Science & Research

Women, minorities face implicit biases in CS

CS department works toward constructive dialogue for improving student, faculty diversity

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2015

When Paige Stoermer ’16 walked into her first introductory computer science class she had one question: Where were all the women?

Of the 132 declared computer science concentrators in the 2014-15 academic year, roughly one-fourth were female. Even fewer in number were underrepresented minorities, who made up only 8.7 percent of that population.

Women in CS: making their voices heard

While female concentrators and faculty members constitute a smaller percentage of the computer science department, they make their presence known, Stoermer said. Support programs geared toward women and underrepresented minorities — such as Women in Computer Science, Mosaic+ and the Artemis program — have cropped up over the years to foster the network of female and underrepresented minority computer science concentrators.

“There are women who are running the (teaching assistant) program. There are women running WiCS. There are women at the helm of Mosaic+,” she said. “So while the number is small, and there’s a lot of difficulties that come with it, we’re loud.”

Currently, there are only three tenured female professors in the CS department and two adjunct professors, making mentoring undergraduates a daunting task for them.

Female CS professors often accrue larger workloads than their colleagues because of the number of students they advise, Stoermer said, which can make them hard to reach.

In addition to professors, WiCS is the best place for concentrators to get support, said Amy Greenwald, associate professor of computer science.

WiCS allows students to find a peer group to work on homework or hang out at the Center for Information Technology with, Greenwald said. It is a social environment, constructed so that students never “feel like you’re in this on your own,” she added.

Applying for jobs and internships as a woman in CS can be a trying process because employers and peers sometimes make assumptions about being a woman in computer science, Stoermer said.

“One of the most demoralizing and wrong or offensive things peers here can say is, ‘It must be so easy to get an internship because you’re a woman,’” Stoermer said. “In order to get those positions you have to go through technical interviews with people who … have their own unconscious biases and can say really offensive or insensitive things in your interviews that you have to deal with.”

These insensitivities or microaggressions women CS concentrators encounter don’t stop after graduation either, several female CS alums said. Nell Elliott ’11 graduated with a joint degree in computer science and applied math and went on to take a job at Microsoft. Elliott, who is currently taking medical leave from the company, said that she was one of only five female developers on a team of between 80 and 100 people.

“I think that being a woman on that team is probably harder than being a woman at Brown,” she said, adding that subtle frustrations are harder to bring up. “At Brown it’s the kind of thing you can confront someone about. At Microsoft it was the kind of thing where I really had to pick and choose battles.”

Other alums agreed that while Brown does an excellent job preparing CS concentrators academically, there are still strides to be taken inside and outside of the department to make the playing field truly equal.

CS at Brown “is a fantastic academic environment,” but not fantastic as a culture, Greenwald said. “We’re trying to make it fantastic for everybody.”

Underrepresented minorities: community and displacement

On Nov. 6, a head undergraduate teaching assistant for a CS course sent an email many found offensive to the undergraduate CS listserv posing as a Nigerian prince to advertise the course CSCI 1660: “Introduction to Computer Systems Security.” The CS department has since started to publicize the steps it plans to take to diversify a field traditionally dominated by white men. In a Nov. 14 email to the undergraduate CS listserv, Tom Doeppner, vice chair of the computer science department, wrote that it will expand its undergraduate TA training program, which will “better address diversity and inclusion.”

While women constitute a small number of CS concentrators, underrepresented minorities make up an even smaller part of the program. Currently, no computer science faculty members are underrepresented minorities, and students say the support network has a lot of room to grow.

For Chelse-Amoy Steele ’18, currently an undergraduate TA for CSCI 0170: “Computer Science: An Integrated Introduction,” being an underrepresented minority concentrating in CS means a greater sense of both community and displacement.

“The community has represented itself in some of the upper-level courses in the department,” she said, adding that URM students encourage their peers to push themselves academically. But she added the department needs to make strides to place more students and faculty of color in leadership positions.

When Steele had a underrepresented minority TA with a “position of power in the department” in one of her introductory courses, she said it helped her feel comfortable and confident in the classroom. “It’s very clear that if you’re a woman in this department you have a place, and there’s a way for you to hold leadership and have mentorship,” she said. “The same emphasis should be placed on URMs as well.”

Moving forward

In reference to the insensitive email sent to CS students, Steele said, “We felt that there were measures that should have been taken past that student just sending out a blanket apology.”

Steele agreed that there should be more inclusive diversity training for TAs. “A lot of students, including myself, have at times felt like going to the TAs has not been an experience that’s been (psychologically) helpful.”

Support programs continue to expand, and the dialogue surrounding computer science continues to change. “We are certainly undertaking trying to restructure how we do things,” Doeppner said. The department is scheduled to hold a “town hall”-style meeting Dec. 2 to talk about diversity. “We’re essentially trying to get students’ feelings about what the department culture is and what we can do about it,” he said.

Pinpointing exactly what changes in computer science need to be made to improve conditions for women and URMs is difficult, Stoermer said. She said there should be a focus on retention while Steele said there should be a focus on the improvement of high school programs to make the field more attractive to underrepresented minorities.

“We need more opportunities earlier for girls and minorities to see what (computer science) is all about, so they can make up their minds without having them made up for them,” Elliott said.

­— With additional reporting by Shira Buchsbaum

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that an undergraduate teaching assistant sent an email to advertise the course CSCI 0160: “Introduction to Algorithms and Data Structures.” In fact, the course was CSCI 1660: “Introduction to Computer Systems Security. The Herald regrets the error.

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