Closing the gap: Software Carpentry training for women

Author: Guest blogger
Posted: 14 Jun 2016 | 10:24

Aleksandra Pawlik, former leader of the Software Sustainability Institute’s training activities, shares her thoughts about training aimed at women working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Closing the gender gap in STEM is a broad topic. Increasing diversity and female participation at all levels of education and professional world in science and technology is a subject of lots of debates. The Software Sustainability Institute has hosted a series of blog posts on Women in Software. Different perspectives from the authors of these posts show that there are many challenges and many ways they could be addressed. 

One way is to create the best possible environment for females in STEM to feel confident and comfortable learning and working. But what does that mean in practice? Would running workshops which are aimed at a female audience make sense? Inspired by a blog post by Alexandra Simperler. I wanted to share the experiences and observations from training in computational lab skills addressed at women in STEM.

Last year, in collaboration with Software and Data Carpentry, the Software Sustainability Institute, ARCHER and Women in HPC organised a Software Carpentry workshop for Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE). I was one of the two instructors at that workshop. I have previously taught two WiSE workshops (in the USA and in Poland). Having the previous experience, I could make some comparisons and note some important points before, during and after the UK workshop.

Firstly, the workshop, which is addressed at a female audience and taught exclusively by female instructors, should deliver exactly the same quality of training as a regular workshop. Regardless of who your students are, as an instructor you always owe them the engagement and effort to make it worthwhile for them to learn. It is not enough that you created a workshop for a particular underrepresented group. For the best possible learning environment, a high level of teaching is essential.

Secondly, having all female instructors and helpers at the workshop, as well as primarily or exclusively, a female audience, helps to create a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. That kind of atmosphere contributes to the best possible learning environment. Several participants mentioned that they felt more encouraged to ask questions if they needed more explanation than they would be if there were men present in the room. They were more comfortable admitting that they might not have understood something and required further information. 

Thirdly, advertising the course correctly and then sticking to what you promised turned out very important in the case of the WiSE UK workshop. At many standard Software Carpentry workshops the participants recruit from novices a lot of the time, even though the curriculum is more suitable for researchers who have had some programming experience. Software Carpentry has adjusted the training materials to accommodate that and the instructors usually find themselves having to pitch to much more of a beginner audience than the pre-workshop questionnaire filled in by the participants would indicate. At the WiSE UK workshop many attendees were very well versed researchers-programmers. It seemed that the participants significantly underestimated their skills when self-reporting them in the pre-workshop questionnaire. The instructors had to re-adjust their teaching approach and actually deliver training aimed at the audience with some programming experience. 

Activities that contribute to closing the gender gap in STEM and increase diversity are not just a box-ticking exercise. In order to have impact, they require effort and engagement. 

Aleksandra has taught at a number of workshops in the UK, other European countries and US. She recently left the SSI to become the Research Communities Manager at New Zealand eScience Infrastructure.

This post was first published on the Women In HPC blog. It also appears on our blog.


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