CS: the minority experience

by Madelyne Xiao, Director of Press for she++

We’re inclined to believe that equality on campus and in the workplace is on the rise (onwards and upwards with the times!), but 2014 was rife with sobering reminders of the very opposite. Although more women are entering into STEM-related majors overall, there’s been a significant decline in the percentage of women earning degrees in computer science.

Falling Rate of Students Who Intend to Major in Computing http://www.ncwit.org/resources/women-it-facts

Studies have shown that there’s a serious dearth of women CEOs and board members—about 36% of most major companies, but nearly 0% in Silicon Valley. Further, Yale researchers found that science professors were more likely to consider female students incompetent and, as a result, were less likely to take these students on as mentees.

What of everyday biases, though? They’re not in the headlines, but they’re part and parcel of a larger, deeply-rooted problem. To this end, she++ examined the minority experience in computer science—our definition of “minority” is pretty broad, encompassing gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and more. We asked students on campuses around the country for their experiences with discrimination in a variety of CS settings such as hackathons, classrooms, and the workplace.

The process of leaving home for the wide, wide world can be a jarring one. So many variables—family, friends, school—influence a person’s worldview.

“I’ve noticed that for many students, parents or teachers encouraged them — having coming from a background where college isn’t the norm, and where issues have always come in various other forms, be it health, violence, or finances, it’s easy to feel like you can’t relate to anybody, and it’s even easier to get impostor syndrome.”

Gender imbalances manifest themselves in high school classrooms:

“When I signed up for my first computer science course in high school I wasn’t quite sure what to expect…this was my least favorite class of the semester. I was the only female in the class, sitting quietly and immersing myself in my work while my male counterparts happily worked together. Being the only female in the class was an unfamiliar setting. I felt out of my element and even uncomfortable at times. Even though this didn’t impact my work, it led me to think of CS as a solitary subject.”

In college, these imbalances continue for students of diverse socioeconomic status.

“I am a low-income, first-generation college student, and I came into college knowing nothing about the application process for college, nothing about college in general, and certainly nothing about code, either! …By the end of my first year, half of us had either dropped out of college or switched out of computing due to academic and financial difficulties.”

Discrimination from friends strikes the deepest—and is oftentimes the most difficult to discuss.

“Once I wrote a Facebook post about how the majority of people on my ACM-ICPC team were girls. The first comment was ‘can we get a team photo?’”

Subtle, assumed gender roles play out during the job search:

“After a round of congratulations upon receiving internship and job offers, there is always that one thought that seems to cross my mind. Did I actually earn it based on my qualifications and merit or is it because I’m a girl? Being an Asian American female or a minority in Computer Science and Engineering, I have always had this subconscious feeling throughout my undergraduate career. Am I actually comparable and competitive against my majority male peers? I have never been blatantly told that I was not good enough because I was a girl or Asian, but little remarks of “oh, it’s because she’s a girl” and “they went easier on her,” joking or not, have definitely affected my confidence in my abilities.”

“I was asked if I was HR at an event strictly for programmers.”

That, or personal achievement is chalked up to external circumstances:

Even my really close friends tell me I’m lucky to be a minority because jobs and other opportunities are easier for me to get. Little do they know about implicit bias, imposter syndrome, and the fact that ‘diversity recruiting’ is more of a name than something that actually benefits applicants.”

The struggle doesn’t end at recruiting—the workplace presents an entirely new set of obstacles for women in computer science.

“During my freshmen year internship at a SV big tech company my manager didn’t invest in my success as other managers did with their interns. She encouraged me to give up programming and do something that ‘I might be better at’ without giving me the chance to show her that I was and still am in fact very good at programming/software engineering.”

Moving outside the realm of traditional job recruiting, self-starting female entrepreneurs have also struggled with gender biases.

“I was advised to find a white male co founder so that people would take me seriously.”

These soundbites afford us a glimpse into the evolving world of women of tech—we’ve come far, but we’ve still got a long way to go. From the gender imbalances of a college classroom to the microaggressions experienced by female technologists, the odds are still stacked against women in computer science.

So, geek girls: we challenge you to beat the odds. To make computer science your own. To upend existing stereotypes and establish yourselves as pioneers in a male-dominated field. To become technologists in every sense of the word. Go forth, code, and conquer.

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