(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.

“I’ve never experienced discrimination based on my gender.”

So said one of the panelists at a recent women in science event I attended.

Now, to be fair to this person—and this is going to sound a bit weird—I believe it was said in a misguided spirit of helpfulness. I don’t know this person personally, but based on what I know of her bio, it sounds like she’s landed in good places with good people and received good mentoring/championing/support in those places. She’s very successful, mentors and gives back, etc. So maybe she hasn’t actually experienced gender-based discrimination in science (or maybe has experienced minor discrimination and didn’t recognize it as such). If so, good for her—I’m glad to hear that such places actually exist.


Hearing this phrase in any context makes me especially cranky. Certainly when it’s used to shut down and discount the experiences of women in science, online or in real-world conversations. But maybe even more so when it’s used in a “helpful” (hopeful?) way as it was here. In a way, it is more harmful when used in a “helpful” context.

Let’s consider the setting: The purpose of this particular event, as I understood it, was mentoring/networking primarily for young women scientists. These women are just starting out, still trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing, from the science itself to the culture. They’re relatively powerless in the structure at this point. Maybe they’ve already started to experience the little paper cuts, the subtle stuff—being talked over at meetings, watching male colleagues get the benefit of the doubt and/or credit for their ideas, not hearing about that cool opportunity. Maybe they’re starting to question whether there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they’re just not cut out for this line of work. Maybe they’re wondering why things seem a bit harder for them and a bit easier for some of their male colleagues. So they come to this event, hoping to hear some words of wisdom from women who’ve been there before, hoping to hear something of their own experience reflected in their words.

When instead they hear “I’ve never experienced discrimination”—well, what message does that send? That just reaffirms that maybe it is them after all, that maybe their experience is unique and that there’s not something else going on. How discouraging is that?

So what could this person have done differently? Certainly I’m not suggesting that she speak to an experience she doesn’t feel she’s had. But I would have loved to hear her say instead: “I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had wonderful colleagues and mentors and champions throughout my career and that I haven’t experienced some of the challenges that other women in my position often face. Here’s what made my situation work this way….” And in fact she did end up, if memory serves, talking a bit about why her experience was so ideal—but it was divorced from the original “no discrimination” comment, so I feel the message was less powerful that way. This statement is still true to her experience while not disaffirming (is that a word?) the experience of others in the audience.

Senior women sharing their experiences with junior women can be priceless. But as senior women, we must be careful that the message we send to junior women is truly helpful and not unintentionally harmful. We can, and should, be true to our experiences without discounting theirs.

Reading list

A running (and mostly true) joke in my house is that I don’t read anything during the term that’s longer than a magazine article. I’m too busy, too brain-fried, too whatever, to devote the time and mental energy to reading. Which is a shame, because I love to read.

One of the perks of being on leave was that I was able to start reading for fun again. And I realized how important it was for my mental health to find a way to incorporate reading back into my life again, especially during the term. Plus, the backlog of books on my nightstand, desk, and bookshelves is really getting embarrassing. (Add to this the fact that my library now has a better structure in place for ebooks, and I’m really in trouble!)

So as we head into spring term (Monday!), here’s what’s on my reading list currently:

User interface/web design

I am leading an independent study this term in user interface design for the web, so a good part of my reading is preparation for that.

  • The Elements of User Experience, by Jesse James Garrett. I have about 10 pages left to go in this one—it’s an easy read, and short. It’s interesting comparing and contrasting this one with Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, one of my favorite books on the subject. I’m still trying to figure out if my student should read this or Krug first.
  • Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, by Jakob Nielsen. A classic, but one I’ve (embarrassingly) never read.
  • The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman. This one’s actually a re-read—I’ve read it many times before, but re-reading it always brings fresh insights.

Gender and computing

The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, by Nathan Ensmenger. This one hit my radar from a tweet (which of course now I can’t find), and looks like an interesting treatment of how the computing culture evolved as it did. (Which may, hopefully, give some insight into how it can be made more welcoming.)

Just for fun

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall. While I’m pretty sure I’d never want to do ultramarathons, I’m fascinated by those who do. The author tracks down the Tarahumara, a reclusive tribe in Mexico for whom running extreme distances is a way of life. I found this while browsing the ebooks at my local library and am reading this using the Kindle app on my iPhone, which in itself is an interesting and informative exercise in interface and interaction design. (Maybe I should refile this as “work” reading, then?)

What’s on your reading list currently?

Owning my seniority

When I got the invitation a few months ago to attend the Senior Women Summit at Grace Hopper, I’ll admit that my first reaction was disbelief. Surely there was some mistake! I’ve only been officially tenured for just over a year, so how could I possibly be a senior woman in tech? And besides, doesn’t “senior” imply that I’m accomplished, that I’ve done something Really Important in my career? I’m just a lowly associate prof! I haven’t really done anything important yet!

But I was intrigued and curious, and thought “What the hell, I’ll just go and see what this is all about.”

I spent the entire first hour or so of today’s summit dealing with a serious case of impostor syndrome. I ended up sitting at a table of women who are very senior and are very much powerhouses of accomplishment. By chance I’d met all but one of them before. Oddly, even the ones I’d only briefly met in the past remembered me, which really threw me for a loop—why would these powerful women, who meet lots of people every day, remember little old me? They were all very warm and welcoming, but I was seriously fighting the urge to run out of the room screaming “I don’t belong here! There’s been a horrible mistake!”

Eventually I was able to get over my impostor syndrome enough to relax. And it was a really incredible opportunity. I had some great conversations with senior women, I identified some new mentors potential sponsors, and got to meet and converse with some of my personal heroes.

I find it interesting that I have such a hard time “owning” the fact that I am a senior woman. What I realized today is that, like it or not, I do have experience and I do make a difference and that others do see me as senior. This means that I have some power and control over things in my department, institution, and larger technical community. And that I can and should capitalize on this to make the changes and impact I want to see to my department, institution, and larger technical community. I forget sometimes that I’ve finished fighting the tenure battle—I still think of myself as “junior” and “of limited power”. It’s hard to switch that off once you get tenure. It’s hard to lean into and embrace that new role.

Today’s summit gave me permission to own my seniority and to embrace the benefits and responsibilities that come with that. My challenge will be figuring out how exactly I want to translate that into meaningful and sustainable action.

The importance of language and framing, part eleventy-thousand

There’s a fascinating blog post up today called “Girls Go Geek…Again” by Anna Lewis at Fog Creek Software. The post is wide-ranging and starts off by talking about the decline of women in computing since the mid-1980s:

In 1987, 42% of the software developers in America were women. And 34% of the systems analysts in America were women. Women had started to flock to computer science in the mid-1960s, during the early days of computing, when men were already dominating other technical professions but had yet to dominate the world of computing. For about two decades, the percentages of women who earned Computer Science degrees rose steadily, peaking at 37% in 1984.

In fact, for a hot second back in the mid-sixties, computer programming was actually portrayed as women’s work by the mass media.

The post links to a Cosmo article from 1967 (including an awesome quote from Grace Hopper about how programming is similar to planning a dinner party), which implies that of course women are natural programmers—why wouldn’t they be?

Then, The Great Migration out occurred (emphasis mine):

There were many reasons for the unusual influx of women into computer science. …There was a tremendous need to hire anyone with aptitude, including women. Partly, it was the fact that programming work itself was not yet fully defined as a scientific or engineering field.

From 1984 to 2006, the number of women majoring in computer science dropped from 37% to 20% — just as the percentages of women were increasing steadily in all other fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, with the possible exception of physics. The reasons women left computer science are as complex and numerous as why they had entered in the first place. But the most common explanation is that the rise of personal computers led computing culture to be associated with the stereotype of the eccentric, antisocial, male “hacker.” Women found computer science less receptive professionally than it had been at its inception.

I’ve heard Fran Allen say similar things in the past—and, at today’s lunch for our research scholars, our speaker said something along the same lines when talking about educational technology. Once the requirements for what it meant to be a computer scientist became more “formalized” and once CS became more closely tied to engineering, suddenly it didn’t seem quite so welcoming anymore.

As interesting as the first part of this article is, the second part is equally fascinating. The blogger interviews the only female intern at Fog Creek (who, apparently, is the only technical woman on staff too!) about her experiences as a woman in CS. While the entire interview is interesting, I want to highlight two things in particular that Leah Hanson, the intern, said.

In answering the question “Why do you think younger girls or college-age women don’t go into computer science?”, she says (again, emphasis mine):

Well, I used to be baffled at how they could miss seeing how awesome programming and CS in general are, but there’s a bunch of things that seem to contribute to that. For example, women seem to give up sooner even in everyday situations with technology….Having experience with going through the frustration of trying to get some piece of technology to work, and eventually succeeding, builds skills that you need for working with technology and for debugging. Also, most girls don’t really get computers of their own when they’re young. It seems like sometimes the family computer is bought mainly for the boy to use and then he’s kind of forced to share it with his sister. That means that girls can’t experiment on computers. You need your own computer because you have to be able to possibly break it while you’re trying new stuff, without getting in trouble. …Until I had complete control of my own computer, I never had any interest in trying Linux; when someone else is responsible for keeping your computer functioning, and does a good job of it, there’s little incentive to try something like a different OS, since you’d have to convince other people that it’s a good idea to mess with what’s currently working.

This perfectly echoes the arguments in Unlocking the Clubhouse as well: women and men need the experience of tinkering so that they can get into the mindset needed for writing and debugging computer programs. Men are more likely to get the opportunity to do so. By making it socially acceptable for women to not be troubleshooters and problem-solvers of their own technology, we essentially shut off career paths to them.

And in answering the question of how Fog Creek can do a better job attracting and recruiting technical women (emphasis mine):

Well, one thing I noticed is that on your website you really stress how the developers here are the best and all the perks that you offer. But, to be honest, that doesn’t really differentiate Fog Creek from Google or Facebook because they also have awesome developers and loads of perks. Whereas what I think your internship offers that you don’t stress quite as much is all the close mentorship we get….And, basically, these things that have to do with collaboration and learning appeal a lot more to female candidates than talking about the best developers in the world or all the perks. I went to a talk at Johns Hopkins, hosted by our Women in CS group, by Hannah Wallach on gender imbalance among FLOSS developers. And she said that one of the things that happens is that women don’t even think they’re qualified for something because it’s advertised in competitive language. The language of competition not only doesn’t appeal to many women, it actually puts them off. Google advertises their Summer of Code with very competitive language. In 2006, GNOME received almost two hundred GSoC applicants – all male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, but emphasizing the opportunities for mentorship and learning, they received over a hundred highly qualified female applicants for the three spots they were able to fund. Honestly, when you hear the phrase “the world’s best developers,” you see a guy. And, for women, that can be alienating.

Framing matters. Language matters. We can be as inclusive and aware and welcoming as possible, but if we’re not paying attention to the language we use—on our web sites, in our course descriptions, in how we talk about technology and its role in the world—we may end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

We’re at an interesting point right now: enrollments in CS are on the rise, and more women are choosing to major in CS. We have a golden opportunity to learn from our mistakes of the past and keep the trends moving upward. Let’s hope we’re smart enough to not let history repeat itself.

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.

To change or not to change—should that be the question?

I just got back from the annual NCWIT Summit, in NYC.  Carleton recently became a member of NCWIT’s Academic Alliance (yay!), and one of the perks responsibilities of membership is attending the annual summit.  The summit is a chance for the members of all the alliances (academic, entrepeneur, workforce, K-12, etc) to get together, network, share best practices…and hear fabulous speakers.

This year one of the speakers was Joshua Aronson, who’s done a ton of excellent work on stereotype threat.  (He and Claude Steele coauthored the original, seminal paper on stereotype threat.)  The talk was excellent—he had a lot of great anecdotes (and is a good storyteller) and ended with some hopeful and promising ideas for mitigating stereotype threat.

However, he told one story that, frankly, still infuriates me.

In 2004, Stricker and Ward wrote a paper on a study sponsored by ETS, the company that is responsible for the AP exams.  The study tested whether moving the usual questions on gender, race, etc. to the end of the AP AB Calculus exam, after the students finished answering the questions, would raise the scores of underrepresented groups on this exam, instead of asking these questions before the exam.  The idea is that if stereotype threat was an issue, then moving the questions on race and gender to the end of the exam should have a positive effect on test scores of those most likely to be affected by stereotype threat.  The study found no statistically significant difference in scores.

In 2008, Danaher and Crandall reexamined the study’s data, and found quite different results.  They found that the criterion applied in the original analysis was too conservative.  Changing the timing of the question in fact had a great effect on women’s performance, and that as a result 4700 more women would have earned scores high enough to earn placement credit for AB calculus.

Now, you would think that the ETS would have a vested interest in making these tests as fair and equitable as possible.  After all, these tests are supposed to test knowledge about a subject, so why wouldn’t we want to make the test conditions as fair and unbiased as possible?  So why not move the questions on demographics to the end of the exam, especially if there’s no good reason why they have to be asked at the beginning (and many reasons why they shouldn’t be asked at the beginning)?  But even today, ETS has failed to make this simple change in the exam.

One of the messages/themes of the summit this year (and maybe in most years—this is only my second year attending) is “small changes count too”.  One or more speakers explicitly mentioned that a small deed is better than no deed, or that small deeds start change, or some variation of this message.  Changing the timing of the gender/race questions is a small deed.  At worst, it has no effect on scores.  At best, it can have an important and measurable effect on reducing stereotype threat.

So why not make the change, ETS?  You’ve got so little to lose and so much to gain.   As an organization invested in having more students participate in AP examinations and AP courses, why not also invest in a change that will possibly remove some subtle, unconscious, but real barriers to the demonstration of knowledge?  What good is having more people at the table if those people aren’t performing up to their best level—particularly when you can make a change that might very well remove this performance barrier?

Why not, ETS?


Steele, Claude M.; Aronson, Joshua (1995), Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797–811.

Stricker, L. J. and Ward, W. C. (2004), Stereotype Threat, Inquiring About Test Takers’ Ethnicity and Gender, and Standardized Test Performance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34: 665–693.

Danaher, K. and Crandall, C. S. (2008), Stereotype Threat in Applied Settings Re-Examined. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38: 1639–1655.

The “dangers” of escalating enrollments?

Eric Roberts, a professor of computer science at Stanford and someone who spends a lot of time and energy thinking about, improving, and researching CS education practices, wrote a guest post at the Computing Education blog addressing the wildly increasing enrollments in university-level CS courses.  The post is very interesting and thought-provoking, but I’ll admit I started reading it with a bit of unease.

The demand for CS courses today is interesting, because as Roberts points out, it’s not just in the Intro course.  It starts there, for sure (Stanford, like us, is seeing record enrollments in Intro CS), which makes sense—the economy is not all that hot right now, students want to make themselves more marketable, and finally people are realizing that knowing at least a bit about technology is a Good Thing.  But that doesn’t explain all the demand, because the record enrollments extend “up the stack”, as it were, into the upper-level courses:

What my colleagues and I are seeing today is entirely different [from what we saw during the dot-com bubble in the late 90s]. The students who are now inflating the ranks of CS106A are, it seems, deciding to take a computer science course as a way of bolstering their credentials before they emerge into a weak economy. Most have majors in other areas but recognize, probably correctly, that having programming skills will likely increase their chances of gaining employment in their own field. A surprising number of those students, however, once they get into our introductory courses fall completely in love with the material and continue on to double the size of the downstream courses in the curriculum.

This explains what we are seeing here, too—our 300 level courses often have enrollments in the high 20s, and one of our 300 level courses this spring (Data Mining) actually filled to capacity before registration ended!  And this is translating into majors—32 so far in the sophomore class, with more expected due to double majors.  Our students are falling in love with CS!

So how do we keep the love alive?  How do we make sure that this is not another bubble?  How do we sustain the interest in CS and, at the same time, support these larger numbers of students, so that they get the quality CS education they deserve?

And this is where the “nervous” part I mentioned comes in.  As Roberts points out in the post, the computing field saw a similar rise in demand in the early 1980s, followed by a precipitous drop in interest.  In a 1999 SIGCSE essay, Roberts discusses a bit of what happened:

At some point in the 1980s, these strategies [to deal with the demand] proved insufficient, forcing departments to restrict demand by imposing limits on enrollment. Some institutions attained these limits by setting strict quotas on the number of students who could major in computer science or by requiring extraordinarily high GPAs to declare computer science as a major. Others achieved the same effect without formal limitations, simply by making the introductory courses so difficult that relatively few students would continue in the field.

Students in the mid 1980s did not decide not to major in computer science but were instead prohibited from doing so by departments that lacked the resources to accommodate them. Given the pressures departments faced at the time, these restrictions may well have been necessary. Moreover, they did, in the end, mitigate the crisis. They did so, however, at an enormous cost. At a time when industry needed more people to sustain its momentum, universities were forced to cut back. The flow of students collapsed, and industry was faced with a shrinking labor pool. Given the complexity of any economic system, it is usually impossible to prove causality, but I have believed for some time that the crisis in academic computer science during the 1980s contributed significantly to the industrial decline at the end of the decade.

The paper goes on to discuss why this is bad for various constituencies, but the biggest deleterious effect?

Enrollment limitation will almost certainly have a disastrous effect on the diversity of the undergraduate computer science population. Students from weaker school systems and those who have not had the opportunity to work with computers at home will have much more trouble with introductory courses designed to act as filters for a limited- admission major. Similarly, studies have documented the fact that women are likely to underrate their own abilities with respect to their male counterparts [16]. Faced with a highly competitive admissions process, women are more likely to choose other options in selecting a major. From 1986 to 1991, the number of men graduating with bachelor’s degrees in computer science dropped by 34 percent, while the number of women declined by 51 percent [2]. (emphasis mine)

And this is why I am nervous.  I am hoping that we’ve learned our lessons from the 1980s and that we, as a CS education community, will find more productive and positive ways to deal with the demands on our limited department resources than imposing quotas and re-adopting the “weed-out” mentality that I hated so much as an engineering major.  It is more important than ever, at this point, that we continue the practices that attract all comers to our major, and that we continue to refine our practices in retaining a diverse population in our classes and in the CS major.  It is most important that we do this in times of wealth, so that we can be proactive instead of reactive and build upon the strength of our numbers.

I hope the CS field is up to the challenge!

Role playing and role modeling

Yesterday, a new Barbie joined the menagerie of Barbies at our house.  (actually 2—of course I had to order one for myself!)  My 3.5 year old daughter, who loves Barbies, was excited to have a new Barbie, of course.  And I was excited to share with her that this Barbie was special, because she has the same (approximately, anyway) job as her mom and dad.

Usually, when the Barbies come out, the pretend play trends towards dance class, or school, or taking care of animals, or (my personal favorite) a mash-up involving flying, castles, Shrek, hot lava, and dragons.  But with this Barbie, the play was definitely….different.  See, Barbie went straight to work.  Where she worked, and took some phone calls, and worked some more, then went home to cook dinner and then—you guessed it—work on “her project”.

Anyone who knows me IRL, or who’s read this blog for more than 5 minutes, knows how passionate I am about diversifying the field of CS, of opening up the possibilities of CS particularly to women, so that women will start seriously seeing themselves as, and considering themselves to be, computer scientists.  And of course I extend this to my own daughter.  I want her to see computer science as something that she can do and that she’ll want to do:  a very cool, interesting, exciting, innovative field.  So far she’s very interested in computers—if she had her way, she’d play games on my iPhone all day, and we just gave her a hand-me-down laptop so she can start exploring and playing on her own.  So it pained me a bit to see how her play reflected how she sees me, and her dad, as computer scientists:  someone who works all the time.

I want my daughter to associate computer science with fun, and whimsy, and discovery, and not just long hours of work.  But of course the reality is that I, and my husband, do work long hours, and clearly she sees that and has absorbed that.  And of course she hears how excitedly we talk about our jobs, and our projects, at home, but at this age seeing is more powerful than hearing.

My wish is that I can do a better job of role modeling for her what it means to be a computer scientist.  I want to make sure she sees, and notices, the love and passion and excitement I have for my work.  I want her to recognize that I’m doing stuff that actually will make the world a tangibly better place.  I want her to see that you can be passionately involved in your work and still have time for other passions outside of work too.  And maybe next time we play Barbies, Computer Engineer Barbie will join the other Barbies on the hunt for dragons….and then they’ll all go back to the Barbie Townhouse and code to their hearts’ content!

An open letter to yesterday’s Convo speaker

Dear Convo speaker,

It’s not often that Convo speakers with a CS tie visit our fair campus, so it was with great anticipation that I attended your talk yesterday.  I wasn’t sure what type of talk you would give, but was pleased by your decision to go all visionary on us.  I love visionary talks.  I enjoyed your take on what the future may hold and your insights into the state of the field today.  I appreciated that your talk was accessible and engaging, at your attempts to work humor and levity into the talk, and, according to my students, your most excellent discussion at the lunch afterwards.  Your talk has given me lots to talk about with my students in my two intro-level classes in the coming weeks, and for that I thank you.

And then, It happened.  The Gratuitous Porn Reference (GPR).

Now, as a woman in tech, I’m certainly no stranger to the occasional GPR in the keynote or seminar talk.  It happens more often than I’d care to admit, unfortunately, but more on that later.  As a feminist and a compassionate human being, I abhor porn.  I abhor its extreme objectification of women and pretty much everything about it.  When I hear a porn reference in a talk, I feel extraordinarily uncomfortable, wishing a gaping hole in the earth would swallow me whole and take me away from the moment.  So you can imagine how I felt when you threw that GPR into the talk.  It distracted me from your message for most of the rest of the talk, which is unfortunate because I’m sure you said some more really insightful and interesting things.

What you did was sloppy preparation.  The GPR was completely gratuitous, and very obviously thrown in to generate laughs.  If you were hoping to use humor to illustrate your point, there were many other examples you could have used which would have fit your point much, much better.  I’m guessing you saw that you were speaking at a college campus, figured since you are big in the gaming field that your audience would be mostly male, and decided the joke would work.  But the audience was pretty mixed.  Regardless, I think it’s a bit insulting to your audience to make these assumptions about how your audience feels about such a lightning-rod topic, and such a big risk as well—the risk of alienating a good portion of your audience, not just women but men who strongly dislike porn and what it stands for as well.

And let’s talk about alienating your audience.  As I mentioned previously, this is not the first time I’ve heard a GPR in a tech talk, and as references go it was pretty tame.  But.  The world of technology already feels like a giant Boys’ Club, and those of us who don’t fit in to that Boys’ Club because of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or personality already feel plenty uncomfortable.  Trust me, as a woman in technology I’m reminded almost daily, in many tiny and mostly subtle ways, that I don’t really belong.  Throwing in a reference to something that so strongly objectifies women feeds into that Boys’ Club culture.  It tells the women in your audience that you see them first and foremost as objects of desire, not competent and welcome contributors to the field.  Even if this was not your intention, this is the message you send, particularly when you are a big name in the field.

Finally, your institution is one that is admired and lauded for Getting It when it comes to broadening and welcoming participation in tech-related fields—a real leader in this area.  When you speak, like it or not, you represent your institution as well as yourself.  And people, in the absence of other information, will assume that your views somehow represent the values and views of the school.  So you did your institution a grave disservice as well.

I hope you will keep this in mind the next time you give a talk like this.  Because as much as I’d like to say I’ll remember all of the fine points you made in your Convo talk, in reality I’ll probably just remember you as Just Another Speaker Who Doesn’t Get It.