But is my approach the best it can be? Will it encourage the girls to stick with CS even if they do decide to pursue it somewhere they are likely to be the minority?

My section on the 'women in CS' issue has been questioned a couple of times.  In the first, Barbara Ericson mentioned that when they tried to counter stereotypes, they actually ended up reinforcing them, causing a decrease on the number of girls who thought they could succeed at computing.  More recently, Jim Davies pointed me to research about normative behaviour, explaining that by pointing out the problem, people are more likely to focus on that and behave the same way.

Obviously, these two things had me a bit concerned, and got me wondering if I should be dropping that portion of my outreach altogether.

But I knew I had a purpose for talking about the problem.  It would feel disingenuous to ignore it altogether because I think most people realize it's an issue; however, if doing so improves our results then it may be worth it.  Another reason I do it, though, is based on the fact that I am not only trying to change a current opinion about the field.  I want to make sure that if I can convince them to further pursue computer science, they will not leave again as soon as they run into the issues that might have kept them away now.  In other words, I want to prepare them for what may come next.

Based on this, I knew I had to dig deeper so I could try to modify my approach instead of dropping that section altogether.  I found the research that Jim was talking about: a paper called Managing social norms for persuasive impact.  It describes a study on what type of messaging is most effective when trying to convince people to behave a certain way (in this case, to stop people from stealing wood from a petrified forest).

There are two main ways of illustrating the type of behaviour you want from people.  You can use descriptive norms, which make use of what people are currently doing.  Public health campaigns use this often: "more than 3 million youths in the US smoke and ... 3,000 become regular smokers each day."  Alternatively, you can use injunctive norms, which focus on what people ought to do.  For example, "don't leave your campfire."

Previous theories as well as this particular study have shown that the most effective type of messaging is not descriptive, but injunctive, for the reason Jim mentioned above.  Further, it is much more effective to use negative wording rather than positive (e.g. "don't leave your campfire" vs. "stay with your campfire").  This is interesting given how many campaigns meant to persuade people ignore this advice.

In my case, it seems clear that focusing on the actual number of women who don't go into computer science is a mistake, given the descriptive nature.  The girls in my audience may focus on that and think, "well if no other women go into computer science, why should I?" The follow-up discussion may counteract that, but why risk it?

If I still want to address the issue in some way, I need to find an injunctive way to do it.  I think it may be possible to do this by focusing on what we want the girls to do: try computer science.  A negatively worded question I came up with is this:

What would stop you from trying and enjoying computer science?

I think this avoids the issue of focusing on women who don't go into CS, yet allows us to explore the issues they might face later on.

What do you think? Is there a better way to approach this problem that fits with the research? Where can you switch your own messaging from descriptive to injunctive?


Anonymous said...

I think that your question still has the hidden assumption that something *will* stop them from trying CS. Perhaps a better message would be the injunction "Don't let the jerks stop you from trying and enjoying computer science."

Gail Carmichael said...

You're probably right, because I myself have that assumption (and the numbers say so too). Maybe one of the reasons I'm struggling is that I don't want to let that go?

That said, I do like your rewording. I wonder how it could be presented as a discussion question? (I do love having them talk about things and figure them out themselves.)

M. O. said...

I wonder if, instead, you could talk about the issues after they've done the CS activities? I find that when I'm interacting with middle school girls they aren't really aware of the biases, and they aren't necessarily willing to go against them yet. I tend to talk about the cool stuff we can do with computing, maybe giving examples of women in CS (I'm usually doing short events, so this doesn't often happen), and using a CS Unplugged activity (as you do). If I was going to talk about the stereotypes and issues, though, I would do it after they've seen the cool types of problems and things they can do...because they've already had a chance to think of themselves as doing these sorts of things. But the focus is on how computing is cool and letting them see for themselves that they can do it just fine, and hopefully giving them some sort of a role model (I like that you use those videos; I'll have to keep that in mind).

If I had to use an injunctive, I would use something like "Don't let anyone keep you from pursuing the field you enjoy." Because as long as they are strong and choose without listening to bullies, we'll get more women in CS...and other STEM fields. And I think that the general encouragement is more important than the focused points. Do you want to remind them that there are jerks in CS? No, not really -- there are jerks in every field. And who wants to go into a field full of jerks? No one.

Gail Carmichael said...

After some discussion elsewhere, I have concluded that for the short outreach sessions I should avoid bringing it up at all. (I like your suggestion as a possible thing to say instead, though!)

For the longer sessions, it was also agreed that any discussion should be at the end, as you mention.

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