Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Why We Need to Talk About the Collaboration Problem

Today I spoke with a Computer Science professor who is finishing a semester of teaching a notoriously challenging advanced undergraduate course.

"I figured out the problem with my female students," he told me. "It's their partners."

All semester, this colleague--let's call him Albus Dumbledore--had been telling me about the strange phenomenon of drama with his female students and their project partners. The course has a significant project component, and successful completion of the project usually depended on both partners pulling their weight. Mediating partner disputes became the responsibility of the instructor. And what the instructor noticed was that an alarming fraction of the disputes seemed to happen when one of the partners was female.

After wondering all semester how bias might contribute to the drama of the female students' partners, Albus had a relevation. The female students complaining about their partners all seemed to have better overall grades than their partners. Not only did the partners have lower GPAs, but many of them were from outside of Computer Science. Albus surmised that these partners were, in fact, probably not pulling their weight, and that the students had every right to complain.

"But why would these strong students choose such bad partners?" he asked.

That female students had bad partners was, to me, not surprising. After all, nobody had asked me to work on any problem set until the second semester of my sophomore year, and a fellow student only asked me after obtaining an unprotected copy of course grades on our department servers and discovering I had the second-highest midterm score in one of our courses. I told Albus about how a friend once confessed to me that before she had gotten to know me, she had forbade her boyfriend from working with me. I told him about how problem set partners often preferred to solve problems for me rather than with me. My best collaboration in college had been with another woman, and she had been so initially skeptical of my abilities that it took me at least half of a semester to win her over with how fast and how correct my code was.

"So it's not by choice," Albus concluded. "What can we do about this?"

Important question. For my first few years of college, the collaboration problem had left me feeling so isolated and so much in doubt of my abilities that I often thought about switching away from Computer Science. If not for a chance encounter with a friend, one year behind me and facing similar problems, I might have left. What began as a quick hello as our paths intersected on the way back from class turned into a long discussion about the difficulties we both had in finding people who would collaborate with us. I had graded this woman's homework in multiple classes, so I knew the problem was not that she was not capable. This was when I began to realize that the problem may not be with me, but with the way people perceived me--and other women.

Years later, when I was starting Graduate Women at MIT, this conversation led me to put together a panel on collaboration--specifically, on collaborating as women in male-dominated fields. I felt so validated when the panelists--three women at various stages in their careers, each at the top of her field--said what I had observed for years, but had never dared to say out loud. It can be hard to collaborate with men, one panelist said: they often talk at you rather than to you because they are socialized to impress women. It can be harder to collaborate with two men, another panelist said: they will often talk only to each other while trying to impress you. (I don't like to make blanket statements about all people of a gender, just like I don't like to make blanket statements of all people from a culture, but these kinds of conversations can be helpful for recognizing patterns.) While much of this advice was unsurprising, and also depressing, it felt incredibly powerful to hear someone else say these statements out loud. Talking about this explicitly seemed like the first step towards solving the problem.

In the intervening years, I've collected much more evidence of the problem than I have solutions. It is undeniable that collaborations account for much of people's success in technical settings. Albus talked about how, in his class, the students with subpar partners struggled to complete their projects. A recent study I read* cited female academics' ability to travel for international collaboration as one of the biggest determinants of their success. Yet collaboration seems to remain a problem. At a recent lunch of Women@SCS in my department, I spoke about my experiences with Graduate Women at MIT, including about the collaboration panel, and the student kept returning to the issue of collaborating in a male-dominated field. Students asked about how to find collaborators who would take them seriously. Students asked about what to do in groups when people may not be listening to them. A student asked what to do if she has had so many negative collaboration experiences she is reluctant to collaborate anymore. A student said that she, too, felt like male collaborators were often trying to impress her rather than work with her, but she had thought it was in her head.

After the recent lunch, a student asked me about the benefit of talking explicitly about these issues. Wouldn't it be better, she asked, to not draw attention to gender and wait for the problems to go away? I, too, would love to live in a post-gender world where people can just be people. Unfortunately, it seems that collaboration is a topic we need to address explicitly. Not only do these cross-gender/culture problems not seem to be going away on their own, but they also seem to be increasing certain inequalities. Especially in Computer Science, smart people have done an excellent job of solving many other problems of gender equality. I have full confidence that once we recognize this as a problem, we can find good solutions. I would love to hear your ideas.

* In the process of looking for this citation... Let me know if you have it!


Claire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben said...

Jean, this is an awesome post. It resonates with me because I have observed the exact same phenomenon in my OS class, where a disproportionate number of partner issues arise from groups with one female students, and I had never been able to figure out why.

Two reactions:
1. Have you seen how this varies across cultures? I imagine the talking at women and trying to impress women behaviors might occur less in non-US cultures. Do you know if that is true?

2. Once we understand the source of the issue, what's a reasonable solution? Pairing female students up on projects doesn't seem like a great solution. What would you have preferred when you were in this situation? I would love to find a solution to this issue.

Ernie said...

Do you raise this observation in class? It seems like it might help to make students, or at leas the female ones, aware this might occur. Otherwise perhaps they individually assume "it's me", like you did.

Anonymous said...

Would it be better to not let student's choose partners but to just assign them?

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's less about gender, but more about finding a partner on your level?
I'm a third year CS student and I have a lab partner for all my upper level classes. One thing my professor did was randomly pairing us up for three times, and then let us choose a partner for the rest of the semester. I prefer a partner who's roughly on the same level with me. Otherwise one person usually ends up doing more work because the other one couldn't keep up. It's hard to figure out someone's level and working style before you've worked with them. It's also stressful to ask someone to be your lab partner if you don't know them, so sometimes I'll just partner with my friend, even though we might not collaborate well. That's why I like the the random pair method.

Rob said...

It's almost never 100 percent obvious that a particular incident is "about" gender. But it is important not to dismiss the aggregate observation that gender is at play. In collaboration, I have also seen gender as a massive accelerant to natural tendencies for inexperienced collaborators to dismiss each other's work.

kaletzkya said...

Ben: if the culture of another time as well as of another place is relevant, I did not see this phenomenon at all in the logic design and low-level coding (PDP8) lab I taught in the 1970s. Arthur

Christian said...

There is strong evidence that self-selected teams are not a good idea for a number of reasons (including this one), but that instructor-assigned teams are better. There are lots of tools to assign and support teams. Good starting point to explore: Oakley, Barbara, et al. "Turning student groups into effective teams." Journal of student centered learning 2.1 (2004): 9-34.

sara said...

I've been thinking about this issue a lot as well recently! Interesting, a (the seminal?) report on collective intelligence mentioned that groups with more females had more collective intelligence (probably a result of women having more social intelligence).


Claire said...

Buried this in the comments on your fbook wall, thought it worth adding a more obvious shout out here. Christian and I follow this advice pretty closely: Oakley, Barbara, et al. "Turning student groups into effective teams." Journal of student centered learning 2.1 (2004): 9-34.

Unknown said...

Gender issue is definitely a factor affects collaboration, but several other things play a role too.

There is a software engineering class at my school that needs a team of 5-6 to build a web app. The instructor usually assigns female students to be the team lead. I don't know whether he does this on purpose, but I feel that "given" authoritative makes it a little bit easier because I won't be ignored when I present my ideas.

In real world, there is no "assigned" team lead, but female engineers may still benefit from finding a manager that recognizes this issue and would like to support her in any case.

Grace Woo said...

When I was an undergraduate taking my first electrical engineering class at U. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, we picked our own partners. Without knowing anyone, I ended up with a guy from the business school that was still unsure of his major and ended up missing out on the later half of the course. I was also the only girl in my lab section.

The class is famous for teaching all the components necessary to guide a toy car equipped with IR sensors and logic along a white tape track. My partner ended up switching majors after the first few lab assignments and I ended up being a solo team member. I loved it though. The final extra credit project was to build a car that could also catch a ball when thrown at it. I won the extra credit project in front of the whole class where I was the only girl and a solo lab team. It really couldn't get any sexier (I also got a digital multimeter as a prize).

However, when it came to homework assignments in the following courses, I still found myself scrambling to find a study group. I spent most of my study sessions with my boyfriend and roommate. Eventually, the study group grew around my boyfriend and I did have my homework squad where I was able to prove myself. Eventually, I started Women in Electrical Computer Engineering at UIUC which was focused on developing a project for the annual engineering open house. That did make a big difference and our first web design was created by a guy (we were very inclusive). That is the best solution that I can think of and haven't seen any better solution (yet).

Anonymous said...

It seems painfully clear that the problem here is with the way that boys are socialized to act in a group with women. It also seems clear that instructors of a class are the people with power to address this issue directly in the class, thereby also giving women an authority to refer to when they need to address conflicts in out-of-class group settings. When I was an undergrad, working on some of these issues, I found instructors to be extremely squeamish about taking this responsibility, to the point where I eventually gave up trying to push that line of thought. But I'm quite tired of seeing suggestions for structural changes (e.g. random groups, or assigned leadership roles) or coaching for women, and no discussion of actually addressing the problems with male student culture. (Note that I don't mean "including men in the diversity conversation," at least not adolescent boys who don't yet understand the nuance of these issues.)

I don't think it's such a difficult problem (just incorporate some team-dynamics coaching into undergrad classes), and I don't understand where the squeamishness comes from.

Anonymous said...

It might be worth seeing how boys feel about their groups before assuming girls get stuck with crappy groups because they're girls. Boys might be in a bunch of crappy groups too, but handle it differently. Boys are taught to "suck it up," and "be a man," so they may be less likely to raise issues to an instructor. I majored in comp sci and there was not a single time when I thought, "Oh, boy! A group project!" I have all the standard stories about people claiming their way was the only way to code something and not listening to me or partners flaking out and leaving me to stay up all night to finish a project. Bleh, I'm annoyed just writing about it. I never once complained to an instructor, it didn't even occur to me, although, looking back, there are times when maybe I should have. Man, I hated group projects...

Anonymous said...

I did this for a long time, a few random partners, then pick your own. However I ended up with so many complaints how students thought they could do better picking right away that I got tired of it. Maybe, in light of this, I should go back to it. Thanks for this post and the discussion!

GM said...

As a female math student in undergrad, it benefited me tremendously to have developed a close friendship with another female math student. We took a bunch of classes together, and were able to work on problem sets and study for exams together. It's a little different from being on a project team, but it made such a huge difference to explore the concepts we were learning in a context where gender dynamics weren't at play. I guess the advice that comes out of this, for female students, is to seek each other out, at least for studying together (all the better if you become friends). Of course, part of the very issue is that women aren't as prevalent in these fields, so that may make it hard to find someone you connect with.

Anonymous said...

Okay, but as a female collaborator, what can I do about this?

Anonymous said...

Allow me to play devil's advocate -- since the current political climate requires aligning boys with the devil.

* Have you considered that this is just a structural mirage? If you're a good student, there are sooo many more weaker students that the odds of being paired up with someone weaker are much higher. The top student in the class is guaranteed to be paired up with someone weaker.

* Have you controlled for female-female groups? Are the strong female exam takers still being paired up with weak females too? How do those pairs work out?

* Have you considered the possibility that women aren't good collaborators? It's not like women escape college hell and turn into super collaborators. Most of the startups are built out of teams of men and there just aren't that many female-heavy teams offering evidence that women are great at collaborating.

* When I hear anecdotes about female volunteer groups (sororities, Junior League, etc), there are plenty of stories about cattiness, backbiting, passive aggressive games and more. It's not that the PTA bake sale doesn't happen-- it does-- but it usually brings plenty of stories of hidden rivalries.

* There are logical inconsistencies with the idea the men are spending their time trying to impress the women. Maybe they're flexing their beach muscles, but I'm guessing that, in this context, trying to be impressive equates with offering lots of supersmart suggestions. Is that really bad? I'm guessing the women feel this is derailing the progress toward the solution.

* Jeff Foxworthy likes to joke that women don't want to hear a man's opinion. They just want to hear their own opinion repeated in a deeper voice. Is it possible that the women are mislabeling a man's genuine opinions and suggestions as chestbeating? Is it possible that they expect (subconsciously) that a cooperative man acts subserviently and merely repeats the woman's ideas in a deeper voice?

* I know many women who manipulate men who want to impress them. If the women are that smart and the men are that obsessed with impressing them, why haven't the women in this context figured out how to use it to the group's advantage? I would think that a woman with a bunch of male sycophants should be able to really rock and deliver an A+ project.

* You must consider the implications of what you're saying. If there's too much sexual tension when women work with men, then the logical solution is to go back to segregated schools and single sex education.

Grace Woo said...

"Jeff Foxworthy likes to joke that women don't want to hear a man's opinion. They just want to hear their own opinion repeated in a deeper voice. Is it possible that the women are mislabeling a man's genuine opinions and suggestions as chestbeating?" Yes, doesn't mean it's right :)

I nearly agree with all the challenges and points brought up by Anonymous. That *is* the status quo. Getting women to learn how to work in teams is really really challenging because there is the extra challenge of initial insecurity. However, I've started specifically going to hear out all-female bands and dance groups to see how this can work itself out. There are many great ones and I have caught myself silently judging, thus making myself part of the problem.

Also, as with many "tribal" problems, it is certainly not the men that cause all harm but often the women themselves. There are so many issues that have been "programmed" early on into the woman's head that have to be overcome while figuring out how to work on a team. For example, do I look fat doing this? On a diagnostic level, its like literally choosing between eating a chocolate bar because it'll give you that extra five hours of focus or feeling guilty about it because you're going to be sitting in from a computer not working it off physically. Most male programmers I know do not have thoughts like that milling around their head. I certainly cannot blame them (and even love them), but also they cannot be my role models because I do think about getting fat and looking pretty... pretty often.

As far as work goes though, sexual tension is an emotional problem. Men have problems working too when they bring emotion into the equation (probably why they've learned to tune it out in some cases).

Love the point on using female advantage for the betterment of the team. I think we'll get there. For now, its about removing the female insecurity and creating a desire for women to even want to be a part of the team. Then, once we are there, to extract every useful thought from them that they can bring to the table. Silicon valley boybands are getting boring.

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