Madeline Nowicki: Confront the culture

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 - 10:18pm

Only 20 percent of computer science undergraduates at the University of Michigan in LSA are women.  The first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in computer science from the University did so only three years ago. Initiatives to remedy these gaps have recently cropped up, led by iconic figures from President Obama to supermodel Karlie Kloss, but the gender gap has a long way to go. And I’m part of the problem.

During office hours for EECS 280, an intermediate programming course for computer science (CS) students, a male classmate approached me at my laptop. I looked up at him from my frustrating debugging session, only for him to make eye contact with me, lift his hand to point down the hall and inform me that “this is engineering school; the sorority meeting is that way.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This is the University of Michigan, in liberal Ann Arbor, in 2016. I am normally outspoken — my Twitter feed is a stream of consciousness, and I’m not afraid to say exactly what’s on my mind. In this moment of complete disrespect, erasure and reduction, my audacious and declarative personality was silenced. How could I respond? I wanted to slap him. I wanted to cry. I wanted to show him my last project’s Autograder score. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to explain that I wasn’t looking for a sorority meeting, but even if I were, that I could still be debugging a project — they’re not mutually exclusive. But my jaw just dropped. He just smirked and walked away.

The University wonders why there’s such a disparate gender ratio in the tech field. The government wonders. Companies wonder. It’s pretty obvious to me. The interaction I had with this classmate is far from unique. There is a massive culture problem in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. An institutional male bias in CS is undeniable, underlining the pedagogy of courses, the lack of representation of women among faculty, and the way in which culture and respectful interaction is dismissed as secondary, paling in comparison to the supposed real goal of efficiency.

Students in computer science are rightfully challenged. It’s a tough field of study and the job market is competitive. Michigan does an incredible technical job of preparing students who graduate from the EECS department for success. Culturally and socially, however, the University fails to prepare its students. Technical excellence is key. Cultural awareness and social responsibility, however, transform a programmer into an engineer, aware of the needs of others and conscious of diverse approaches to address these needs.

At the end of an EECS 280 lecture, Laura Alford, a lecturer in naval architecture and an engineering and research investigator, gave a guest lecture addressing inherent biases in academics and the workplace, particularly in tech. She gave this presentation as students around me zipped their backpacks, shut their laptops and prepared to leave. The discussion of dynamic memory had ended, and this woman was talking about sexism, so immediately a large chunk of the predominantly male room tuned out.

Even when the University attempted to address sexism in tech, it was an afterthought. The final 15 minutes of a dense 90-minute lecture were devoted to a woman talking about how women have it tough. She encouraged students to recognize and preempt their biases, but didn’t really have the time or space to share the reasons underlying these biases. She didn’t have time to explain how demeaning it is to not only be the only woman on a team, but to also be constantly working overtime to show that your ideas are valid. She didn’t have time to elaborate on how this is exacerbated for other minorities in technology. She didn’t have time to emphasize that being labeled a “diversity hire” isn’t a compliment. She didn’t have time to help students understand what they could do to stop this cycle. The actions of these students had shut her out from the moment she got onstage. They were the same actions that shut me out too.

I switched out of computer science for a multitude of reasons, namely that I found my real passion for improving the world with technology fits better within the School of Information’s curriculum. Many women, however, encounter these setbacks every day and are then pushed out of technology altogether. Women and minorities who push through instances like the anecdote I described above on a daily basis, while completing some of the most rigorous coursework at Michigan, are very impressive. But they, we, shouldn’t have to be.  

It is time that the University, professors and students confront the culture of STEM fields. Despite efforts to increase diversity, encourage young women and develop technology curriculum, female graduation has increased by only five percent in computer science in the past five years. Opening a dialogue is a positive first step, but as I saw in my EECS 280 class, dialogues can be tuned out. A hands-on approach to equalize technology-focused departments is needed. It is not a shock that women can be programmers and students and faculty need to realize this before another capable innovator is displaced from her rightful position as an designer or engineer. 

Madeline Nowicki can be reached at nowickim@umich.edu

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