All Girls Teams, We need to talk

I would suspect that the VAST majority of FIRST teams are not in a position to be picky about the volunteer mentors that join them. Only about 16% of engineers in the US are female and, I would suspect due to historical trends, many are younger and lack the free time of their older near retirement/retired male counterparts. Basic logic dictates that based on those numbers alone, you’re far more likely to be able to find male mentors.

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I think you’ve missed a big if not the biggest effect just by the premise of your question — how many girls didn’t even join because they saw this outward appearance? I’ve heard of these cases myself, including from parents of girls who didn’t join teams.

You’re right that it’s a circular problem, though. The only additional advice I’ve developed over the years is for girls/women who react like this:

I was/am one of these girls/women. I’ve always been turned off from this like SWE for myself. Sometime in undergrad, though, it belatedly occurred to me that I didn’t have to do it for myself — that feeling is itself a privilege I can share by volunteering at SWE, going to all-girls competitions, etc. Not to help me as a female, but to help others (that do find it beneficial) by being female. So if you’re encountering this sort of perspective, maybe that idea will help. YMMV

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As mentors we should be careful not to push this narrative too hard, even though it is very true.

It’s good to espouse the value of Women in STEM programs, but mentors shouldn’t push girls on the team to be the ones to engage with those programs. It isn’t their job to work to solve inequity. If they choose to do so, that is wonderful.

If you (the nontargeted “you”) are a mentor looking to promote Women in STEM programs, do so by encouraging the entire team to help out. It may turn out that the girls on the team are the primary drivers for the initiative, but you shouldn’t intend for it to be that way. Doing so is analogous to telling a victim that they “should have been more careful”.

That said, in the same way that telling someone to cover their drinks at a bar is prudent advice, if the girls on your team (or any other students) are noticing a lack of diversity, it’s perfectly fine (and advisable) to reccomend that they (or the team as a whole) engage in some Women in STEM outreach activities or something in that realm. Just don’t push it on the girls as their “moral responsibility”.

EDIT: I should note that I don’t think Siri’s post is suggesting that you should do what I’m saying not to do.

This post is not being well-received, but in my opinion, he is correct – we are all responsible for improving inclusivity. As suggested by Siri, as a member of an underrepresented group (eg girls) you have avenues uniquely available to you (ie, just being seen doing it), but that does not encumber you with any special responsibility, nor does it absolve anyone else of theirs. If WISE or SWE or the like appeals to you, either for yourself or for others, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t, then there are other just as awesome ways to contribute to, and to represent and demonstrate an inclusive team culture.

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Isn’t this thread about recruiting mentors? You seem to be objecting to pressuring students to help marginalized communities (regardless of their own identities), which, yeah, don’t do that. Don’t pressure anyone, actually. I just find that when I talk to fellow minority mentors, the idea of ‘being able to help’ rather than ‘needing to benefit’ is often empowering and appealing, as opposed to a “token minority” alienation.

For the record, I have no issue being a “token minority” (in race or gender) when the goal is to role model for youth. Generally the objections I have and hear about are (1) when it’s to make a non-marginalized powerbase look better, (2) when it’s “ok, we have 1, that’s enough”.

This is good, but I’d like to warn you to be careful about this. Yes, allies are critical. But the “help” an ally can give is very different from the help a member can give a marginalized community (not that they should be required to). I’m not saying you(anyone) are doing this, but just saying “I encourage you to go help this Woman in STEM” program can and has led to some, can I call it, Male Savior Complex behavior?

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A decent part is also about creating a comfortable environment for girls, even when a team’s mentor base is disproportionately male (while also working to lessen the mentor gender disparity).


Given the context of the quote from my previous post, I didn’t realize you were specifically talking about mentors.


“Token minority” isn’t the concept I was going for. That was a terrible choice of words on my part. My brain must have been trailing off, I’m sorry. I was thinking about (1) and (2), but the concept wasn’t relevant to my point in any way. I’m editing that sentence out because it is just plain confusing. It shouldn’t have been there in the first place.


Agreed. The help the boys should be offering is in the same realm as this kind of help:

as in “how can we help you?” rather than “here’s how we’re going to ‘help’ you”. We also definitely don’t need a bunch of high school boys running around with a male savior complex.


That said, my point wasn’t really about getting boys on the team to go participate in Women in STEM events. What I was trying to say is: “mentors should choose their language and approach carefully so that they aren’t implying that girls on the team have to take responsibility for Women in STEM outreach whether or not they actually want to”.

I think @john3928 hit the mark:

I’ve seen mentors do the whole “Women in STEM outreach event? Hey girls, that sounds like a ‘you thing’, so go work on that while we work on the robot” routine. Similarly, I’ve seen boys on our team hear about some Women in STEM outreach activity that they think might be good for the team to participate in, and then they go to one of the girls and hand it off to them with the equivalent of “here’s a cool Women in STEM thing that I want the team to participate in, and it is now your responsibility to make it happen because you’re a girl”. Most of the time it’s a subconscious thing, and men in particular need to be aware of it.

It can put girls in a position where they feel like they have to take time away from technical work to work on an outreach activity that they might not be as interested in, and I try to be very conscious of the “put the girls on outreach” bias that happens sometimes (not that there is anything wrong with outreach, it’s just not always what someone wants to do, and I often see girls shoehorned into it). I don’t want girls on my team to feel like they have a responsibility to be involved with those activities if they’d rather be coding/milling/etc. (Please keep in mind that I’m not trying to tell you how girls feel, especially because I’m not one. I’m just trying to empathize and express my understanding of how I think this rhetoric negatively affects people)

I think “microaggressions” might be a good way to describe this kind of interaction? (when it’s unintentional)

Even just saying “here’s a cool thing, would you be interested?” is a huge improvement over “here’s a thing you should go work on”. When you float the idea to the entire team, I think it puts less of an implicit burden on the girls. It also creates an environment where it’s a “team initiative” instead of just a “girl problem”. I will also acknowledge that there’s a line where you end up taking ownership away from the girls, which I don’t want to do if they want that ownership, especially with something that’s supposed to be for girls.

I’ve done some of these by accident without thinking, which is why I wrote the post. I hope it will help other mentors be conscious of it as well.

Then again, maybe I’m totally misunderstanding the dynamics here, which would be a good learning opportunity for me. I really am saying all of this in good faith. I’m trying to be as welcoming to the girls on my team as I can be.


Completely separate from that… I have really genuine question that might sound insensitive or dumb. It’s also pretty off topic, but I’m really trying to learn from this conversation. I have a lot to learn.

I struggle with the whole “female” vs “woman” vs “girl” thing. I don’t want to sound creepy by calling 13-year-old girls “women”, and I know that calling an adult a “girl” can seem infantilizing/demeaning. At the same time, I know that some uses of “female” are considered offensive, but I don’t fully understand when it is and isn’t ok to use the word. If I have a group of mixed-age males, I’d typically just call them males, but I’m hesitant to say “females” because nominalizing can be considered dehumanizing, particularly for marginalized groups.

To quote myself:

Separate from nominalizing, I know it’s ok to say “black people”, but “female people” is something I’m worried will be interpreted as offensive.

The whole calling women “girls” and calling girls “women” thing confuses me. Does this matter? It is weird to call a group of female teenagers and mentors “women”? I really struggle with this one.

There’s always the route of using explicitly trans/nonbinary inclusive language like “feminine presenting people”, but it really starts to get verbose when you say it enough times.

I really overthink this, to the point of using several variations depending on how much I overthink it in the moment. Can someone help me wrap my head around all of this?

(I know I sound like people who don’t understand the concept of “singular they”, but I’m really trying here)

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You seem to get it. The metaphorical ground is poorly trodden in our society, so it takes a lot of back and forth even just to get the navigational directions clear without a well-worn path and ingrained verbiage. On “girls”/“women”, personally I’ve spent most of my life exposed to the U.S. military norms in the use of “male” and “female”, so I tend to use that. I try to use it as an adjective in deference to broader norms, though I often fail. “Female people” is wordy, but I do find myself saying things like “female FIRSTers” — basically, can you find a gender-neutral commonality word? Also in the example above, something like “people of all genders” would work for “girls”. (Of course, “girls” is also reasonable there. It was just the example before your question and offers expansion in both gender and age spectra.)

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Speaking only for myself, I think it’s easy enough to use “girls and women” when I mean girls and women and one or the other when I mean one or the other.

Girls and women, whether trans or cis, don’t all fall under the umbrella of “feminine-presenting people,” so I wouldn’t use that.

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All of our outreach events and sponsor visits are done via SignUpGenius – everyone is expected to contribute to outreach, but everyone can pick and choose the events of interest of them and which fit their schedules. That’s my suggestion on how to do it.

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Gunna chime in as a ~woman~ and mentor of a formerly all girls team (now co-ed due to pandemic). (Also this is in response to the OP, I simply did not read this whole thread)

I’ll preface by saying that before becoming a mentor I participated in FTC, FRC, and PLTW for 3 years and was captain of 2338 in 2018.

That being said, everything I know about about being a woman in engineering I learned from mentoring an all-girls team. Everything. Through mentoring an all-girls team, I learned to care for the girls on the team and empathize with experiences that were not my own. Can we really criticize male mentors of all-girls teams for doing the same? For trying to learn about an empathize with experiences that are not their own. Especially the male mentors that through their mentorship are directly acknowledging that engineering is generally a crappy place for women? Come on now.

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As a young woman in FIRST Robotics, I strongly disagree with your take on all-girl teams. I am involved in both co-ed activities(including FRC) and all-girl activities. I have struggled with my self-confidence throughout high school, especially in robotics, due to the pressure I feel to perform as a woman in a male-dominated environment. When I’m in a group of mostly or all girls, I feel much more comfortable expressing my ideas and advocating for myself because that societal pressure is gone.

Now, I agree with your point that women need to learn how to deal with the pressures they might feel in a male-dominated or mixed-gender setting. I’ve certainly learned a lot from being in a group of mostly boys and men. I don’t that girls should exclusively be in all-girl groups. Rather, I think they should have the freedom to engage in both co-ed and all-female activities in order to get the best of both worlds.

The bottom line is this: Being in an all-girl group where there is far less pressure to perform and excel does wonders for your confidence. That confidence lasts way beyond high school and stays with you in college and the workspace. All-girl teams do not hinder girls from learning how to function as a minority in STEM. Ultimately, the benefits of being on a team where you feel that you are seen and able to express yourself far outweigh the benefits of learning how to deal with toxic men, especially at my and my peers’ young age.

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I totally agree.

I specifically presented my issues with all-girls teams because they miss the point . The teams (or schools) aren’t the problem. The problem is a toxic society/culture/institution that results in people feeling like they need segregated safe spaces.

I think you’re missing the point. FIRST is about learning and inspiring. It is a test run for life. Safe spaces like this exist so whomever the team caters (all girls, etc.) to can learn how to lead, present ideas, learn and practice skills, etc. In the practice field that is FIRST these kids prepare for the rest of life. We are building robots to build better people. At the end of the day, blue banners mean nothing, but the students inspired matter most. If the community feels a separated “safe space” community is the way to inspire girls, then more power to them.

If you don’t feel it is right, you have the ability to suggest otherwise. However, it really is nobodies place to tell another team how to run as long as they are doing it safely and inside the rules. All girls teams should probably be hyper aware of YPP concerns, but other than that i don’t see the difference between them and other minority teams specifically targeting low income, ethnical diversity, or disabled groups/schools.

Unsolicited advice is always self-serving. Amy Dickenson

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I promise you that I’m not (in this case)

Yes, more power to them. However, a world where we’ve eliminated societal bias/pressure and everyone can feel comfortable without the need for segregated safe spaces is a much more ideal world.

The reason people feel the need for safe spaces is because they feel uncomfortable/pressured/etc outside of them. I’m not arguing against safe spaces, I’m arguing for building a more inclusive world where people don’t feel like they need safe spaces anymore (or the need is at least substantially reduced).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with safe spaces, but safe spaces are a coping mechanism for societal harm. When people feel the need for a safe space, it indicates that there is a problem with the way they are being treated in society. Safe spaces are not a problem, they’re the canary in the coal mine.

Calling that “missing the point” is absurd.

For fun, here’s this interaction rewritten as if safe spaces were literally canaries:

Me

The problem is a toxic atmosphere that results in miners feeling like they need canaries to keep them safe.

You

I think you’re missing the point. Coal mining is about collecting coal. Canaries exist so whomever is mining can keep mining coal without suffocating. If the miners feel a canary is the way to keep them safe, then more power to them.

A more ideal situation would be to have working conditions that aren’t full of asphyxiating gas. The canaries work as a stopgap, but they don’t solve the problem.

Mind you, this isn’t a perfect analogy because safe spaces can empower people to effect societal change. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to mention that, but I know someone would nitpick if I didn’t.

What do you expect us to make of this? What is it that you’re arguing, that it sucks we live in a world where safe spaces are necessary? I don’t think you’ll find much disagreement there, but that doesn’t make those spaces unnecessary or not useful. No, all-girls teams are not a perfect solution in every way, but I think we are better off with them as an option than not.

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Nobody is missing any point, I’m just wondering why you keep arguing. We can and should do both - make safe spaces and combat societal norms by solving problems with how the women are perceived and treated. Both are necessary. All girls teams have their place in FRC. Not everyone wants to join one, but they exist for those who do.

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Can someone please moderate away all of this anti-all girls team nonsense to another thread. This is about getting teams more female mentors not if the team should exist or not!

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I resisted responding to your account because of your prior posts, but let’s break this statement down.

On one hand, yes added perspectives on a team can help immensely. On the other hand, the team culture has to be there to 1) give opportunities for providing input and pushing back on bad behaviors and 2) mentors and authority who will actually listen and take that into account. You’re not totally off base but it’s a pretty naive understanding of how reality works.

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Are single-school teams counterproductive, or do we need to open up all teams to students from anywhere?

My team is all-girls. We pull from a single school, which happens to be all-girls. Is our team counterproductive to inclusion, or is it ensuring that girls attending this school have a chance to participate, thus increasing inclusion across the community?

I have yet to see an all-girls team that exists to exclude boys. It’s not like these teams pop up in coed schools where no other options exist. When they exist in coed schools, it’s because there was an identified need to have it in addition to the existing team. When they aren’t associated with schools, it’s because they spawn out of organizations that are already all-girls.

Please consider looking at individual teams and strongly considering why each team is the way it is before painting a group of them with a broad brush like this.

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FIRST is the practice for real life. There isn’t a crowd at the nightly football, drama, or band practice but we do not call these safe spaces. Students are practicing real world industry level skills before they go to industry.
Miners were trained to use the equipment above ground before they went into industry. Canaries were essentially PPE because they didn’t have CO2 alarms yet. Ironically if they didn’t mine with canaries they wouldn’t have had the resources to lead to the development of CO2 Alarms.