(Guest post) A Call to Action: A Student’s Perspective on Gender Diversity in the Carleton College Computer Science Department

Note: This is a guest post by Alex Voorhees ’13, a Computer Science major and Educational Studies concentrator at Carleton. The post is an assignment for EDUC 395: Senior Seminar. For this assignment, the students write and publish an editorial on some aspect of the seminar’s topic, which this year is Gender, Sexuality, and Schooling. When Alex approached me about writing a guest post, I enthusiastically agreed, because I thought it would be interesting to get a student’s perspective on our departmental culture, something the CS faculty here spend a great deal of time discussing. I encourage you to chime in with your thoughts in the comments, and hopefully Alex will engage back here in the comments as well. Now, without further ado….

Sixth-Term sophomores just declared their majors at Carleton, and the Computer Science (CS) department saw huge gains. Not only did it become the second most popular major on campus, but it garnered 55 new majors. The percentage of women CS majors for the new class is at an all-time high, 30%, and is even more than the last two years, 20% and 18% respectively.  Carleton has been tremendously successful in increasing the fraction of women CS majors, yet it remains far below the percentage of women at Carleton. Thus it is quite clear that new initiatives are needed to encourage more women to enter the field.  I am calling for more action.

I have noticed many positive changes during my past four years as a major in at Carleton’s Computer Science department. Most notable has been the faculty. When I took my first CS class as a freshman, there was only one female professor in the department. Now, in my senior year, there are now three, making up a third of the department. While this may seem small, compared to other small liberal arts school in Minnesota this is actually quite large. This larger number of female faculty has certainly helped attract women to the department. However, this is far from the only positive change. For example, a subtle change recently caught my eye: the backgrounds of the computer screens in the computer lab show pictures of famous male and female computer scientists. I think this is a great idea to show every student in the lab that women have played an integral role in the development of the field, despite being outnumbered by their male counterparts.

While these changes have been positive, there is still much work to be done. I have witnessed instances of women in the department experiencing various kinds of bias. Most of these are micro-aggressions ranging from comments made in passing to actions.  For example, I was in a course taught by a female professor and certain male students acted in a way that I am sure they would never have in a class taught by a male professor. At the end of her lecture, one of these male students literally walked out of the classroom in a clearly disrespectful manner.  I felt horribly because of how the student acted, and the fact that I did nothing about it. Overall, I think the CS department does an excellent job creating a positive culture for women. We need to not only encourage women to take CS classes, but also to work to change the attitude of some male students in the department. Moreover, the male students cannot act as bystanders when they witness micro-aggressions. When you see or hear something that might be considered a micro-aggression, do not be afraid and say something!  I think a great idea for the CS department would be to offer a class on the history of computer science to illustrate the important role of women the development of the field. With women acting as the CEO of Yahoo and the COO of Facebook, such a class is a no brainer.


2 thoughts on “(Guest post) A Call to Action: A Student’s Perspective on Gender Diversity in the Carleton College Computer Science Department

  1. Thanks for posting, Alex! I love the idea of a course offering the history of computer science — that could be a fantastic offering for students outside the department as well. I’m perpetually amazed (and horrified) by the number of clients and colleagues who assume that I’m not a programmer because of my gender. Not to mention editorials from very confused news outlets who think men invented the internet (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/technology/lawsuit-against-kleiner-perkins-is-shaking-silicon-valley.html). Education on this issue can only help.


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