Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Improving gender & ethnic diversity in CS: what can faculty do?

Recently, my colleagues Dave Patterson, John Hennessy and Maria Klawe, all storied contributors to both academic and professional computing, wrote an excellent essay enumerating all the things that were incorrect (and there were many) in Google engineer James Damore's "anti-diversity post." For those who didn't hear about said post, which initially circulated internally at Google but eventually found its way onto the public Internet, Damore argued that the reason there are so few women in computing is because biological differences make women less fit than men for the technical and leadership activities associated with computing, and that companies who strive for gender parity are therefore misguided.

I can’t improve on my colleagues’ extensive rebuttal of what was a poorly-argued piece costumed in the garb of science, but as I just gave a phone interview to the Daily Cal (UC Berkeley’s student-run newspaper) on this topic, I thought I’d summarize my comments in this post too.

While Berkeley (and most of our peer institutions) make ongoing and vigorous efforts through a panoply of programs designed to improve the representation of women and underrepresented minorities (URMs) in STEM fields, I believe such programs can only work if they are driven from the relationships that structure students’ day-to-day lives on campus and collectively form an institutional culture. Some of those relationships are among students themselves—as peers in a course, between student and TA, or as part of a student-run club or academic group. Other relationships are between students and faculty—as course instructors, research advisors, or sponsors/liaisons to student-run activities.

In my faculty role, I try to do two things: lead by example in my interactions with students, and listen to them.

Leading by example. There’s quite a bit we can do in our courses and research projects, such as:

    • Invite women and URM guest speakers, both to talk about their experience of being part of an underrepresented demographic in tech and just to give interesting technical talks.
    • If we supervise GSIs, or are the faculty sponsor of a student group, DeCal course, or other student-centric activity, we can make it a point when engaging with those students to bring up unconscious bias and the importance of improving diversity in our field. Especially for GSIs, their behavior, language, and demeanor are important because of their position of authority.
    • We can make students aware of gender/ethnic diversity results that are directly relevant to course if possible. In my software engineering project course, I encourage project teams to make an effort to include women, as team research has found the presence of women on a team to be a strong predictor of team success. Indeed, a study of GitHub code repositories found that women's contributions to code bases were more likely to be accepted, unless you could tell from their profile that they were women!  I also often introduce bits of computing history (it’s my hobby) that are relevant to the lecture topics; most students aren’t aware that the “masculinization” of computing didn’t really start in earnest until the 1960s, and that until then virtually all programmers were women. In CS375,  a required GSI orientation and training that I’ve co-taught, we do an in-class activity based on Google’s unconscious-bias training that directly demonstrates our proneness to unconscious bias. 

Listening.  As faculty, we can decide to allocate time to participate in programs designed to support women and URMs entering the field. One example is the Berkeley CS Scholars program, of which I'm a faculty sponsor. When I do get to interact with women or underrepresented minorities, I listen to what they have to say about their experience so that you know what to fix. Was there a difficult interaction with a professor? with a GSI? with a fellow student? Unless we ourselves have had the experiences that many women or minorities have had in computing (and given the problem statement, most of us haven’t), this is the only way to reliably understand what to work on.

Department- and University-supported diversity programs are great, and leaders like Patterson, Hennessy and Klawe have to stand up and point out the problems in posts like Damore's. That is a necessary but not sufficient part of fixing the problem. The “mentality of a field” is based on the values embodied in the relationships among people in that field, and as faculty it’s part of our responsibility to bring those values to every student relationship in which we participate.