Returning from a recent Software Carpentry Workshop at the University of Toronto, I had a chance to see Greg Wilson in his element, instructing a roomful of diverse students in the wonders of automated processing. It was fun to see him work with a student’s messy csv file while he weaved in the workshop’s lessons about shell scripting, python, version control and SQL. I learned both as a student and as an instructor, and will be taking a number of practices back to my own classroom. Most instructive for me to hear was why he does what he does, and what he sees as the core values of Software Carpentry. I am too often hesitant to share my own feelings and interest with my students for fear of alienating them. Greg showed those fears are mostly unfounded.

In that light, what he said regarding the population of Software Carpentry instructors has stayed with me the most. Apparently at one point in the lifetime of Software Carpentry, the male:female ratio of instructors was close to 3:2 (38% female to be exact). As the instructor pool has grown, it has begun to regress down closer to the tech industry’s 6:1 male:female ratio. As someone who joined Software Carpentry because of it’s inclusive and diverse instructor pool, I was saddened to hear this. I realize the irony of being saddened by something that I ultimately contribute to.

So what’s the problem? If the ratio is 6:1 male:female in the computer science field, then Software Carpentry shouldn’t expect parity, should it? Only if we expect Software Carpentry to continue instructing effectively. An increasing number of studies suggest that enforcing gender parity in an organization raises the overall quality of that organization. As a summary by Curt Rice lays out, any time we draw unevenly from an evenly distributed population, we select for extraordinary individuals from the underrepresented population, but also let through mediocre individuals from the overrepresented one. When the workforce reflects the population, the quality of the workforce rises. Those in the mediocre majority are weeded out and replaced by the more competent minority.

What does this mean for Software Carpentry? I notice that the interim board is evenly split male:female, which I applaud. Perhaps they can push initiatives that will preferentially draw a balanced instructor pool for workshops. However, judging by the requests in my inbox, instructors are always in demand. Part of the appeal of Software Carpentry is its mix of benevolent dictatorship and do-ocracy, and that it has more projects than volunteers. It would be difficult to turn away interested parties because of their majority status. I just hope that as Software Carpentry continues to grow, we actively recruit women and under-represented minorities to our group.

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Diversity Mythbusting: Quotas

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