Being included

I recently finished grading a set of design reports from my Software Design class.*  For this particular project, they were to propose a redesign for our department web pages, including mockups and a summary (and rationale) of their design changes.  The reports were very well done overall, and the students had some great ideas which I plan on bringing to the department.

As part of the redesign process, the students had to identify the potential audience of the web pages and come up with personae representing different types of visitors from this audience (students, faculty from other schools, alums, etc).  Traditionally, personae are given names/identities, to better facilitate telling “stories” (scenarios) about how they will use the site.

What left a lasting impression for me was that the students incorporated both male and female personae into their reports.  There was only one group that had all male personae.  The rest of the groups had at least one, and in general about half, female personae.  (A few groups had a majority of female personae.)  And these were not limited to stereotypical examples like “the mother of a prospective student”—CS alums, current majors, and CS professors here and elsewhere also showed up as female personae in the reports.

Now, I had no hints in the assignment prompt other than “use professional language” in terms of what language they should use.  And I’m guessing what I’m seeing is the result of more attention paid across the board to using inclusive language in writing—in which case, I’m heartened that my students have so naturally incorporated these lessons into their writing.

But I wonder how much of this is influenced by the fact that the professor standing in front of them day after day is a woman.  Or that they have two female role models now in the department.  Or that there are more women students in our classes and declaring CS majors.  (Although it’s worth mentioning that this class is overwhelmingly—89%—male.)  We don’t yet have critical mass, but nor are the numbers of women tiny either.  Women are visible, and they are occupying roles traditionally occupied by men.

The thing is, language is as much of a signal as to “who belongs” as, say, the presence of a Star Trek poster, or piles of computer parts, or plants and coffee makers in a lounge.  Language is a form of place and of space.  The fact that my students see women as natural occupants of the CS space, as evidenced in their choice of language, is huge.

It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it.

* Yes, we are still in session here.  Tomorrow is the last day of classes, so the end, at least, is in sight.