April 24, 2016

SCHULMAN | Sexism in Computer Science is Never Okay

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What I have to say isn’t novel or unique, but it is incredibly important: we need need to stop tolerating sexism in computer science and technology related fields. Like I said before, other people have written this (and have done a better job), but it’s time I stepped off the sidelines about something I see everyday that I find unequivocally wrong.

Computer science is unapologetically misogynistic. Some 70 to 80 percent of the field is men. That number has gone up over time, not down. There are fewer women in computer science than any other type of engineering and almost any other profession (I’m looking at you finance). Statistics can be skewed to match your agenda, but clearly computer science is doing something to scare away women. It’s pretty obvious what it is: sexism.

You hear horror story after horror story — the CEO of Microsoft telling an employee that she shouldn’t negotiate for equal pay in a Q&A (obviously, there’s more to this story; he apologized),  female engineers getting harassed at tech conferences, etc. Obviously, no one wants to be sexist or support sexism yet nothing seems to be changing. Sometimes, people don’t even realize that they’re being sexist. There aren’t strong incentives that encourage people to be aware of their behavior or change things.

For these reasons, we need to have zero tolerance for discrimination. Computer science is a lot of fun. In my opinion, it will define the next century. It would be pretty awful if it remained as some exclusive bro-gramming club. We’re deterring a lot of people — a lot of smart people. Things need to change.

To be fair, much of this is out of our control. Sexism in computer science starts really early. For a while, personal computers were marketed to boys. Apparently, conventional wisdom holds that targeting boys or girls is more effective marketing (although I am very skeptical of this). Guys started dominating the field because they were being sold computers sooner. But, just because Apple’s marketing practices were sexist in the ’80s and ’90s doesn’t mean I have to be. Sexism needs to stop. It’s just wrong.

And yes, today this is changing; big proprietary software companies are spending a lot of money to immerse young women in programming sooner. But, it hasn’t changed yet. And, until it does we need to have zero tolerance for discrimination.

A lot of people defend sexism because they think it’s funny. I’m not going to comment whether things like things like C+= (a satirical feminist programming language made by hateful people with a lot of free time on their hands) and the old CS undergraduate group cover photo (which sparked a huge debate a few weeks ago), are funny. It doesn’t matter. They make people feel uncomfortable; they make me feel uncomfortable. Call me a buzzkill. I am a buzzkill. You don’t need to contribute to institutional sexism if you want to laugh. There are plenty of other funny things out there like 30 Rock, Stephen Colbert (before he sold out to CBS) or Scientology. Look at those things if you want to laugh.

And yes, women have succeeded and continue to succeed in computer science. I wouldn’t deserve my degree if I didn’t point out that despite everything stacked against them there are some pretty influential women in the field; I’ve been lucky enough to have some of them as teachers. But, looking at the demographics of their classes, you realize they are the exception to the rule. Either way, the fact that women can succeed and do in computer science doesn’t justify discriminating against them.

I’ll also be the first to admit that I am the last person who should be writing this. There are people who are better at computer science and people who are more involved with the community. I find computer science compelling, but not for its own sake. Answering economic questions with computer science is what really gets me going. I also started programming freshman year and was welcomed into the department. I’ve never had the mispleasure of being discriminated against in computer science.

But, I am a CS major and I write for the student newspaper. And it’s about time I said something considering this problem is so widespread and apathy only contributes to the problem. We have a system built against women succeeding. All this to say, we need to have zero tolerance for sexism in computer science (and, really just period). That’s my schtick this week. Stay tuned two weeks from now for my final column of the semester.

Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.