{ social theory }

  • A Reading List for Critical CS Education

    One of the challenges of studying equity in computing is that while there is a lot of work on the subject, the topic lacks the infrastructure of a well-established (sub)field. For example, when I was a PhD student studying for my qualifying exam, there was not a pre-established list of texts for me to study. When students and colleagues ask me for readings on equity in CS I tend to start from scratch each time, and will miss things.

    To solve these issues, I’ve put together a reading list on critical prespectives on equity in computing. The list is heavily annotated for guidance, and importanty covers foundational texts in areas that a criticial approach to computing equity should draw on (e.g. critical pedagogy, Science and Technology Studies, Gender Work & Organization, critical disability studies, critical race studies).

    I welcome feedback on the list. Hopefully you’ll find it useful!

  • Spoon Theory: A Form Of Capital

    As social stratification is something that sociologists study, it’s also something that we sociologists have spent a fair bit of time thinking and theorizing about. One of our modern understandings of class & social stratification comes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu argued that there are multiple forms of capital which together determine class.

    In this essay I argue that spoon theory, a common metaphor for units of physical/emotional energy used in disability circles, are a Bourdieusian form of capital. I’ll explain Bourdieu’s forms of capital, spoon theory, and why “spoons” as a unit of energy are a form a capital. Thinking of spoons in this framework is something that would be useful in social theory, as well as disability studies.

    Forms of Capital

    Bourdieu listed three forms of capital in his work:

    1. Economic capital: how much money you have, assets, etc
    2. Social capital: who you know
    3. Cultural capital: your knowledge, intellectual skills, and ability to navigate particular social situations. A subtype of cultural capital that is often discussed is linguistic capital — the language you have at your disposal.Thinking of multiple forms of capital allows us to have a more nuanced notion of class. For example, a graduate student with very little economic capital often will have a great deal of cultural capital.


    Capital Begets Capital

    Each form of capital can be used to get more of itself (a positive feedback loop):

    1. If you have more economic capital, you can invest the money to get more money. If you have more money, you can buy things in bulk, or buy higher quality items that do not need to be replaced/maintained as often.
    2. If you have more social capital, you can similarly use it to get more social capital. If I know many people, I can ask my many connections to get me in touch with more people.
    3. If you have more cultural capital, you can use it to get more cultural capital. If I have a university degree I am more familiar with how universities function and am better able to navigate the process to get additional degrees or apply to academic jobs.And with all of these forms of capital there is the possibility of a poverty trap. For example: if you don’t know anybody, it’s harder to meet more people. Capital also has inter-generational effects. A parent with more capital can pass their capital onto their children.

    Those who have a given form of capital often take their capital for granted. A rich person does not worry or think very much about spending money. A highly educated person can take it for granted how difficulty it is to get into (and stay in) university, since they likely did not struggle with a lack of cultural capital during their education.

    Capital is Convertible

    These different forms of capital are not separate. For example:

    • If you have more economic capital, you can attend events where you meet people and increase your social capital. You can also attend more “elite” universities wherein you can increase your cultural capital.
    • If you have more social capital, you can find more business partners and talk to people with sound financial advice. Similarly, you can find people to help you get into university, or into a prestigious job.
    • If you have more cultural capital, you will have an easier time getting a bank loan. Also, you can leverage your alma mater’s alumni association to meet people and get social capital.Thinking about capital beyond economic capital is often a useful lens for sociologists when it comes to understanding social stratification. Some of what Bourdieu is known for is his analyses of who in society gets a higher education, which depends on all three of his forms of capital.

    What are Spoons / Spoon Theory?

    In 2003, Christine Miserandino found herself trying to explain to a friend what was like to live with lupus. They were at a diner. Looking for a prop to demonstrate her limited energy, she grabbed spoons from nearby tables:

    _”Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions. So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control.

    I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons”. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. […]_Miserandino then proceeded to illustrate to her friend how daily tasks such as getting out of bed, getting dressed, showering, washing her hair, each cost spoons. If she ran out of spoons, she had to stop and rest to recover spoons. For a video description using the Sims, check out Jessica Kellgren-Forzad’s description of spoon theory.

    The metaphor caught on in the disability community as an emic descriptor, particularly online. The term “spoonie“ refers to people who live with limited spoons, such as due to autoimmune disorders, neurological disorders, connective tissue disorders, sleep disorders, chronic pain, chronic illness, and other disabilities where energy is scarce. These types of conditions are often co-morbid with each other, and it gives an unifying label for people who have multiple energy-limiting conditions.

    It’s common for spoonies to describe their activities and lived experiences in terms of spoons. The term spoon has a well established meaning in the disability community as a unit of exertion. I’ll be using the term “spoon” in this way throughout the rest of this article, to reflect that I am using a concept that has been both labelled and accepted by the disability community.

    Let’s Get Autoethnographic

    To get personal: I identify as a spoonie, and the day I learnt about spoon theory was an emotional day for me. It gave me a label to describe my experience, and terminology to explain my life. An incomplete list of my medical history includes myofascial pain, fibromyalgia, IBS, depression, migraines, anaemia, night eating syndrome, and a yet-unspecified hypermobility spectrum disorder.

    Each one of these conditions can severely limit the amount of spoons I have in a given day. I wake up each day not knowing how much energy I’ll have or how much pain I’ll be in today. I have to carefully ration my spoons and spend a great deal of mental energy budgeting my spoons.

    My medical history contains many co-morbid diagnoses of exclusion, and a list that keeps evolving since many of these conditions are only recently being researched by modern medicine. Having the term “spoonie” available to me gives me not only a consistent label, but one that acts as shorthand instead of having to list all my syndromes/conditions.

    It feels very personal for me to share my medical history. Using the term spoonie allows me to communicate my personal situation without having to disclose my medical history. It connects me to a community of other people who have to think about every spoon they spend every day — a currency not worried about by most people.

    Using the Term “Spoons” 

    When I showed friends and colleagues earlier drafts of this article, a common response was that my use of “spoons” felt unusual to them. I spent some time wondering if I should use a more academic-sounding term, such as energy, or exertion. But I see two main reasons why I should keep using the term spoons here:

    1. So the article is accessible to people in the disability community. A common problem with academic articles is we use use different terminology, and so the people who would benefit from reading the article often do not have the linguistic capital to find it.
    2. This is the language that is used in the disability community. It may sound strange if it’s new to you. That’s normal when you see a new term, particularly one outside your habitus. Consider the rest of this article a chance to get familiar with this new term.This isn’t the first academic text out there to use the spoon metaphor: for example there is this clinical study of patients with MS, and this paper about pain communication on Tumblr.

    Spoons are a Resource

    Spoons are a representation of units of physical, emotional, or cognitive energy. Another metaphor often used for this is a battery: energy is spent and can be recharged.

    Spending a spoon refers to an activity which requires significant exertion. Spoons can be recovered through resting.

    What costs spoons does vary from person to person. It costs me a spoon to get out of bed in the morning due to the physical exertion. But if getting out of the bed in the morning is something you can do without thinking about, likely it isn’t costing you a spoon.

    Similarly, while it costs me numerous spoons to get to work, once at work I generally expend few spoons. It doesn’t cost me a spoon to sit and participate in a discussion on advanced statistics, or to read a paper on social theory, or to meet with a colleague. But for somebody with a learning disability all of these things likely would cost them spoons.

    Whether an activity expends spoons is not the same as difficulty. It may be difficult for me to wrap my head around a particularly esoteric scholarly work, but the process does not feel like it drains my energy. Spoons are also not the same as disability. Being deaf or blind does not mean you have a stock of sight or hearing to spend each day. Furthemore, abled people expend spoons; the issue is that they do generally not worry about them.

    If you look at Jessica Kellgren-Forzad’s Sims example, she compares a day in the life of “Alice” who has a chronic illness, to “Mary” who does not. Alice begins her day with 10 spoons and keeps having to stop throughout her day to rest as she is frequently on the brink. Mary, in contrast, begins her day with 30 spoons, and ends it with 20, not having to worry about her energy as she goes through her day.

    Spoons are a Form of Capital

    People who have abundant spoon capital_ _available to them do not worry, or often think, about how  much they have. It is not a limited resource to them. Indeed, it probably wasn’t a limited resource for Bourdieu — and so not something he would have thought of in making his social theories.

    Like other forms of capital, spoon capital begets more spoon capital:

    • Let’s say I start my day with five spoons. It takes me one spoon to get out of bed. One spoon to get dressed. One spoon to brush my hair. One spoon to brush my teeth. I’m now down to one spoon and need to spend my last spoon getting back into bed to rest. Resting gives me back three spoons. It took five spoons for me to get ready for work.
    • The next day I wake up with six spoons. It then takes me four spoons to get ready for work because I don’t have to spend spoons to rest in the process of getting ready. Having more spoons to begin with means the chance to more efficiently expend spoons.I mentioned I spend time budgeting my spoon capital. When I was an undergraduate I spent time budgeting and fretting over literally every cent I had. Budgeting my spoons feels the same way to me._ _Like those who need to track every cent they have in order to keep afloat, I have to pay attention to each one of my precious spoons just to function in our society.

    Spoons are a discrete resource. They can be quantified. They can be tracked. Indeed, I track mine: I keep a spreadsheet diary of my daily spoons and use it to plan and keep track of what I do. (Yes, I am a nerd and I love spreadsheets.) I have a pretty consistent idea of what one activity costs in terms of spoons, and so can reliably measure them.

    Spoon capital is not the same as health. Unlike in an RPG where somebody has health or hit points, it’s quite difficult to come up with a quantifiable, measurable way of saying how much health somebody has. Health is a categorical form of data, not a numerical one. Health is also not spent or recharged in the same way that spoons are.

    Depending on who you are, activities could cost different amounts of spoons for you. This is true of other forms of capital. For example, I don’t have to spend economic capital to read a paywalled scholarly article because I have the cultural capital of institutional access. Likewise, somebody who has the economic capital to get a fancy credit card that gives them free lounge access at an airport does not have to pay the fee to enter the lounge.

    Spoon Capital is Convertible to Other Forms of Capital

    Like how Bourdieu’s three forms of capital are affected by each other, spoon capital is related to the other forms of capital. For example:

    1. When I have more spoon capital at my disposal, I can do more to price shop. I can go to more stores, and compare more prices, or go to a store farther away to get a better deal. It also costs me spoons to buy in bulk. It takes me more spoons to carry a larger/heavier load home from shopping. 
    2. More spoon capital also means more social capital. With more spoons I can do go to more parties and events, or last longer at the same events — meaning I can interact with a larger group of people.
    3. And spoon capital can unlock cultural capital. You need energy to be a student and to finish a university degree. Students with disabilities often spend many of their precious spoons on getting documentation for their disability, navigating university bureaucracy to get accommodations.And these can all go the other way:

    4. With more economic capital, you can buy more mobility aids which will help you preserve your spoons and spend them more efficiently. I bought a recumbent bike ($$) since I can’t ride an upright bike, and riding it costs me fewer spoons than having to deal with public transit. (Driving is an issue for me.)

    5. More social capital means you’re more likely to know people with similar conditions who have helpful management strategies, helpful doctors, good physiotherapists, etc.3. And cultural capital means a that you can stay on top of new clinical research, have more productive discussions with health professionals, and unlock medications/treatments that could give you more (or fewer!) spoons.Spoon capital does not neatly fall into Bourdieu’s framework of three fundamental forms of capital. Spoon capital may be converted into or from other forms of capital but is still a distinct stock of capital. It is embodied, and often quite fixed — I can use my economic, social and cultural capital to find ways to spend my spoons more efficiently, but it is rare to find a way to actually increase the total number of spoons I have at hand.


    Spoon capital is a distinct form of capital that is missing from Bourdieu’s 1985 framework of forms of capital. Like other forms of capital, it can be overlooked and taken for granted by those who have the given form of capital. And like other forms of capital, those without can find themselves in a poverty trap, particularly if they do not have other forms of capital to leverage. Using a disability lens gives sociologists a way to identify aspects of social life which would otherwise be missed by traditional sociology.

    For those who have little spoon capital, thinking about spoons as capital not only unlocks useful language to communicate about our spoon-poverty, but also surrounding the relationships between being a spoon capital and economic, social and cultural capital. This lens can be used to give insight surrounding disability and social stratification.

  • Women in Computing As Problematic: A Summary

    I’ve long been interested in why, despite so much organized effort, there percentage of women in CS has been so stagnant. One hypothesis I had for some time was that the efforts themselves were unintentionally counter-productive: that they reinforced the gender subtyping of “female computer scientist” being separate from unmarked “computer scientists”.

    I was excited earlier this week when Siobhan Stevenson alerted me to this unpublished thesis from OISE: “Women in Computing as Problematic” by Susan Michele Sturman (2009).

    In 2005-6, Sturman conducted an institutional ethnography of the graduate CS programmes at two research-intensive universities in Ontario. In institutional ethnography, one starts by “reading up”: identifying those who have the least power and interviewing them about their everyday experiences. From what the interviews reveal, the researcher then goes on to interview those identified as having power over the initial participants.

    Interested in studying graduate-level computer science education, she started with female graduate students. This led her to the women in computing lunches and events, interviewing faculty members and administrators at those two universities. She also attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) and analysed the texts and experiences she had there. Her goal was to understand the “women in computing” culture.

    In the style of science studies scholars like Bruno Latour, Sturman comes to the organized women in computing culture as an outsider. As a social scientist, she sees things differently: “Women in the field wonder what it is about women and women’s lives that keeps them from doing science, and feminists ask what it is about science that leads to social exclusion for women and other marginalized groups”

    Why I’m writing this summary

    Sadly, the thesis was never published. Sturman has since left academia and presently works as a high school teacher. I think the CS education community would benefit from hearing her findings. It’s worth noting upfront that Sturman is a poststructuralist: her goal is to problematize and deconstruct what she sees – not to test any hypothesis.

    The thesis is not an easy read. It’s a whopping 276-page read and took me about four hours. If you want to read it, but don’t want to read the whole thing, I suggest reading the last two chapters.

    I feel I only managed to get through it because I’ve taken courses from OISE on social theory. The thesis is extremely theoretical, and assumes the reader is fluent with the works of Dorothy Smith, Chandra Mohanty, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, Bruno Latour, Thomas Kuhn, Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Acker, Judith Butler, Carol Gilligan, Donna Haraway, Judy Wajcman, and Simone de Beauvoir.

    Because the thesis has never been cited and it presents a very valuable perspective, I’m going to spend this blog post summarizing her findings. Where possible I’ll try to use Sturman’s own words, to foreground her own analysis.

    Women in Computing Lunches in the 80s

    The formal women in computing (WIC) lunches that Sturman attended have an interesting history. Female graduate students in the 80s felt the need “to come together for communication and support” amidst a “chilly climate” in their departments.

    For context, the 80s were a time when feminists were turning their attention to academia; women were organizing groups to draw attention to “women’s issues”, such as campus safety, sexual harassment, and workplace discrimination. These efforts were rooted in second wave feminism.

    The informal lunches and dinners in the 80s were “a student-initiated intervention to ‘help people in the program’”. As time went on, these female CS grad students became more activist. Some of these women went on to “present a report to the university about improving the ‘climate’ for women in science. Among the local concerns for women in Computer Science at the university was building at campus safety at night when they worked late in labs”.

    Women in Computing Lunches in the 00s

    Sturman spends a fair bit of time contrasting the lunches from the 80s with their form as she saw them in 2005-06. These lunches were now formal gatherings, organized by computer science departments. They had become institution-led rather than student-led, with a goal of keeping women enrolled in CS.

    The faculty who organized the lunches described the goal as “to create community …. [she] recalled her own experience as a graduate student when the few women in Computer Science and Engineering bonded informally in order to actively improve the chilly climate for women in their departments (Prentice, 2000). However, the institutional creation of ‘community’ sets formal boundaries that both constraint [sic] and enable practice.”

    Many of the graduate students in the 00s felt they had “nothing in common” with the other women at these lunches: “there was no inherent commonality to the group based on gender, other than the fact that they were all women, and all together ‘in the same room’. …. The diversity of their countries of origin, their educational backgrounds, their family responsibilities (or not) and many other aspects of their lives often made the idea of shared ‘experience’ seem alien to them.’

    The concerns of the women at these lunches was also different than in the 80s: discussion focused on individual choices and satisfaction, rather than workplace conditions. Rhetoric at the lunches was consistent with what we’d now call “Lean In” culture: trying to improve the psychology of the women there (promote yourself! etc) than make structural change.

    Ironically, these lunches “often had a negative effect upon [the female grad students’] self-perceptions and upon their hopes to help implement change” – the lunches did not “encourage graduate student participation in any comprehensive plan to change the male-dominate ‘culture of computing’ […] Rather, it seemed to students that the existence of the group and the funding of ‘get-togethers’ served as the main commitment of the department (and of university administrative resources) to gender equity, though both universities were concerned abut the declining enrolment of both male and female students in undergraduate Computer Science.”

    The female grad students in the 00s who did want to make change at their institutions instead found other avenues, such as undergrad affairs committees, or labour unions, more productive than the WIC lunches. This work, and that of the female faculty running the WIC lunches, was seen sometimes a burden by the women doing it. It took time and emotional energy for which they were not compensated. Many of the female students noted that they had to be careful how much work they did promoting women in CS; if they were seen as doing “too much” they anticipated it would hurt their job prospects.

    As CS departments embraced numerical-based goals for diversity, the female graduate students felt like they were used by their institutions to meet these institutional diversity goals: “To S and some of the other students … the ‘women in computing’ groups seemed a position of powerlessness. In such a position, they felt subjectified as ‘women in computing’ for special interest from the university but with little direct power in effecting institution change where gender inequity was identified”.

    As for the community building, one participant stated that “I don’t really feel a huge need for a sort of a… support group”. The lunches were seen more as a networking opportunity. Some women “disidentified with the problems other women talked about, and were depressed by or disinterested in warnings about ‘toxins’ that they as yet did not detect”. As one participant put it, “the stories [at the lunches] will just depress me [if I go].”

    The young women were often ambivalent about these lunches and other WIC initiatives, feeling uncomfortable about receiving “special treatment”. One participant worried it would seem “‘unfair’ to her male colleagues”. Other women described receiving “special treatment” in as undermining their identities as independent and self-made computer scientists.

    Women’s Work in Computing

    Participating in women’s lunches and presenting research at women’s conferences contrasted with the “gender-neutral” activities that women in CS must also partake in. Women felt pressure both to go to ordinary (male-dominated yet “gender-netural”) conferences as well as to present research at the women’s conferences.

    As Sturman put it: “for the women graduate students in Computer Science who participated in this study, the university practice of ‘gender equity’ means negotiating the contradictory position of attending to institutional demands for individuated ‘gender neutral’ scholarly performance in competition with peers for external and internal awards, jobs and research recognition while at the same time being hailed to affiliate with the ‘community’ of ‘women in computing’. Through these intersecting discourses, for many of these students, the sign of ‘feminism’ seems more a set of institutional rules and boundaries for gender performance and identity management than a relevant activist project.”

    At the same time, Sturman observed that certain subfields and activities in CS have become seen as “female-friendly” because they are seen as having more social relevancy and collaborative work. These areas include software engineering, human-computer interaction, computational linguistics, as well as the practice of teaching. Sturman also noted a perception of these areas being less mathematical, reflecting gender stereotypes that women don’t like math.

    Sturman challenges the categorization of these areas as “female-friendly” – the assumption that social relevancy and collaboration (and less math) are suitable for women reflects outdated and harmful stereotypes of women.

    The institutional culture at both universities Sturman studied valued the more masculine, abstract subfields of CS. Areas like SE and HCI were not seen as “real” computer science and given less respect. Teaching-track faculty were not seen as doing as contributing equally to the department as research faculty. Indeed, teaching track jobs were described as more suitable for women so they wouldn’t have to be burdened by research and “you look after your children”.

    Work/Life Balance as Problematic

    The discourse of “work-life balance” appears frequently in the women in computing arena. Sturman viewed this in terms of gender performance: “[a female grad student being interviewed talked] as she showed me pictures of herself and her boyfriend on a camping trip as evidence of her successful performance of ‘work-life balance’. The successful management of ‘work-life balance’ is a workshop topic at many ‘women in computing’ events. In contradictory interaction with the intensification of institutional performance of the self, it is often an almost impossible feat for young women (and men) who are entering the CS/IT workforce, whether in the academy or in industry. Proof of the accomplishment of work-life balance, or of attempts to self-improve in that direction, is an important part of ‘women in computing’ discourse.”

    Furthermore: “The illusory goal of work/life balance … moves ‘women in computing’ discourse away from political activity for better material working conditions to an individualized psychology-based call to improve behaviour and attitudes (both personal and institutional). … by embracing ‘work/life balance’, which reinscribes heteronormative “family life” […] [and] stands in binary gendered relation to an undesired identification with the work-obsessed male ‘nerd’ who has ‘no life’.”

    “This discourse plays in contradictory relation to the discourse of ambition, which implies that women need to improve themselves by being more attentive to public recognition and career advancement. Demands for the recognition of work/life balance issues are considered in the dominant male CS culture as a ‘personal choice’ to take a less committed (and therefore less materially compensated) role at work; this is also true for men in CS who want to take a more active role in parenting. The self-improvement discourse of ‘women in computing’ posits work/life balance as yet another performance indicator, suggesting that women should strive for high performance goals in both work and family life. This discourse seemed a contradictory and exhausting path for many of the women faculty members I interviewed, who balanced the demanding research performance that was expected of them at their universities with a heavy teaching and service workload and, in some cases, young children as well.”

    Sturman then spends some time analyzing the recommendations from CRA-W for faculty interested in increasing female participation in their classes, identifying how these texts focus “on the individualized promotion of ‘choice’ and ‘career satisfaction’ away from any analysis of a need for structural change.”

    Marketing the “Woman in Computer Science”

    Another theme of WIC events that Sturman observed was workshops and advice on how to market one’s self as a woman in computer science. Here, “an aestheticized anti-geek self-identity is encouraged as a marketable commodity for women seeking CS/IT careers”.

    In trying to combat the stereotype of computer scientists as male geeks, WIC culture presents women in computing as hyperfeminine. These idealized women are young, attractive, have “soft skills”, and also can balance work and life. Sturman spends some time analyzing the promotional material for Grace Hopper. These posters (at the time of analysis) always showed young pretty women, usually white. The posters never show the “old faces” of computing: white men and Asian women and men.

    The frequent suggestions that young women need “role models” serves to communicate to young women what kind of woman they should become in order to be a woman in computing. The graduate students that Sturman interviewed reported having to carefully present their identities, to try to further their careers.

    While at Grace Hopper, Sturman observed how much the celebration has become a place for tech companies to recruit women. Many of the women recruited to these tech companies are later paced into non-technical managerial positions.

    One session at Grace Hopper that Sturman attended was entitled “Embrace your duality as an Asian woman to lead” and its abstract adversities “We will brainstorm how to leverage our gender strength to excel, and to embrace our cultural advantage to lead!” At the session, Asian women were taught to treat their identity as a commodity. Universities are seeking to attract more “international students” and companies more “migrant Asian IT worker” – labels which serve to treat these women as outsiders, rather than North Americans.

    Networking at Grace Hopper

    Sturman’s research brought her to Grace Hopper. Her first impressions are clear: a focus on “the contested concept of numeric equality” in CS, and how the choice of naming the conference after a military scientist “provides a backdrop to the many intersecting contradictions in this milieu, where academic, corporate and military interests converge to produce the organizing texts forming the category of ‘women in computing’ as a target group for inclusion, marketing and co-optation.”

    She finds a paradox at the celebration: the “North American Second Wave liberal feminist belief in ‘universal sisterhood’” is present at the same time as neoliberal political and economic practices. Neoliberal political/economics refer to the decentralization of the State and the decollectivization of the workplace – or as their proponents would put it, making the workforce more “flexible”, and workers more “independent”.

    For the female students who attended, the main pull was networking with other women in the field, and with the large tech companies who recruit there. The older generation’s goals of universal sisterhood were not shared with the young: “there was little or no identification with networking as a method of establishing solidarity or group affiliation as ‘women’; most understood the practice as instrumental in the establishment of professional contacts, but little more”.

    Personally, I’ve had people recommend that I attend Grace Hopper so that I can “network with the Ol’ Gal’s Club” – the conference has established a network of high-achieving women to rival the Ol’ Boys Club of computer science, rather than dismantle the club-based system.

    Female Friendly Education?

    A particular session stood out for Sturman, titled “‘Female Friendly Education: Increasing Participation or Watering Down?’ provoked a heated response from audience members, many of whom were university students and professors. The topic unexpectedly made clear how the insertion of diverse women into a generalized female identity in ‘women in computing’ or ‘female friendly Computer Science’ is extremely problematic, constituting a unitary subject which also produces those it does not include as marginal. Among the panelists, Sue Rosser, a feminist scholar of science at Georgia Tech, had coined the term ‘female friendly science’ (1990) to signify a new approach to university science education which would take into account how science is gendered and would seek to redirect values and practices in scientific work to reflect the interests and experiences of women as well as men.”

    “Certainly, in the group of female graduate CS students I interviewed, the majority resisted the characteristics ascribed to them in a ‘female friendly’ Computer Science approach, characteristics which positioned them as gendered subjects, read as less competent and less able in relation to the dominant unmarked male subject of Computer Science. The panelists presented their questions to the audience in an attempt to get feedback about why ‘third wave’ (their term) feminists and younger CS women in general responded negatively to the term ‘female friendly…”

    “The practices of ‘female friendly’ science assemble a subject which is the Other, as the term ‘female friendly science’ itself acknowledges that the discipline of science limits the right of women to participate in its laws of discourse. Thus ‘female friendly science’ performs a reinscription of social exclusion. The existing forms of scientific discourse, or what the presenters described as masculinized STEM values, ‘an emphasis on truth, beauty and puzzles’, determine the limits by which femininized values of ‘time spent on community and social impact’ can be uttered as a ‘truth’ about women through the gender binary.”

    Retraditionalizing the Gender Binary

    Indeed, much of the rhetoric Sturman observed at Grace Hopper served to reinforce the gender binary. “Throughout the conference, there was a lot of talk about countering the geek image, supported by print and visual media; essentialized female identity appeared to shut out those who didn’t conform.”

    Much of the motivation for recruiting more women in to CS “reflected concern that young women will be ‘left behind’ because they are not pursuing Computer Science or IT as career paths; this is produced through a discourse of fear that America will be left behind in the face of global IT competition, particularly that coming from Asia. In the media representations at Grace Hopper, young women at the conference are heavily encouraged to be leaders in the field, icons for innovation, change, diversity, flexibility and collaboration; this supports an essentialized cataloging of women’s ‘inherent’ strengths in working with people and across difference.”

    “A series of keynote speakers modeled different aspects of computer science and information technology in the academy, in industry and in the U.S. Space program. This ‘intentional role modeling’ is seen by many promoters of women’s participation in IT as “a way to overcome the negative effects of stereotypes by increasing self-ratings and by inspiring and motivating achievement”. … Once again, this places young women in the dual role of being both strong and ‘at risk’ (Harris, 2001), strong in that their participation in IT work drives the national economy, but at risk of not living up to the expectations set by the role model, and potentially failing their own expectations for a high-paying and meaningful career. These intentional role models, as living motivational texts, organize work for those with already high self-expectations … and to push them to achieve further as selfactuating, self-(im)proving subjects. Not only is their own self-worth dependent on their achievement, but, they are told, so is the success of the nation: “Women’s lack of participation in IT has deep implications for our country’s preparedness, competitiveness, economic wellbeing, and quality of life” (NCWIT, n.d.).” (emphasis mine)

    The Merit vs. Equality Debate

    Noticeably, much of the policies and texts surrounding computer science education in Ontario place an emphasis on producing IT workers. “In much of the discussion around inclusion strategies in CS/IT education, the exchange often takes the form of a debate between those who point to the underrepresentation of women and targetted minority groups as not only inequitable but also potentially limiting to the development of future North American CS/IT workers, and those who argue against a ‘watering down’ of Computer Science as an academic discipline for the sake of filling enrolment targets.”

    Sturman is far from the first to observe the merit vs. equality debate in computer science. She presents some examples of texts representing these discourses. Since many others have covered this topic, I’ll be brief here.

    She draws a connection to the focus of numerical equality: that “dominant belief for practitioners is that getting more women into the field will change science; Schiebinger (2000) suggests that only feminist analysis alongside women’s greater participation within the field will bring that change about, as past history and current resistance to change indicates.”


    If it wasn’t clear by now, Sturman is not a positivist. Indeed, she argues that the hegemony of positivism in computer science is part of the problem: it leads to a focus on what is measurable and “objective” (ie. numeric equality) rather than on the “subjective” experiences and emotions of the women in CS.

    Positivism also falls prey to the grand narrative of cause and effect. She describes much of the research on women in CS: “The general purpose of these investigations seems to be to identify a cause-effect pathway and then to proceed with an equally linear solution. This strategy mirrors the methods of positivist science, and the reasoning is that a solution to this scientific/technical problem must use parallel scientific means … “The difficulty with this approach is that the subject of science is transparent to itself and tends to reproduce its own image iteratively. Thus the ‘problem’ of ‘women in computing’ bounces back to researchers without much in the way of new insights, let alone solutions. The ‘numbers game’ dominates, even as feminist proponents of gender equity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) acknowledge its failure.” “

    Publishing practices also contribute to the “problem”: she talks to people who tried to publish “failed” interventions and were rejected. “Gender” is seen as a niche issue: “she was told that the journal had already published a lot of submissions on ‘gender’”

    It’s my opinion that the CS education scene has improved on these fronts since 2006 (there are good places like ICER and RESPECT that have been created, but they are not representative of all CS education). But women in computing groups today still seem uncomfortable with non-positivist research. I attended Can-CWiC earlier this year and noticed a huge divide between the female faculty (who wanted to hear about my research and were excited by it) and the female students (who were dismissive of me for not being a real “computer scientist”).

    A Final Quote from the Thesis

    One of Sturman’s faculty participants candidly noted that “…to keep in mind … is we’re the survivors. We’re the ones who could put up with all the crap, and we had enough, a strong enough sense of self, or our personalities are such that we fit in well enough with the dominant, mostly male environment that we were able to do fine. So we would be the last ones who’d be able to tell that the atmosphere is poor… in some sense we’re part of it, if that makes sense [Laughs]. We were selected for being able to put up with toxins, so we’re probably not the best ones to detect it, necessarily”

    My Own Thoughts

    My first reactions to the thesis were excitement that somebody has done this work – only to follow with disappointment that the work was never published, and never disseminated to the audience it would most benefit: computer scientists.

    Not only was it never disseminated, it’s written in a way that is really only accessible to theory-oriented sociologists. She describes almost nothing of her methods or analytic process. No primer is given on the many social theories that she uses.

    While poststructuralism doesn’t aim to verify hypotheses (like positivism) nor to explain the world (like constructivism), it does aim to provide new narratives to counteract problematic ones. An unpublished, inaccessible thesis does not help computer scientists rethink their problematic narratives and build new ones.

    Since Sturman did her research in 2005, some things have changed. Some of her critiques and observations have been independently made. For example, Sarah Nadav’s post that “The “Women in Tech” movement is full of victim blaming bullshit” recently went viral. And within the CS Ed community, I’ve spent some time at ICER critiquing women in CS initiatives for many of the same reasons, though based more on evidence from social psychology. I’ve also written on the generational differences between the women running Women in Computing events and the young women attending them (see here and here). I’m wishing I’d read her thesis three years ago!

    There are things that have been deconstructed since 2005 which Sturman didn’t pick up on. One is the pipeline discourse, which Sturman treats unproblematically. Another is her own, and her participants’ use of “females” as a noun, which is a personal pet peeve of mine.

    I found Sturman’s discussion of Unlocking the Clubhouse as simplistic: while she made the key observation that the initiatives had the political support to succeed, she views the curricular changes as the only ones. The folks I’ve talked to about CMU’s initiatives have indicated that it was the admissions changes that may have been the most significant.

    Since Sturman wrote her thesis, many scholars have critiqued how “women in STEM” is being presented. Marieke van den Brink, for example, has found many of the same discourses and paradoxes in the women in physics community. Padavic et al have pushed on the “work/life discourse” as problematic with interesting insights. Overall, the focus has been slowly shifting from trying to “fix” the women/girls to fixing the structure of science. Sturman’s thesis gives us more ammunition for arguing that the old way of promoting “women in computing” is problematic and in need of rethinking.

  • Impostor syndrome viewed through the lens of social theory


    Sociologists like to use performance as a metaphor for everyday life. Erving Goffman in particular championed the metaphor, bringing to light how our social interactions take place on various stages according to various scripts. And when people don’t follow the right script on the right stage, social punishment ensues (e.g. stigma).

    Pierre Bourdieu rather similarly described social interactions as taking place in arenas, seeing them more like games than plays. (Sometimes champs is translated as ‘field’ rather than arena; it’s worth noting Bourdieu intended for it to have a connation of sport/war.) Rather than a script, people get a sense for the rules of the game. And when people don’t follow the rules of the game, social punishment ensues.

    Whether one is failing at a social game or performance, social punishment can take many forms. For example, sexual harassment is most reported by those who go against gender roles. Powerful women are more likely to be harassed than less powerful women. Women in male-dominated fields are more likely to be harassed. Men who are effeminate, gay, or champions of feminism, are more likely to be harassed. Harassers act to keep people “in their place”.

    Since not following the script/game is costly for individuals, we’re trained from a young age to be on the lookout for cues about what stage/arena we’re on and what role we should be playing. Looking for and responding to cues is something we do automatically most of the time. Kahneman would see it as an example of System 1 thinking.

    Impostor syndrome is the sense that you’re the wrong person to be playing the role you’re in. You’re acting a role that you’ve been trained in and hired for – but your brain is picking up on cues that signal that you’re not right for the role.

    The Caltech Counselling Centre has this to say on “who is likely to have the impostor syndrome?“:

    Attitudes, beliefs, direct or indirect messages that we received from our parents or from other significant people in our lives early on may have contributed to the development of impostor feelings. Certain family situations and dynamics tend to contribute to impostor feelings: when the success and career aspirations conflicts with the family expectations of the gender, race, religion, or age of the person, families who impose unrealistic standards, families who are very critical, and families who are ridden with conflict and anger.

    Some researchers identify two main types of family dynamics that can contribute to impostor feelings, although there may be others.

    Family Labels:  Different children in a family may be identified or labeled differently.  For example, some families have one “intelligent” child and one “sensitive” child.  While growing up, many times families will not change their perception of each child, no matter what that child does.  Therefore, the sensitive child, even if she gets better grades or more awards may not be recognized for her intelligence.  This can lead to doubting her intelligence and believing the family is correct even with evidence, which contradicts these labels. 
    The sensitive child in this example has been raised to play the script of the sensitive child. When they go on to play other roles, they still sometimes encounter social cues indicating they’re in the wrong role. Impostor syndrome results.

    Impostor syndrome is thought to be quite common amongst women in science. In this light I don’t think it’s surprising: there are so many cues in society that we are not what a ‘scientist’ is supposed to look or act like. We don’t fit the stereotypes. Many female scientists were raised to be that sensitive child.

    I started reading about impostor syndrome when I was asked if I had any ideas on whether Impostor Syndrome is a recent phenomenon in society. The syndrome was first termed in the 70s, but sociologists and psychologists had described similar things well before then.

    I would expect its prevalence is a relatively recent phenomenon. In “the good old days” people had extremely rigid options for what roles they could have in society. Women had few if any career options. There was little social mobility. Non-white people had even less social mobility. Most people followed a career trajectory sculpted by their parents – not by themselves. And so, people had a script determined for them. Relatively few people had the ability to deviate from it successfully. They could only play roles that had been assigned to them.

    In modern society, most of us have the privilege of picking the roles we want to play. Regardless of whether we were raised to fit the role, or look like the stereotype. I don’t think people with impostor syndrome are crazy:_ I think they’re picking up on cues that they’re not in a role they were created to be in_.

    Reflecting on the times I’ve experienced impostor syndrome, they were situations where I didn’t look the part (too young, too female). Or they were situations that I hadn’t been raised to fit into – I was raised to be nerdy/geeky. I feel like an impostor at the gym, and I definitely felt like an impostor when I taught a fencing class many years ago.

    I don’t have a magic answer for getting over impostor syndrome, and the link between social cues and impostor syndrome stands only as a hypothesis at this point. But I do think we impostors are necessary to subvert social scripts. Just because you don’t look the stereotype or were raised to do doesn’t mean you can’t, and hopefully that won’t stop you.


    Berdahl, J. 2013. Testimony on Sexual Harassment to the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
    Bourdieu, P. 1979. La distinction.
    Caltech Counselling Center. The Impostor Syndrome.
    Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
    Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow.

  • A brief introduction to social theory


    Theories from psychology enjoy a fair bit of use in computer science education, but education is not merely a cognitive process: it’s also a social one.

    I’ve found it useful to learn about social theory as a CS education graduate student, and I thought I’d share a quick introduction to social theory that I initially wrote for my research proposal to my thesis committee this fall.

    Classical Social Theory

    Classically, sociology has had four major schools of thought, each of which goes by various names and is associated with one of the four “founders” of sociology:

    1. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) coined the term “positive philosophy”, now better known as positivism. Comte’s sociology was inspired by the French Revolution: sociology was envisioned as a means to produce the perfect society. (Indeed, Comte was incensed that the lower classes wouldn’t simply accept their “place” in society.)
      In Comte’s world, one would test out different ideas for how to run a society, and find the optimal approach. While Comte himself argued for holism, (post)positivism has since come to be associated with reductionism.

    2. The sociology of Max Weber (1864-1920) contrasts with Comte’s: Weber was a proponent of anti-positivism (also known as constructivism or interpretivism). Weber saw verstehen (understanding) as the goal of research, rather than hypothesis verification. Weber theorized upon social stratification; he also wrote about closure (how groups draw the boundaries and construct identities, and compete with out-group members for scarce resources.)

      Weber’s sociology put an emphasis on ideology. Capitalism, for example, was the result of ideological conditions unique to Northern Europe; capitalism has only succeeded where these ideological conditions hold.

    3. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) built on Comte’s positivism, setting forth structural functionalism. In structural functionalism, a society is viewed like a biological cell: different parts of a society are likened organelles. Durkheim’s sociology looks at how the parts work together to comprise the whole. It is also holistic – much of how systems thinking was used in the social sciences built on Durkheimian notions of society.

    4. Finally, Karl Marx (1818-1883) provided an approach which contrasts with Durkheim’s: instead of seeing harmony, it emphasizes the role of class conflict in society and the historical-economic basis thereof. Marxist sociology has also been known as conflict theory, though the historical-economic basis is not the only way one could study conflict. For example, Weberians see conflict rooted in ideology, rather than in a clash over resources.

    20th Century Social Theory

    While classical theory is often referred to in terms of thinkers (Marx, Weber, etc), the more modern movements tend to be known more by schools of thought. Some of the major ones would be:

    1. Neo-Marxism refers to the 20th century updates of Marxist theory, which has pulled in Weberian and poststructuralist work on status and power. Antonio Gramsci is a well-known neo-Marxist, who was curious about the question of why the revolution Marx had predicted never seemed to come about. Gramsci is most famous for his theory of cultural hegemony.

      Critical theory is also based on Marxist thought, and is often conflated with it. Critical theory emphasizes praxis, the combination of theory and practice. Critical theory is most associated with the Frankfurt School, including names such as Theodor Adorno and Jurgen Habermas.

    2. Interactionism assumes that all social processes are the result of human interaction. It emerged in the early 20th century. Interactionaists focus their studies on the interactions between individuals. As a result, interactionists do not `see’ the effects of physical environment – or even solitary thought/work. They also reject quantitative data in favour of qualitative approaches: grounded theory and ethnomethodology were both developed by interactionists. The notion of social interaction as a performance was first developed in interactionist thought; poststructuralists have since refined it. While there’s no single name associated with this perspective, some associated names include George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, and Dorothy Smith.
      Sociologists also look at social systems at different levels: the macro level looks at entire societies, nations, etc; the meso level looks at organizations, institutions, etc; the micro level looks at individuals. While classical sociology was generally macro, interactionism focuses on the micro level.

    3. Structuralism might be seen as a macro-focused backlash against interactionism’s focus on the micro. Structuralism sees social processes as stemming from larger, overarching structures, and also emerged in the early 20th century. Structuralists see society as being governed by these structures in a somewhat analogous fashion to how physicists may see the universe as being governed by laws of nature. A criticism of structuralism is that it sees these structures as fixed; in contrast a Marxist would focus on historical change. Some structuralists include Claude Levi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Jean Piaget.

    4. Poststructuralism (more or less interchangeable with “postmodernism”) is not a particularly coherent school of thought. This is not altogether surprising as the key poststructuralists both reject the label and the very notion that there is such a real thing as poststructuralism. Poststructuralists reject the idea of “objective” knowledge: since the study of sociology is done by humans who are biased by history and culture, they argue that any study of a social phenomenon must be combined with how the study of that social phenomenon was produced. For example, a poststructuralist would not take a concept like `gender’ as a given, but problematize the concept. Poststructuralism evolved out of structuralism in the mid 20th century. Some major poststructuralists include Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler.
  • I drank the critical theory koolaid.


    For our last LHA1803Y class of the term, we had a potluck in the class. I had fun putting together drinks:

    Positivist koolaid: your standard red koolaid. People will disagree what the red is supposed to be – cherry? strawberry? “red”? You grew up with it and remember it nostalgically but don’t really want to have some now that you’ve had more grown up drinks.

    Postpositivist koolaid: it’s the same red koolaid as the positivist koolaid, but your drink comes garnished with a lemon slice.

    Critical theory koolaid: the praxis of the sweet-yet-sour lemonade of theory with the harsh reality of ginger ale. While some would point out this is not actually “koolaid”, they’re missing the point. Drinking it makes you feel a little better about yourself.

    _Postmodernist “koolaid”: _there is no such thing as “koolaid”, nor the little umbrella that your drink is garnished with. After all, “koolaid” exists only through discourse and is socially constructed. A Foucaultian archaeological analysis indicates that the discourse originates through a combination of cranberry juice and tonic water, its bitterness a nod to Nietzsche – and the fact that the drink is an acquired taste that is generally seen as unpalatable without gin.

  • A quick and dirty introduction to Bourdieu for systems thinkers


    I’ve been on a Bourdieu kick for the course I’m currently taking on social theory (LHA 1803Y: Theory in Higher Education), and since Steve Easterbrook mentioned he wasn’t familiar with Bourdieu, I figured I’d write a quick and dirty introduction to Bourdieu’s social theories. Steve’s a systems thinker so this is written for such an audience.

    In systems thinking we like to think of people as existing in many (overlapping) social systems (because, after all, pretty much everything to a systems thinker is a system.) These social systems can be things like school, work, a professional community, or even your favourite internet community.

    Bourdieu would call those systems fields. (Specifically, a field is a system of social positions, with internal structure.) In his terminology, the rules determining the system/fields are known as nomos. (Fields are not the same as class, which I’ll get to later.) When people in fields ‘play by the rules’ of the system, and invest in it, he calls this illusio.

    If you’re wondering if he also has paradigms in his systems, the answer is yes! He calls them doxa, the concepts and ideas which go without saying as it comes without saying – “the universe of possible discourse”.


    As an individual, I interact with numerous fields. There are two things that matter about me in how I interact with these fields: my capital, and my habitus.

    Bourdieu distinguishes numerous forms of capital:

    • economic capital, how many financial assets I have
    • social capital, who I know, my social networks, what I can get out them, etc.
    • cultural capital, the knowledge, skills, advantages and education that I have – along with the cultural ‘know-how’ of how to navigate particular social situations
    • symbolic capital, the resources available to me on the basis of honour, prestige, recognition, or my other forms of capitalA thing worth noting about capital is that its value is context-dependent. For example, my knowledge of Star Trek trivia (which is cultural capital), has use in nerdy fields like computer science, but less so at gatherings of my extended family. Similarly, my Canadian money is of lesser value outside of Canada, and even less value were I to visit a society with a bartering or gift-giving economy.

    As for habitus, the description on Wikipedia wraps it up nicely: “the habitus could be understood as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste”. Your habitus is developed in part through socialization. Bourdieu conceived of habitus as a way to study the interaction area between individual and society – in software engineering terms you might think of your habitus as being the coupler between an individual and society.

    Every individual has a habitus – but likeminded individuals together can have group habitus. For example, a class habitus would refer to sensibilities, dispositions, tastes and ways of thinking about the world that are common to a social class.


    Unlike previous social theorists like Weber or Marx, Bourdieu’s view of class is not based on just economic capital, but instead on all capital (social, cultural, economic, symbolic). For me this is an appeal of Bourdieu: it explains why a ‘blue collar’ tradesman making the same amount of money as a ‘white collar’ adjunct are not really the same class.

    Much of Bourdieu’s work looks at the reproduction of social inequality. He identifies feedback loops (though not by name) of what keeps the classes separate – and cultural capital plays a major role. How much cultural capital a person has, and to what social standing they are born, are determine their social mobility.

    Those with a large amount of cultural capital in society are able to determine taste in society – such as what is low-brow vs. high brow (and everything in between). And people judge other people based on taste – does somebody ‘fit’ into a particular field? When people don’t fit in to a particular field, symbolic violence is used to keep them out or make them feel uncomfortable. Symbolic violence (also known as symbolic power) comprises things like implicit biases, microaggressions, de facto discrimination, and all that other lovely stuff that’s used to “keep them in their place”.

    Symbolic violence allows for the reproduction of social divisions. A kid growing up in a working class family is going to have less access to means of accumulating cultural capital, is more likely to be affected by class dispositions to not value education as highly, and is more likely to say and do things when interacting with intellectuals that make them stick out like a sore thumb. Indeed, Bourdieu focuses extensively on the little things that stop people (or allow people) to accumulate capital – what they wear, the things they say, the hobbies they have – for him it’s all about the gain on the feedback loops here. The word ‘accumulation’ tends to come up a lot.


    The stories women have of not feeling like they belong in tech/CS are the type of thing very amenable to a Bourdieusian analysis. Indeed, his early work focused on how the French university system amplified social inequalities (both in terms of gender and of class – and the intersection of the two, well before the term _intersectionality _took off).

    His work has been used quite a bit by sociologists to look at the reproduction of social inequalities – for example, a recent study used Bourdieu to examine how low-income minority ethnic groups feel alienated when they go to science museums – and why they don’t really go to them in the first place (hint: habitus plays a role – they have not been socially conditioned to see museums as a thing worth going to).

    In many ways Bourdieu was a systems thinker – he thought of feedback loops, systems-within-systems, and systems-level behaviours, structures, rules and paradigms – but did not have the systems thinking vocabulary available to him. While he was active at the same time as the Systems Thinkers in the English-speaking world, few Systems Thinking based books have been translated into French – and most of the translations happened after Bourdieu died in 2002 (for example, Limits to Growth wasn’t translated into French until 2012!)