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.”