A Facebook cover photo of computer science faculty featuring only Caucasian men has ignited a fierce debate over the discrimination that women face in computer science.
Rachel Wells ’18 wrote an angry post on the Cornell Computer Science Facebook group, saying she thought there was bias inherent in the cover photo, which was later changed to one that included female professors and people of color, according to Prof. Ross Tate, computer science.
“The photograph was a stark reminder of the white male ‘bro-culture’ myth that women and other minorities in C.S. are struggling to change,” Wells said. “All good intentions aside, the posting of the photograph was insensitive to many and obviously struck a nerve through the hearts of those in the community.”
Wells’ post sparked a flurry of passionate responses from other students. Rebecca Stambler ’16, who disagreed with Wells in an article on medium.com, said she thought the original photo was not intentionally exclusionary.
“It was an old photo, and I genuinely doubt that most people even noticed it or thought about changing it,” Stambler said. “If having a new photo makes people feel better in the C.S. community, I am all for it. I just disagreed with the manner in which the photo was changed.”
A group of 10 students who “felt very strongly” about stereotypes in Stambler’s article wrote a response on Google Docs, according to Agi Csaki ’17, co-president of Women in Computing at Cornell. Three authors, including Csaki, then compiled and condensed the information into an article.
“We did feel that there were a lot of common stereotypes and misconceptions about computer science that were being perpetuated by [Stambler’s] article,” Csaki said. “Things like saying that anyone has the right to say that women only get internships or jobs because they are women.”
The article contains a list of 31 supporters who contributed to the making of the document or agreed with the opinions expressed in it, according to Csaki.
Csaki said the co-written article aimed to provide a different perspective on the issues Stambler was discussing.
“Some women maybe have not faced discrimination and that’s awesome, but other women definitely do,” Csaki said. “We wanted to help give some women a voice who might not feel comfortable coming out in our community right now and saying ‘Yes, I have faced discrimination’ and ‘Yes, my confidence is something that I struggle with.’”
Randy Tung ’18, who created a satirical version of the updated group cover photo by adding a picture of him and his friend in the panel, called Wells’s post well-intentioned but unnecessary.
“First, her post included ad hominem attacks towards the overall computer science community,” Tung said. “Second, the change to the cover photo was unwarranted because the individuals in the original cover photo are some of the most prestigious professors in Cornell.”
The disagreement over the Facebook photo is part of a larger national debate about the status of women in computer science, as universities attempt to create environments that are more welcoming to women, according to Tate.
Women in Computing at Cornell, the Association of Computer Science Undergraduates at Cornell and the computer science department will co-host a discussion of women in computer science — moderated by Tate and Prof. Kavita Bala, computer science — on Monday, according to Csaki.
Csaki said WICC hopes that the Facebook discussions would calm down by creating a public debate. The forum will also be an opportunity for the computer science community to reflect on its current culture, according to Stambler.
“All of the responses and articles written have certainly opened our eyes to the variety of experiences people have in C.S.,” Stambler said. “Hopefully these discussions will help us gain more perspective and will leave C.S. a more welcoming environment for all.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Agi Csaki’s quote that Rebecca Stambler’s article ‘perpetrated’ instead of ‘perpetuated’ the misconceptions about computer science. Stambler was also misinterpreted as saying the forum will allow for re-evaluating its policies.