The invisible work of equity in higher education computing and information science

Andy J. Ko
· 6 min read
UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering is a leader in promoting inclusive CS learning, but like any organization, it has a lot of work to do.

Many of us at the University of Washington in computing and information disciplines, including Computer Science & Engineering (CSE), The Information School (iSchool), and Human-Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE), are deeply passionate about equity in technology. This includes equitable teaching, equitable admissions, research about equity in computing, and equity in the software industry that so many of our students join after graduation. We view this equity work as central, rather than peripheral, because we understand that the culture of our institution, and the structures we create that propagate our culture, can lead to highly unequal outcomes in learning, development, and opportunity.

Unfortunately, this equity work is often hard, thankless, and invisible. One of the more notable examples of this is the outsized service burden that women and people from underrepresented groups play in leading these organizational change initiatives (e.g., the outstanding work at NCWIT, CRAW, CDC, GHC, Tapia, SIGCSE, and DREU, all run mostly by women). This post itself, after publishing it, led to countless comments online, mostly from women, and all of this online writing and debate was invisible work as well, shaping a broader dialogue and community (thanks to Cynthia Bailey Lee at Stanford for a particularly important thread on the phrase “invisible work”). That this work is unseen is a structural problem in it’s own right, not only overburdening faculty who already had to work harder to attain their position, but also by limiting the bandwidth of change by not resourcing it.

Other forms of work are not necessarily born by underrepresented groups, but still do work that isn’t visible to the public. For example, last year I redesigned our admissions process for our undergraduate Informatics program to have explicit, equity-minded criteria, including implicit bias training, tools that reinforced these policies, and policies on the pace of reviews to avoid fatigue (which can open people to implicit bias, e.g., Staats 2016). It took a lot of effort to do this work, but it’s not work that necessarily gets credited or celebrated. But at the same time, not sharing this equity work can make it seem like nothing is changing at the University of Washington and our faculty don’t care.

An article published a few days ago by my colleague Stuart Reges, a lecturer in CSE, reminded me that some transparency about these messy, unglamorous internal equity efforts is actually quite important, if not just to educate our own faculty about what equity is. Stuart’s stated position was that women are underrepresented in CS because of some form of innate difference in interest in CS, as if interest is something one is born with, rather than something that is developed through experience and relationships. Stuart is wrong, of course—we have a massive body of scientific evidence showing that the culture of a learning community is what determines their interest joining it (e.g., Hidi and Renniger 2006)—but more importantly, it reminded me that I have failed to successfully engage Stuart over my past 10 years at UW to help shift his beliefs toward this body of evidence. This is despite his critical role in shaping the culture of CS education at UW, and therefore the next generation of software engineers that are shaping our digital worlds.

Educating colleagues and others in CSE is only one of the invisible tasks in working toward equity. Changing culture, after all, is not swift, easy, or painless. In the past few days after Stuart’s article, I’ve written dozens of long emails to faculty colleagues, talked with reporters, counseled doctoral and undergraduate researchers in my lab about how the article made them feel excluded, and thanked dozens of women and people from other underrepresented groups in CS for bravely sharing their stories to senior faculty. Each of these little conversations, multiplied a thousand times over years is what creates the kind of culture that makes people feel included.

But it also takes more than just conversation. By chance, today is the day I planned on doing some strategic planning for equity for our Informatics degree. We had a diversity summit this past spring, and community wide survey on equity of our community, and a program committee brainstorm on equity issues. This uncovered several hundred equity issues that we need to work on in the iSchool, all of which were invisible to us until we started looking. Here are just a few of them:

  • Our transfer students get little guidance on how to navigate the university once they arrive, resulting in more struggle amongst students who are much more likely to be low-income, immigrants, refugees, or first generation college students.
  • Our first-generation college students who are admitted as freshman receive almost no guidance on how to succeed in college from the university or the iSchool.
  • Our computer labs, especially at night, turn in to highly masculine, intimidating spaces that many women and students of color do not feel safe using, limiting their access to a critical learning space.
  • Our faculty from underrepresented groups feel they have limited space to converse about equity, either within the school or across campus.
  • Our students with less prior knowledge of programming cannot access enough resources to keep pace with their more experienced peers. These tend to be women and other students from underrepresented groups who didn’t have the privilege of taking computer science in high school, or even knowing it existed.
  • Our admissions process, despite my improvements, is still full of noise, fatigue, and insufficient training, all of which allow for implicit bias in reviews, disadvantaging students from underrepresented groups.
  • We have admissions pre-requisites (including the intro courses taught by Stuart Reges) that have structural inequalities that we cannot control, meaning we are beholden to those inequities in our admissions.
  • We provide no training to faculty and student teaching assistants about equity or inclusion, despite the fact that they are the ones on the front lines of learning and therefore determine students’ experiences of our culture.
  • Our student groups do outreach to local high schools, but tend to go to schools they know, reinforcing the demographics of who discovers the iSchool, rather than broadcasting the information equitably across the state.

Of course, CSE has its own unique list. Due to my role overseeing Informatics in the iSchool, I read a lot of essays about freshman and sophomore’ experiences in CSE. All of our applicants take the CSE intro sequence, and as much as it pains me to share it, some describe it as toxic, competitive, and demeaning. Not just women, but students from all backgrounds. That’s by no means the dominant experience, but it’s clear there’s still much work to do across our technology majors at UW.

Which of these equity problems do we work on first? How do we work on them? What do we not do to make time for the above? How do we raise money for them? How do we change our colleagues’ practices and beliefs, where necessary, to make the changes we envision? How do we convince them these are real problems, worth our time? How do we fit them in to our research, teaching, and service responsibilities? These are not easy problems, there are no quick solutions, and whatever we do is likely not to make the front page of the Seattle times. This is slow, steady, focused, strategic work that will mostly go unnoticed, paying off one person at a time. And success will mean that list above, dwindles to nothing, while students, faculty, and staff come to our school, never knowing the pain that people used to experience just trying to learn, discover, and serve at the University.

There’s a reason that some in CS believe (despite our best evidence), that nothing more can be done to further engage women in computing. Culture change is hard. Harder than anything I’ve ever done. You can work at it for years and with the wrong strategy, have no progress. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With targeted change, I believe that the iSchool can work towards an ever more inclusive culture, and that CSE can too. I look forward to working with both schools over the coming decade and someday looking back at how a thousand little changes added up to a culture of equity and inclusion that other institutions can follow.

Are you faculty, staff, or student at the University of Washington in the iSchool, CSE, or HCDE and want to help? Write me. It’s going to take a village.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

Thanks to Kyle Thayer

Andy J. Ko

Written by

Associate Professor @UW_iSchool, Chief Scientist+Co-Founder @answerdash. Parent, feminist, scientist, teacher, inventor, programmer, human.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

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