Last week I did what will probably be my last Software Carpentry teaching for a while, at a Women in Science and Engineering workshop at the University of Toronto. I was curious to see how teaching an all-female group might be different from mixed-gender groups. As far as I can recall, none of my Western classes have been single-gender, although a few small courses have had small numbers of women and might have been all-male on the occasional day.

Typical of the workshops I’ve taught at, the learners came from a range of fields, from software engineering to neuroscience to genetics. Differences included the number of learners (about 17 learners instead of the usual 40) and the location: the workshop space was a physics teaching lab as opposed to a classroom. I think fewer of the learners had any background in programming than usual, although I didn’t see the pre-workshop survey.

I taught Python following the SWC lesson fairly closely. We used the ipython shell instead of the Jupyter notebook, because some attendees had trouble getting Anaconda Python installed and so didn’t have the notebook. Using the shell wasn’t a great alternative; a handful of people had trouble with getting graphics to work properly and we spent too much time troubleshooting those problems. We got about 70% of the way through the entire Python lesson (which I think says that it’s too long to be covered in half a day, as is the notional plan for workshops).

The biggest difference I noticed between this workshop and others was how quiet the room was. While the learners were working on challenges and typing along with the live-coding, the room didn’t sound as busy as it usually does. The learners did ask questions along the way and during the challenges, so it wasn’t that no one wanted to speak up.

I think the feel of the room as less busy was mostly due to it being about half-full, rather than containing only women. My long-ago experience as a musician is that I would rather play to a full house than an empty one, and my experience in other university teaching is that a full room, of whatever size, gives a sense of excitement and liveliness that a half-empty room just can’t. It can be really painful to try and hold the attention of learners in a mostly-empty room; yes, I’m looking at you, first-year Western engineers. The layout of the room might also have been an issue: people were grouped at small lab tables, facing inward, so it wasn’t easy to talk to those at other tables.

So my answer to “is an all-women Software Carpentry workshop different?” is the typical astronomer’s cop-out: “need more data”. Until I teach at a 40-person women-only workshop, it’s hard to compare. We asked the learners about whether they preferred the women-only format; most said that it didn’t matter, but some said they definitely felt more comfortable in a single-gender group. Given that, hopefully we can do a few more such workshops and get more data on how they compare.