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To my daughter's high school programming teacher

Update 2 (wherein my daughter chimes in): As I said, my daughter is in India for a year, so she didn't see this article until Wednesday, September 11. I wasn't sure how she'd feel about me sharing her story and all the attention it received. Luckily, my daughter thanked me for writing about her experience. I asked her whether she had any corrections for the article. "Um, maybe tell them that I did actually talk to the teacher and I tried to tell the guys to quit being jerks," she said. "He told the principal, and it was really embarrassing, which is probably why I didn't tell you. And I gave up after that," she explained. My daughter said that, after bringing the problem to the teacher's attention several times, she finally asked him whether she could talk to the entire class about sexual harassment, he told her he'd think about it, and that's when he reported the situation to the principal. "And a couple days later I was in the principal's office being explained to that it wasn't my place to do that, and I just mumbled answers to get out of there as soon as possible because I was really, really embarrassed and fighting back tears." Before my daughter signed off our online chat, she asked me why I wrote about her story now. I told her about Alexandra, the nine-year-old girl who presented her app at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, and the titstare app developers who shared the same stage. "Well, I'm sorry that crap happened ... to both of us," she said. I am, too.

Update: Thank you for all the great feedback on this post! For those of you wondering why I chose the USENIX blog as my platform — instead of another tech publication or my personal site — it's because the USENIX membership and community have a long history of working toward increasing diversity in IT and supporting women in tech. Many of you suggested immediate action is needed to help combat this issue. I agree and that's why I'm working with USENIX on their Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) initiative via the WiAC Summits and the Facebook WiAC page, as well as other efforts within the community. I hope you'll join us in this effort.

** trigger alert
(violence and rape references)

Dear sir,

I'm not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages (Visual Basic? Seriously??) or about the A my daughter earned in your class. And, actually, my daughter had no specific complaints about you as a teacher. I, on the other hand, have plenty of feedback for you.

First, a little background. I've worked in tech journalism since my daughter was still in diapers, and my daughter had access to computers her entire life. At the ripe old age of 11, my daughter helped review her first tech book, Hackerteen. She's been a beta tester (and bug finder) for Ubuntu (Jaunty Jackalope release), and also used Linux Mint. Instead of asking for a car for her 16th birthday, my daughter asked for a MacBook Pro. (I know, I know ... kids today.)

My daughter traveled with me to DrupalCon in Denver for "spring break", attended the expo at OSCON 2012, and even attended and watched me moderate a panel at the first Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC '12) conference at USENIX Federated Conferences Week. Thanks to my career, my daughter's Facebook friends list includes Linux conference organizers, an ARM developer and Linux kernel contributor, open source advocates, and other tech journalists. My daughter is bright, confident, independent, tech saavy, and fearless. In fact, she graduated high school last May — two years early — and is now attending high school in India as her "gap year" before heading off to college.

So what's the problem?

During the first semester of my daughter's junior/senior year, she took her first programming class. She knew I'd be thrilled, but she did it anyway.

When my daughter got home from the first day of the semester, I asked her about the class. "Well, I'm the only girl in class," she said. Fortunately, that didn't bother her, and she even liked joking around with the guys in class. My daughter said that you noticed and apologized to her because she was the only girl in class. And when the lessons started (Visual Basic? Seriously??), my daughter flew through the assigments. After she finished, she'd help classmates who were behind or struggling in class.

Over the next few weeks, things went downhill. While I was attending SC '12 in Salt Lake City last November, my daughter emailed to tell me that the boys in her class were harassing her. "They told me to get in the kitchen and make them sandwiches," she said. I was painfully reminded of the anonymous men boys who left comments on a Linux Pro Magazine blog post I wrote a few years ago, saying the exact same thing.

My September 8, 2010 post, Inequality, Choices, and Hitting a Wall, discussed illegal gender discrimination in tech. The next day, comments started popping up on the post. Sure, the sandwich comments were easy enough to shrug off at first, but within a few minutes, the comments increased in numbers and intensity. And then the threats of violence started: "The author of this article is a whiny bitch and needs a good beating to be put in her place." Ten minutes later, the rape threats began, and I shut down our comments site-wide. And then the emails started...

So, you see, I was all too familiar with what my daughter was going through, but I was unprepared for the harassment to start in high school, in her programming class.

I consulted with friends — female developers — and talked to my daughter about how to handle the situation in class. I suggested that she talk to you. I offered to talk to you. I offered to come talk to the class. I offered to send one of my male friends, perhaps a well-known local programmer, to go talk to the class. Finally, my daughter decided to plow through, finish the class, and avoid all her classmates. I hate to think what less-confident girls would have done in the same situation.

My daughter has no interest in taking another programming class, and really, who can blame her.

For her entire life, I'd encouraged my daughter to explore computer programming. I told her about the cool projects, the amazing career potential, the grants and programs to help girls and women get started, the wonderful people she'd get to work with, and the demand for diversity in IT. I took her with me to tech conferences and introduced her to some of the brightest, most inspiring and encouraging women and men I've ever met.

Sadly, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you, sir, created a horrible one for girls in computer programming.

Did you not see her enthusiasm turn into a dark cloud during the semester? Did you not notice when she quit laughing with and helping her classmates, and instead quickly finished her assignments and buried her nose in a book? What exactly were you doing when you were supposed to be supervising the class and teaching our future programmers?

I'm no teacher, so forgive me if you think I'm out of place when it comes to telling you how to do your job. But I am a mother, and I've spent years encouraging girls and women in IT, so perhaps my perspective will help you. After all, you didn't mean to create a a brogrammer-to-be environment, did you?

Here are seven suggestions for teaching high school computer programming:

  1. Recruit students to take your class. Why was my daughter the only girl in your class? According to her, she only took the class because I encouraged it. My daughter said she wouldn't have known about the programming class, otherwise. (I'm adding this to my "parenting win" page in the baby book.) Have you considered hanging up signs in the school to promote your class? Have you asked the school counselors to reach out to kids as they plan their semesters? Have you spoken to other classes, clubs, or fellow teachers to tell them about why programming is exciting and how programming fits into our daily lives? Have you asked the journalism students to write a feature on the amazing career opportunities for programmers or the fun projects they could work on? Have you asked current students to spread the word and tell their friends to try your class?
  2. Set the tone. On the first day of class, talk about the low numbers of women and lack of diversity in IT, why this is a problem, and how students can help increase diversity in programming. Tell students about imposter syndrome and how to help classmates overcome it. Create an inclusive, friendly, safe learning environment from day one. I thought this was a no brainer, but obviously, it's not.
  3. Outline, explain, and enforce an anti-harassment policy.
  4. Don't be boring and out-of-date. Visual Basic? Seriously?? Yes, I know I said I'm not writing to complain about your choice of programming languages, even though I'm still scratching my head on this one. The reason I mention your choice is that it doesn't help you make a good first impression on new programmers. I have no idea what my teen learned in your class because she wasn't excited about it. Without touching your minuscule class budget, you can offer a range of instruction with real-world applications. With resources like Codecademy, for example, students could try a variety of programming languages, or focus on ones they find interesting. Have you considered showing kids how to develop a phone app? Program a Raspberry Pi? Create a computer game? Build a website? Good grief, man — how were you even able to make programming boring?
  5. Pay attention. I don't know what you were doing during class, but you weren't paying attention, otherwise you would have noticed that my daughter was isolated and being harassed. Do you expect girls to come tell you when they are being harassed? Well, don't count on it. Instead, they pull away, get depressed, or drop out completely, just like they do in IT careers. You want to know what happens when women speak up about verbal abuse or report harassment? Backlash, and it's ugly. Best case, she'll get shunned by classmates or colleagues. And hopefully she won't read any online comments...ever. But it can get much worse, with the vulgar emails and phone calls, and home addresses posted online, and threats of violence. Sadly, this isn't rare; this happens all the time, from high school on up into our careers. Don't believe me? That's because you aren't paying attention.
  6. Check in. Talk to your students in private to see how class is going for them. Talk to other teachers or school counselors. Had you talked to my daughter's counselor, for example, you would have known how class was going. The counselor worked closely with my daughter to help her graduate early, and she would have had no problem getting an honest answer about my daughter's unpleasant experience in your brogramming class. Did you expect me to call you? Believe me, I wanted to, but I also respected my daughter's request to let her handle the situation. And see number 5. Had I told you how class was going for my daughter, her situation would not have improved, and might have gotten even worse.
  7. Follow up. At the end of the semester, take a survey. Allow students to submit anonymous online answers to questions about the class material, your teaching methods, and their experience with other students. Allowing anonymity will help you get honest answers and, hopefully, you can improve your programming class for your next round of students.

Look, you don't have to tell me how hard your job is or how underpaid and overstressed you are as a high school teacher. I'm a single mother working in tech publishing — believe me, I get it. I like to think what I do is important, but what teachers do has the potential to change the world. No article I write will ever do that, but the daughter I raise might.

I spent 16 years raising a daughter who had all the tools and encouragement she needed to explore computer programming as a career. In one short semester, you and her classmates undid all of my years of encouragement.

I always told my daughter that high school isn't real life. Unfortunately, your programming class proved otherwise. In one semester, my daughter learned why there are so few women in IT, and no amount of encouragement from me is going to change that.

Comments

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These comments bother me. The author has every reason to be mad as angrybirds, and everyone here is commenting on how her tone is somehow inappropriate and not journalistic. I'm sorry do you guys watch PBS Newshour exclusively or something? Do you only follow politics and foreign affairs in the newspapers? Because that'd be the only reason for why you'd forget that journalists, as writers, might actually insert their personality into the story to make a better read. Have you seriously not picked up a sports section in your lives? You're also forgetting this woman's kid was bullied out of a career she might have loved. She's got every reason to be mad and feel like the teacher didn't do his job right, hence the general tone. As if her opinions on visual basic had no place here. As if any of her personality had no place here. As if her being confident in the subject matter is itself a kind of arrogance that isn't appropriate, not here, not for her. She's a confident woman sticking up for her daughter, and I'm betting a lot of you are mitigating your natural inclinations to offer your usual "get me a sandwich."

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Interesting article. I enjoyed that you posted solutions as well as critiques. All to often people will criticize a teacher, but present no real solutions. And while I thought your tone was a bit abrasive, presenting new resources for the teacher to utilize, more than made up for it. And for the record, as someone who has taught classes, your critique about staying current, especially in a skills based class, is spot on. Teaching archaic skills as if they had merit is misleading and undermines a students since of self value and ability, and could even cause imposter syndrome. The teacher needs to take some refresher classes and update their curriculum.

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This story breaks my heart and is a prime example of why we still need to be discussing the low numbers of women in STEM fields and classes with EVERYONE. As a women in a STEM field I've always found my journey an uphill battle. And while others probably saw what they said as harmful teasing/jokes, they don't realize how detrimental those words can be and how quickly they add up. I've been in the field for 7 years now and I still hear comments sometimes that make me want to walk out the front door of my office and never return. Which is why we as women in STEM fields have to be strong as well as encouraging to future generations. But it shouldn't all be on us even though it feels like we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. People need to understand that there "harmless" jokes really aren't that. This country is in desparate need of people in STEM fields female, male or otherwise, and we can't afford to lose a single one. So we should be encouraging each other through STEM classes and in the workplace not putting each other down. If we all put our heads together and use even half the energy we expend on making jokes, we can create amazing things.

 

To your daughter, I sincerely hope she reconsiders. I'm not going to lie, being a woman in a male dominated field is always challenging but I've learned so much about myself and seen and done so many amazing things. For every bad thing that has happened there's a dozen more good waiting to make me feel awesome about what I do. She sounds like an amazing, smart, generous, helpful, person, which is exactly what we need more of in the STEM fields. I want her to know that even though it feels like we as women in STEM are alone in the world, we aren't. There are so many women out there that feel the same but we shouldn't have to. But I will say, for every nasty comment I've endured, there's nothing better than telling someone that I'm in a STEM field and watching their eyes bug out of their head and go wow, you must be really smart! And that alone makes it all worth it :)

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I've read your posting, and I completely feel for your daughter.  As a woman, working in IT, and a teacher, teaching IT, I know how difficult it can be; however, to lay all of this in the lap of the teacher is wrong.  As the mother of 2 daughters, had I heard what was happening in my daughters class, programming or otherwise, I would not have waited until AFTER the class was over to blog about the teacher.  You could not have kept me out of that school.  I want to know, where were you during this entire ordeal?  Where were you when she was being humiliated and picked on.  You "offered" to speak to the class, you offered to do a lot of things.  There should never have been "an offer", there should have been an action.  The teacher may have failed your daughter for allowing abuse to happen, and the school may have failed your daughter by telling her it was not her place to stand before classmates and give them a lecture on sexual harrassment (which it isn't), but YOU failed your daughter just as much as everyone else.  Our job is to protect our children and, when they are hurting, as badly as you say your daughter was (which clearly you saw) we don't ignore that.  We get off our oversized chairs, back away from our blogs, and take ourselves to the school and deal with the issues that our children cannot.  You want sympathy for all of this because "it's a man's world".  Sister, it is not a man's world, and the ONE person who could have shown your daughter how to stand up for herself and let everyone know that it is NOT a man's world sat on her hands and let her daughter take it.  Instead of berating the teacher, perhaps you should think about your own actions, or lack thereof.  You want to teach your daughter something?  Teach her that you are her protector and that no matter what YOU have her back and if it means going through every man "in that man's world" to make sure your daughter is protected and in an environment that is safe and meant for her as much as any man, then you can sit back and write the letter you wrote.  Until then, you are no better than he or anyone else at that school.  Shame on you!

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You're worried about sexual harassment in the classroom and you send your 16 year old daughter to the rape capital of the world for a year? My ex was from India, and in her own words, women who stay out past dark are considered to be fair game. My own sister witnessed a woman jumping out of her motel window to escape rape by her hotel manager during the two weeks she visited.

You sir need to get your priorities straight. While nasty but hollow comments by teenage boys in white upperclass America (or an equivalent) may be unacceptable by our society's standards, it's a non-issue compared to that hell-hole you sent your daughter to. If I were you I wouldn't be getting much sleep at night.

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This blog opened some old wounds that I had thought were scarred over.  I am a woman who has been a software engineer for 30+ years.  I faced the loneliness, isolation and sexual harassment that started in college and continued for a number of years in my career for two reasons:

1) I loved to write software and we tend to be good at what we love to do;

2) I needed the money for my family - I was a single mother of four; my daycare costs alone took 60% of my salary and so I needed the money.

During my career, I was asked to make coffee because they assumed I was the secretary when I actually was the technical lead; I was sexually harassed by various team members at times;  I was overlooked for a position because the management assumed I was not qualified; I have worked in isolation at times because my team was uncomfortable with me.... etc.  At other times, I have had acceptance and respect. Over the years, I have advanced and persisted and found people who were open minded to mentor me.

At various opportunities, I have counseled young girls to explore computing as a career option.  In my opinion, if we need to expose girls to computing by the sixth grade, before they become closed to the idea that technology, math and science could be fun, interesting and a wonderful career.