[cross posted from CACM blog]
As the twittersphere erupted over Donglegate last week, I was attending a workshop on career development for women in IT. There is a striking contrast between the collegiate, supportive environment of the workshop and the howling hounds of fury which were unleashed by the crazily escalating interactions between participants at a developer conference. In short (because I don’t want to get lynched online myself), a female conference attendee tweeted photographs of male audience members who she said were telling off colour jokes. A storm of vicious discussion blew up online, and two of those involved lost their jobs. I bring up this news story because one of the main barriers to women in IT which workshop attendees identified was the aggressive behaviour of male colleagues either in person or online. Behaviour doesn’t have to be explicitly offensive to make colleagues feel uncomfortable; there are many ways to exclude people in a workplace. Further, although this was a gathering of women, the sort of behaviours were discussed were likely to make lots of people miserable, regardless of their gender. We decided to nickname some of the behaviour which makes us feel uncomfortable as "nerdy strutting", and our ensuing laughter at the phrase helped us to feel better about it.
What is nerdy strutting? Garvin-Doxas and Barker (2004) refer to "strutting" as a style of interaction where people show off their knowledge by asking questions carefully designed to demonstrate that they know a lot about the topic, and quite possibly that they know more than everyone else around them. The problem with this in a learning situation is that students who lack confidence assume that they are the only person who doesn’t understand, and quickly feel even more demoralised. An example might be of a student interrupting the lecturer with a fake question of the sort "But wouldn't it be better to use a function to do X?" I say fake question, because the strutter knows the answer already but is merely trying to show that they know this advanced concept which has not yet been covered. Or if another student gives an answer, a strutter might say "But wouldn't it be more elegant to do X?" Garvin-Doxas and Barker studied computer science classrooms, and found that often female students were put off by male strutters. A related off putting behaviour, identified by a workshop participant, was the sort of answer you see on discussion forums where an answer tears apart the question, castigating the foolishness of a naive solution attempt.
I have noticed some fascinating behaviour among ultra nerdy students at seminars where they are so anxious to illustrate their technical worth to the speaker that they emit giggles, snorts and chortles of derision at the mention of seemingly arbitrary technologies. It is a weird phenomenon. Somebody outside the charmed circle might be baffled as to why the very words "Prolog" or "Visual Basic" or even "Internet Explorer" evoke such mirth. "It was awful", says the speaker, "he was trying to deploy his Rails app with Apache httpd running Ruby using Fast CGI". If you don’t happen to know what Fast CGI is, you’re going to wonder why people around you are creasing up. You'll feel excluded. (I don’t know, by the way, and I don’t care. I asked a genuine geek to provide me with an example to use for this article.)
You might be wondering why it’s a problem if people feel excluded by nerdy strutting. If so, the Computer Weekly’s Women in Technology report, may change your mind. It reports that only 1 in 7 people in the tech industry (in the UK) are women, and that a masculine culture is identified as problematic by both male and female participants. Fixing strutting, therefore, may be part of the solution to a male dominated industry. Further, it might also make work places more pleasant and productive for all employees. So what can we do to address it?
commenting "Thanks for your input, but I don't feel that your
criticism of my approach was very helpful there". Or calmly ask "why's
that funny?" My intuition is that it is easier to combat this kind of
behaviour face to face than online because it's harder to look someone
in the eye and keep being an asshole (in the sense used by Robert Sutton).
3. If you witness strutting (particularly for CS instructors but also for team leaders)...don't just let it go. That is, if you're sure it's strutting rather than a
genuine quest for knowledge. You don't necessarily want to embarrass
the strutter who might have social problems already. But you do need
to help the majority of the class feel at ease. Put the comment or
question in context. Point out if you expect the class to know the
topic in such depth for assessment. Explain the joke if necessary.
Demystify it. Help everyone to feel like they belong.
Garvin-Doxas, K. and Barker, L. J. 2004. Communication in computer science classrooms: understanding defensive climates as a means of creating supportive behaviors. J. Educ. Resour. Comput. 4, 1 (Mar. 2004), 2. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1060071.1060073