I worry about the dangers I am inviting them into

I worry about the dangers I am inviting them into

Second-hand store.  Albany, OR.  2007.

Second-hand store.  Albany, OR.  2007.

I used to be a Computer Science professor. Back then, my year had a rhythm. The academic calendar is a metronome, tapping out the weeks of fall and spring semesters.

Week eight is why I used to love my job. Spring break bliss. One week of autonomous calm. I could choose to do whatever I needed to feel caught up, calm, and successful. I muscled through week seven to earn week eight. By week seven, a semester is almost halfway over, so keeping time with the syllabus despite snow days and daycare inservice and impetigo and a traveling husband has become nearly impossible. All through week seven, a line from Bill Murray's Bob Wiley gets echoed by 20-year old voices, "Gimme, gimme, gimme, I need, I need, I need!"

Back then, just before Spring Break, when the parking lot is sparsely littered by owners who are already away to Colorado and California, a lone student would want to meet with me.  This student has bad news that cannot wait. Maybe, "I hate linear algebra" or "my ex-boyfriend is stalking me and I don't feel safe."

One year it was, "I don't want to major in computer science anymore."

Why not?

- I don't want to program all the time.
- I don't have any side coding projects like everybody else does.
- I have to work really hard just to get it to compile.
- I don't want to code all the time for a job.


- I like to talk to people and get things done.
- I like to turn ideas into reality.
- I like to hang out with my friends.

A blow. Though, I had heard this speech before many times, often from students who are not doing well. Sometimes from women who have engineer moms and dads.

But this day, the speech had a new sting to it. This was an Asian guy who had been doing just fine in his classes. He looked like he belongs. He coded well, too.

Despite our talk that day, he left the major.  Went on to the business school.  He's doing just fine.


My field is doing something wrong.

Most folk know there is something wrong with the ways by which computing culture accepts and retains members to the field of computer science. I saw it everyday in my classes.  Out of 36 students:  Three women, one latino, a guy from Kuwait, and 31 white guys.

In frustration, I want to yell out, "Where is everybody else!? Why don't other people feel like they would belong here?"

I know why.

No. That's too bold. I feel like I know parts of the why.

A feeling of belongingness can be very hard to find in this field. Even for the white guys, the dominant demographic in the US, a feeling of belonging is not guaranteed. Some years ago I did a survey of computer science majors at University of Illinois [1]. In it, I asked, "Are you a typical computer scientist?" One guy -- almost archetypal in his CS-itude with his white skin and shaggy hair and love of comic books and functional programming languages and his quiet-but-kind math-major girlfriend said -- "No. I cook."

Computer science is so narrow to this guy that cooking food makes him an oddball.

Perhaps I understand how he feels. At least, I know why I don't feel like I belong here, after twenty years being in it. Despite my Sparc and MIPS and Intel and Linux and Apache and C and VxWorks and Assembly and JavaScript, I still cannot tolerate the nerd-machismo, the disgusting one-upmanship of REAL programming languages or REAL operating systems. After twenty years, it still stings when folk assume I am the HR lady or the secretary or the wife. Or when a previously-trusted colleague says, "I think you are just having a female issue."

Most of the time, I don't really want to be in this field either. But I put aside my own hesitance and follow through on what feels like a moral obligation to expose the youth to my field. I participate in summer camps to teach young girls how to write video games. I choreograph sorting algorithms and dance them out for parents and students during visit weekends. I host campus visits for middle school girls so that they can see the inside of a research lab. I create comfy microcosms for them. I let them play, then offer, "Isn't this neat? Don't you want this, too?"

I feel conflicted about this work. My field is not always neat and comfy and playful. It has its difficulties. I worry about the dangers that I am inviting them into. I worry that behind my work of recruiting is a naive and silly hope, "If I tell 10,000, then 10 will come."

And when that handful arrives to the perimeters of my field, who will do the other half of the job? Who will do the work of nurturing, of retention? It won't likely be me, their first professor or their first boss. Someone else must do the work of reinforcing to them again and again that, "Yes, you belong here."  

Such work is not just women's work for the sake of women. This work is everyone's work.

I desperately want my field to become diverse -- a place where lots of different kinds of people are tolerating each other in healthy engaging ways. To achieve this requires the work of recruitment, middle school girls and summer camps. But it also requires an improved look at retention. All members of my field must be educated. To use inclusive language. To use blind resumes. To think about users who are deaf or gamers who might not care for the metal thong. To put aside strong opinions about race or gender or Haskell or Ruby. To leave one's baggage in the car and be a professional in the field.

My field.

Welcome to the party

Welcome to the party

The change a decade may offer