Responses to “5 ways to welcome women to computer science”

This Monday, my first essay appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education: 5 Ways to Welcome Women to Computer Science. Today, Friday, seems like a good day to reflect on responses. In particular, I want to talk about social media responses from institutions and individuals, and an in-person conversation with Whitman CS students and faculty.

Institutions

Of course, Whitman was very supportive! Gina Ohnstad, Senior Director of Communications, had read this blog post and thought the topic would make a good article for the popular media. Media Strategist Gillian Frew persuaded me I had something new to say, edited my work, pitched it to a range of publications, and guided me through the publication process. I believe it’s also Gillian who tweeted on behalf of Whitman College.

It felt really good to have this institutional support! As I told Gillian, I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) have done it otherwise.

The institutional response that most surprised me was Code.org’s post on Facebook, which got 118 reactions and 62 shares. But the comments on this post are where I saw the only negative response. Never read the comments!

Individuals

Friends, colleagues, and strangers tweeted my article as well. The most liked tweets that I saw were my own and Mark Guzdial’s, at 37 and 38 likes respectively. Mark is a luminary of CS education, and it’s not surprising he’s followed by many.

On Facebook, my timeline is full of friends and colleagues tagging me in posts of the article. I haven’t decided yet whether to add all those posts to my timeline. (Should I? Does it matter?) The Facebook feature that collects multiple posts of the same article also let me see when friends shared my article without tagging me. I thanked people who shared the article. The first time I did this, it was because I really was honored. But then I realized it also had the effect of showing friends-of-friends I could see their responses, and perhaps heading off negative comments. <shrug/>

After the article was published, I realized how many people I had to thank. In addition to my humble-bragging tweet, I emailed my undergraduate professors at Mudd and my former colleagues at Grinnell, not all of whom use social media. Later in the week, I followed up with tweets of thanks to the authors of our intro textbook and this handy advice for creating an inclusive community. It felt good to share my thanks and get positive responses in return.

The most surprising responses from individuals? An email from a colleague I’d never met before whose son is a Whittie, and a student who told me her mother asked her to thank me for the article. Since my only child is a long way from college, it never occurred to me that parents would be on the lookout for news from their kids’ colleges.

Whitman CS community

Andy emailed on Monday asking for suggestions for a CS Lunch topic. I pointed him towards the Google Doc I had been maintaining (thanks to Valerie Barr for providing a model) but also suggested my article as a timely topic.

I’ve been attending CS Lunch on and off during my sabbatical. It wasn’t hard for Andy to persuade me to come to yesterday’s lunch, but I asked him to lead the conversation. First, he’s convening CS Lunch this year. Second, it can be hard to solicit other people’s views on something you wrote and care a lot about. And finally, at our scheduled start time I was the only woman at the table. Awkward! Several more students, both women and men, trickled in after we started.

Andy had given some thought to discussion questions that would work regardless of who was in the room.

  1. Have you ever been “the only one”? What was that like?
  2. What made you feel welcome? Or what would have helped you feel more welcome?
  3. What can we do as a community to help everyone feel welcome?

Andy and I started discussion of the first question. He shared his experiences studying in Russia, where he stayed with a host family and was often the only foreigner at social events. I shared my feelings of uncertainty about being the only white woman at a St. Louis barbecue. Students shared their experiences of being the only high school student in a community college class, and the only STEM student in an upper-level history class. We talked about how we didn’t always understand what was happening, and we didn’t necessarily know what to do or say. But we also talked about stereotypes and how we worried others were making assumptions about us based on who we were. In one student’s story, those stereotypes came out in the open.

What made us feel welcome, or would have made us feel welcome? Here we focused on academic settings. First, a couple of “don’t”s: Don’t make a big deal out of differences, and don’t change your expectations of a classmate based on who they are. (For example, don’t make a fuss about a classmate’s age or expect them to be “super-smart” because they are younger.) But do engage in a friendly way. Try to find or create shared experiences. I would add: try to be thoughtful about being including those who are different.

I shared a story from the first draft of my essay that didn’t make it into the published version. When I was an undergrad CS major, I was required to take a software design class with a team project, much like CS 370 at Whitman. I was the only woman in that class. With students left to form their own teams, and an unapproachable professor, that could have been the class that broke me. But fortunately, an older and more mature classmate, who I later learned had been a professional ballet dancer before returning to college, noticed my exclusion. He invited me to join his project team, even though we didn’t particularly know each other. It ended up being a memorable and mostly positive experience. 

It’s no small task to invite someone you don’t know well to join your team or study group, but my story shows it can make a huge difference. We also talked about how when professors assign partners or teams, we are actively trying to make sure everyone is included.

We also talked about students as ambassadors for the CS major. One student shared that he’d been approached by several female friends about taking CS 167. He said they all had two questions: 1) is it easy, and 2) can I borrow your book? He wasn’t sure he was the best ambassador for computer science, but his friends found him approachable. Instead of saying how hard the major is, he tried to talk about what he enjoys.

This led naturally into Andy’s third question: What can we do as a community?

One thing we can do is talk about why we love computer science, so that when students’ friends ask them about CS, they are prepared to share what they love and not just how they are suffering. We decided to schedule a future CS Lunch on that topic.

We also talked about shared suffering as a bonding experience. One student talked about how CS 310 really cemented his sense of belonging in the major. (I had a similar experience in my software design course.) We’re not going to redesign our courses to promote more suffering (!), but we can continue to encourage collaborative problem solving and working in the lab.

We talked about Whitman’s Women in STEM group. The women in the room said they hadn’t felt like they belonged there. We speculated that CS might be different from other STEM disciplines – or perhaps it’s just that our department isn’t housed in the Hall of Science.

I’m not sure what to do about this. As I wrote in my article, I don’t think we have a critical mass for a Women in CS group. But what about a Women in Math & CS group? Or what if CS students could go together to Women in STEM meetings, to create a critical mass within that group?

We also talked about further conversations about diversity and inclusion, and how to include more students in those conversations. We talked about the danger of making women or other minorities feel more singled out, a problem I’ve also seen discussed with respect to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. But on the balance, it seems best to keep the topic out in the open. Since students’ ability to attend CS Lunch changes from semester to semester, we resolved to make sure at least one CS Lunch each semester addresses diversity and inclusion.

I asked one final question: What can you do when someone is being made to feel unwelcome? We talked about being a little vulnerable. Of course you shouldn’t make the situation about yourself, but you can share that you also find a topic difficult or that you aren’t always sure if you belong. I’d welcome further thoughts on this question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *