Sign In

Communications of the ACM

BLOG@CACM

Nerdy Strutting: How to Put Women Off the Tech Industry


Judy Robertson

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 Women in Technology report may change your mind. It reports that only 1 in 7 people in the tech industry (in the U.K.) 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?

  1. Are you a nerdy strutter either by accident or by design? Think: do you really need to show off? If the need overwhelms you, can you thinkof a way to demonstrate your knowledge which doesn't belittle orbefuddle others? If you're trying to help is your advice going to makes the recipient feel better or worse?

  2. If you get strutted at... draw attention to discourtesies. Try 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


Comments


Anonymous

This is so relevant and true. I have experienced this type of behavior and discrimination; and as an early adapter, had to literally fight my way into the tech field. I'm 72, retired as a "Network Support Specialist" which was a euphemism in my case for Network Administrator. I became enthralled with computers and the concept over 50 years ago, but was never encouraged to pursue my interests, actually discouraged. It was only later in my life after raising a family that I went back to school to obtain a degree in Computer Science which probably should have been Computer Engineering had I been encouraged early on. Only personal perseverance and strength kept me there and even with that, I don't believe as a woman, I ever gained true respect for my ability and knowledge. There definitely needs to be a change in attitude to encourage more young women to enter the field. Unfortunately, one overall problem is that historically when women enter a field, the salaries tend to decrease, as in banking and insurance. It shouldn't be the case and it is an issue that needs to be addressed.


Anonymous

This is not just a problem for women; it's a problem for everyone. Strutting nerds are basically insecure. This sort of strutting isn't just a phenomenon of the technical fields--it's in every field. I don't see why women should be discouraged in STEM fields for this sort of behavior if they are not discouraged by it in law and medicine. Didn't Charlie Gibson do so nerdy strutting when he interviewed Sarah Palin about the Bush Doctrine? It's everywhere.


Anonymous

Yes, this lines up well with my experience, although I am fairly certain in my case the strutters were just genuinely interested. The major strutters had enough experience to place into the class early, after all, and I hadn't encountered computer science at all prior to college. Compare yourself to someone with years more experience, and of course you'll feel like you come up short.


Anonymous

I agree with Anonymous @ April 16, 2013 02:27. Nerdy strutting -- great term! -- is a problem in all fields, but it is not gender specific, and it's not even STEM specific. It's annoying, but it doesn't explain why so few women go into computer science, relative to say math, biology and chemistry. As a father of a young daughter, I'm still perplexed by the CS vs other STEM gender differences. It strikes me as something a lot more structural, ingrained in high school and earlier. Girls aren't even taking AP tests in CS. See p. 6 of the following document: http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/Why-So-Few-Women-in-Science-Technology-Engineering-and-Mathematics.pdf


Nikki Blake

As for the comments about why strutting doesn't put off women in other fields, such as law or medicine - I think it has to do with the personality types that are drawn to CS fields. Those that choose law or medicine might have a more extroverted personality, which would reduce the influence of strutting. In my experience (not as a general rule), CS majors/professionals are usually less outgoing/assertive in unfamiliar situations. For many, this is the reason they chose a CS path - less social interaction with non-CS types. I can see how this strutting behavior would turn some women away if they were already the type to be easily intimidated.


Anonymous

disagree.

To use your example of "wouldn't it be better to use a function to do X" it is very possible the person who asks it DOESN'T know the answer (and no one besides the person asking the question really knows). He or she may believe at the time that it is better to "....use a function to do X", but he or she may also be aware that they don't know everything there is to know about the topic.

I often ask questions along these lines, not with the intent of showing what I know, but with the intent of being enlightened to something I was previously unaware of. About half the time the person gives an answer that shows it ISN'T better to, e.g., "...use a function to do X". it is in these situations I feel like I have learned something.

I fear if people are constantly worried about whether or not their question, or how they phrase it, will make others feel excluded it could have a chilling effect on people asking valid questions in the pursuit of learning.


Anonymous

I disagree with Nikki. The social makeup of CS professionals is changing vastly and quickly. The days of the "introvert programmer" hiding in a dark dungeon-like office because they are not comfortable with social interaction are over. That dynamic just does not exist anymore. Everybody works in teams these days-- you almost cannot be a programmer in North America if you are not good at interacting with others. And that includes your customers. This might be different in other parts of the globe (particularly India, where code is outsourced with very silo'd specifications), but it's not here.

My experience in the industry could not be more different than Nikki's. Almost every programmer I've ever met in the last few years has been headstrong and assertive. You even see this with Adria Richards, who actually ended up taking her assertiveness to an extreme degree.

The difference with CS and STEM, I think, is quite the opposite than mentioned above. Science researchers and engineers are judged on their results and data, not on their ideas and opinions. Controversial science, although happens occasionally, is a pretty rare event. Controversial engineering is even more rare. Contrast that with controversial programming design practices, which practically fuels the popularity of Hacker News. People constantly push the bar in CS because, frankly, we rarely ever know where the bar *is* in our industry. Concepts that drive the foundation of the web today (like AJAX) didn't even have a name a decade ago. Some of the technologies are even younger than that.

I would argue that programmers work BEST when they have strong opinions. Remember that "strong opinions" had an integral part in creating what we now know as Web 2.0. The Ruby on Rails framework was promoted as being unapologetically "opinionated", and that framework had a huge hand in driving a lot of the innovation we've seen over the last 5 years, We would still be stuck in a bureaucratic HTML5 working group draft with no working browser implementation, using watered down Java frameworks like Struts, if it weren't for these strong minded individuals.

I would further state that the reason some people feel more offended than others in the community, is because those people are the introverted developers of weak opinions who don't like confrontation. These are the same developers that are quickly being phased out of our industry. I hate to be blunt, but those people tend not to provide much benefit to the industry beside allowing us to get more busy work done.

What we need to do is attract more strong minds, but also learn how to hone those minds to be constructive, yet still remain open-minded. That's our challenge. Being strong minded does not need to mean nerd-strutting, or being rude, but you DO need something of a thicker skin to be productive among strong minded people. I would not consider someone asking a rhetorical question to be that big of a deal, but a less confrontational person might be put off. To be blunt once more, I'd rather be working with the person who asks the rhetorical question than the person in the room who feels uncomfortable when such a question is asked. ...but maybe I am part of the problem.


Anonymous

To the last commenter: your experience comes from industry, where people who have persevered through education end up. The problem with 'nerdy strutting', and part of Nikki's point, is that it contributes to the huge drop-off in numbers of women who enter into CS courses but don't finish them. Yes, a lot people in industry are headstrong and assertive - because they've had to be to deal with the currently-existing CS environment. Having strong opinions about technology and having the stomach to deal with posturing and egos is not the same thing, and means we may be losing out on valuable innovations and ideas for the sake of allowing people to 'strut'.


Displaying all 8 comments

Read CACM in a free mobile app!
Access the latest issue, plus archived issues and more
ACM Logo
  • ACM CACM apps available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and Android platforms
  • ACM Digital Library apps available for iOS, Android, and Windows devices
  • Download an app and sign in to it with your ACM Web Account
Find the app for your mobile device
ACM DL Logo