Omar Abdul-Rahim / Sun-Contributor

March 15, 2016

Panel Discusses Issues Facing Minorities in Computer Science Following Controversy

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Over 50 undergraduates, faculty members and graduate students called for institutional changes to address the lack of inclusiveness in Cornell’s computer science community at a discussion panel on Monday.

Students raised issues that ranged from elitism and condescension from the computer science undergraduate course staff to racial discrimination and the tone of online forums.

Female students shared several stories of times whenthey felt that their minority status in the field placed them at a disadvantage.

“When my friend first brought that up to me, she said I never talk in class, never, but I’m ‘that blonde girl,’ and I have had people recognize me wherever I go from class,” said Sarah Sinclair ’16.

Most instances of discrimination are small and unintentional, and women in computer science “silence [themselves] a lot of the time,” according to Sinclair.

“I have automatically started minimizing [my problems] — it’s not something I want to make a big battle out of,” Sinclair said. “There are all these little ways we make our feelings a non-issue, and I think that’s something that has been underlying this whole atmosphere.”

Yordanos Goshu ’18 suggested establishing a support group for underrepresented minorities as an initial step towards addressing racial discrimination.

“When a person in an underrepresented community fails and looks around and doesn’t see people of color, it doesn’t make them want to try again,” Goshu said.

Goshu said he would have struggled in the computer science major without mentorship from an African American graduate student.

“I [succeeded] because I reached out to someone and I had the confidence to do that,” Goshu said. “It’s really easy to get lost in a community when you look around everyone doesn’t look like you. If I didn’t have him as a mentor, there’s a good chance I would have been weeded out of the major. When you do fail, you need some support system.“

The discussion panel follows an online controversy that erupted in Cornell’s computer science community last week, when the department’s student-run Facebook page added a cover photo featuring only male, Caucasian professors, since 2013, when it was created.

Students who “felt very strongly” about the inequality in the photo published Facebook posts and articles arguing about bias against and exclusion of women in the computer science field, The Sun previously reported.

“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,” said Rachel Wells ’18, who wrote the first online response to the photo.

Some students expressed optimism that the department would see more equal representation in the coming years.

Prof.undergraduate Kavita Bala, computer science, said she expects that the department will see changes in its demographic in coming years, as more women are becoming interested in the tech industry.

“[The] major is undergoing a major transition at this point,” Bala said. “Three years from now, the public face of this major is going to look very different, and that is something we are all going to have to deal with together.”

  • George

    Computer science is hardly an all white community. There are very significant numbers of Indians and Asians in the field. If females want to be part of the club, there is nothing stopping them except their own inhibitions.

    • Theo

      I think you completely missed all of the points, George. All of them.

  • Occidun

    Hmm, what’s so evil about white men?

    Interestingly, you rarely hear Asians complaining that they are left out, even though they are the real victims of affirmative action and admissions quotas. The people who complain so much about “diversity” are the ones who are benefiting from the quotas. If there were no affirmative action and admission were based on merit, then the number of women and black people in the Engineering College would fall drastically, while the number of Asians would skyrocket. People often seem to forget that.

    If you’re an Engineering student who is not an Asian, please remember the Asians who were rejected so you could be here. Try to be a bit more gracious and thankful.

    • Blu-j

      Nobody said white men were evil. Project much?

      These commentaries by women or minorities are hardly inflammatory or accusatory. Why does it bother you so much that some people might possibly feel bothered by a lack of diversity? It’s a free country, disagree.

      To be sure, there are difficult and uncomfortable questions surrounding diversity efforts on colleges, and some of the politicization of those efforts has been clumsy, at best. Certainly no clumsier or mean spirited than your casual, not evidence based AT ALL assertion that women and minorities don’t merit being here crap. Jeez, that’s a Hell of a shot across the bow but you just plunge right ahead!

      A college community, even an engineering community, usually benefits from diverse opinions and experiences. Did your deep and thorough understanding of population studies honestly convince you that ONLY WHITE AND ASIAN MEN excel in engineering? That sounds surprisingly like, what’s the engineering term, oh yeah, a common stereotype.

      No program in the history of the universe is entirely a meritocracy. Leadership, temperament, creativity, money, and unique backgrounds are ALL valued for their impact. Money is probably paramount from the institution’s perspective, and if they could just get rid of these single talent nerdy white kids and replace them with rich foreign tuition genius Asians, the numbers of Whites and women and minorities would ALL PLUMMET. Idiots often seem to forget that.

      If you’re an engineering student who is not female or minority, please consider the tiny possibility that there is an existence a tiny fraction different from yours. Consider that while you have assuredly worked hard for your success, they have, too. They don’t begrudge you your position, maybe you could do the same? Try and be a bit more gracious and thankful.

  • Hardware

    Slight correction, the controversy erupted over a cover photo that had been up for a long time. The article makes it look like the cover photo was just posted recently, which is not the case

  • Software

    I’m not exactly sure why there being fewer of your race/gender would cause you to give up when you fail. Tbh that kind of sounds like it’s just an excuse for why it’s okay for you to give up. If one failure is all it took for you to want to drop out of the major then maybe it’s not for you. Also I agree with everyone else commenting here. The article is kind of biased towards the underrepresented groups. I mean is it really that bad that someone knows you as “that blonde girl”? It seems like I’ve always been “that guy who wears that grey fleece and shorts all the time” to people who don’t know me, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I do wear that grey fleece and shorts all the time. Also, the article really seems like it is minimizing the offensiveness of the original post. There was really no provocation for rudeness, but the large majority of the post comprised of sarcastic comments or straight up calling the admins biggots.

    • Blah

      At the panel, Yordanos stated that it was the combination of not doing very well in a CS intro course and other advisors and mentors telling him not to do the major that made him feel he should not pursue the major. Please don’t think the reporting here is telling the whole story – it’s not.