We must do more to address gender harassment at the Allen School

Written by Rowan Zellers, Maarten Sap, Nick Nuechterlein, Camille Cobb, Doug Woos, Lucy Lin— August 1, 2018

We are a concerned group of graduate students at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. A few weeks ago, Stuart Reges, a senior lecturer in the Allen School, published an editorial arguing that “that having 20 percent women in tech is probably the best we are likely to achieve,” and attributing this to “free choice” rather than systematic bias. Many have pointed out the flaws in this argument (see here, here, and here), and we have written a detailed rebuttal here.

However, the problems with Reges’ editorial go beyond bad science and faulty logic. The public visibility of these views, expressed by the primary gatekeeper to a highly selective CS program, poses an urgent problem for a school invested in increasing the inclusion of underrepresented students.

We believe that a clear and aggressive response is urgently demanded. As the next generation of computer scientists, we recognize the importance of diversity and inclusion towards the future of the field. Though we also believe everyone is entitled to their opinions, this does not absolve anyone of responsibility for their words or actions. We appreciate that the Allen School put forth a statement expressing disagreement with Reges’ editorial. However, the statements and past actions of the Allen School have not gone far enough at addressing systematic diversity and inclusion issues within the Allen School, of which Reges’ editorial is only the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, the administration has barely responded to this culture of harassment; when pressed for action, a common response is that gender-based harassment is part of the “real world” and is therefore something we should just put up with. The impact of this negligence is serious: a recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) concludes that permissiveness towards gender harassment “can be as damaging to women’s success and professional advancement as the more egregious forms of sexual harassment” (p. 122).

A coherent response from the administration must acknowledge the reality that Reges’ editorial is only one symptom of a broader problem in the Allen School, and that harassment and broader inequity extends beyond gender, to race, sexuality, and class. These dimensions of identity are fundamentally intersectional; moreover, research on the tech industry has shown that marginalized and underrepresented races and sexualities contend with additional harassment in the form of bullying, public humiliation, exclusion, and condescension at work.

As members of UAW 4121, we’ve already begun taking concrete action to address these issues: by bargaining for clear and specific anti-discrimination policies, by filing grievances to create accountability, and by developing trainings and equity surveys. Taking action to address discrimination was a key reason why UW postdoctoral researchers recently chose to unionize.

But we can’t do this work alone. While the University of Washington and the Allen School pride themselves on their diversity and inclusion efforts, we believe more action is required as soon as possible; so far, the programs implemented by the Allen School have had little impact on campus climate.

We join the NAS report in calling for “aggressive, highly visible managerial implementation of anti-harassment policies and procedures in a concerted way” (p. 148). We call on leadership to actively uphold the ideals they espouse — including by working with graduate and undergraduate students, postdocs, and other workers to mount a meaningful response to underlying problems in the Allen School — and maintain that we always should, can, and will do more.