Columns, Opinions

Renshaw ’20: Fighting the tech gender gap at Brown

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, October 1, 2017

Last week, the New York Times published a piece entitled “Push for Gender Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far.” The men in the article argue that Silicon Valley gender diversity initiatives are unnecessary, and that tech companies have completely closed the gender gap. But, in reality, we’re not even close. In 2015, women held only 25 percent of all computing jobs, a figure that has been declining since 1991, when it was at 37 percent. At Brown, nine of the 40 faculty members of the computer science department are women. The gender gap isn’t caused by biological differences between genders or lack of interest in computer science. It is caused by systemic issues perpetuated by those in the tech world — including  universities like Brown, where computer science is the most popular concentration ­— that make it less accessible to non-male participants. Gender inequality in tech is a real problem, and colleges have a responsibility to use their influence and clout to take action.

Gender discrepancies in computer science at Brown might not be immediately apparent. The introductory sequences seem to have a pretty good balance of women and men, and a lot of the teaching assistants are women. Unfortunately, as you move into upper level classes, there are fewer and fewer women. As a computer science concentrator and a teaching assistant myself, I’ve noticed many reasons for this imbalance. I certainly felt that several students, especially men, in the introductory sequence I took my freshman year had more coding experience and that I wouldn’t ever be able to match them. In addition, imposter syndrome — which describes individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud” — is something that particularly impacts women in the department. That is probably because success for women is often contradicted by societal expectations; women just aren’t expected to do well in STEM fields. To make the computer science department more inclusive and retain more women, professors need to explicitly address the self-doubt that female students may feel, particularly at the introductory level. In addition, they should remind students that bragging about how fast they finished projects or how easy things are is unhealthy, because those projects might not be easy for everybody. Simple acts like this could help students stick with a field they enjoy.

Further, improving the gender diversity of TA staffs can encourage more women to participate in the computer science department. At a mandatory diversity training I attended this fall for computer science TAs, I was struck by how few of the upper level course TAs were female. Sure, I was the only female TA on my staff, but I didn’t realize this would be true for almost every course represented. Some TAs at the training even voiced their concerns about how to treat women fairly in their course, given their staff had no women at all. Since the TA system is such a big part of the computer science department at Brown (this semester there are over 250 TAs), the department needs to do more to make sure the TA staff for every class is diverse. “I really like having female TAs because they have served as role models and mentors to me,” said Eleanor Avril ’20, a friend of mine who studies computer science. “I’ve had some really great male TAs, certainly, but sometimes I feel more of an immediate connection with my female TAs.” But hiring female TAs can be hard to do if women don’t take upper level classes. In the class that I am a TA for, only one of every six students is female. Again, this is why it’s so important to make sure that women who are interested in computer science stick with it. The fewer women who progress to upper level courses, the fewer women TAs for those courses — which creates a vicious cycle of exclusion. And, though there may be smaller applicant pools of women for TA positions in certain courses, the department should do its best to refrain from hiring all-male TA staffs. Revisiting hiring practices for TAs is a concrete step Brown can take to make sure that women continue to feel comfortable and supported in the department.

For those of us in the tech world, nothing regarding the gender gap in technology is news. It’s an issue we hear about every single day. At Brown, we have a responsibility to take action to rectify this discrepancy. To its credit, Brown does okay: 37 percent of computer science graduates at Brown are women, which is not an impressive number, but it’s better than the national average. Student-led initiatives like Women in Computer Science, Women in Science and Engineering and diversity advocacy in the computer science department are amazing, but the work can’t stop there. The pipeline begins through education, and we ought to arm women with the tools and drive they need to succeed in the tech world. Brown’s own faculty seem to agree. Tom Doeppner, associate professor of research of computer science and vice chair of the Department of Computer Science, told me, “I have a granddaughter who has just started high school and is showing some interest in computer science — I really want her to have a fair chance at succeeding if she decides to go on with (it).” Let’s stop pretending that the gender gap has been solved or is a joke or is less of an issue than it really is. Let’s instead promote the measures already in place and push our universities to take these initiatives even further.

Lena Renshaw ’20 can be reached at lena_renshaw@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.