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Diversity in Computer Science

Most people who know me know that I’m passionate about diversifying my field, and have probably heard some version of the following essay.
However, it appears that I do have the occasional reader who doesn’t know me well, so I thought I’d put down a version of my normal statements in electrons, as it were.

Whether we like it or not, computer technology is changing the world. Things like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are changing the ways in which we communicate with others. Google, as it organizes the world’s information, provides us with surprising access to things: maps, facts, directions, and more. (It also gathers data about us, but that’s a separate issue.) Technology reflects those who build it. Hence, as a computing educator, I have a moral responsibility to do what I can to diversify my discipline.

My primary reason for feeling this responsibility is that I think technology will not only be more inclusive, but just better if we have a broader group of people building technology. Does it really make a difference who builds the technology? Yes, I really think so. There’s evidence from almost every science that people started thinking about the discipline differently once a previously excluded group (most frequently, women) started participating more actively in the discipline. It’s clear that companies that have a more diverse group of developers (or engineers or whatever you want to call them) really do seem to produce products that feel different.

But it’s also more than that. CS is awesome. Everyone should have the opportunity to gain the joys of solving problems and creating interesting things that are at the heart of computing. Too many people feel excluded because of gender, race, sexual orientation, physical status, or whatever. On a more practical level, computing is also a valuable skill, one that can lead to rewarding careers.

Broadening participation is not an easy task. There’s significant evidence that many factors discourage people from groups underrepresented in computing to pursue computing as a vocation or avocation. These factors continue from childhood (when it seems that certain groups are encouraged to explore computing and others are discouraged) to adulthood (when peers can provide an unwelcoming environment, either intentionally or unintentionally).

I’ve spent most of my career at Grinnell working on gender diversity in my field. These past few years, I’ve also turned my attention to racial diversity. At some point, I’d like to see us be more thoughtful about attracting and supporting students with disAbilities, making sure that our curriculum is accessible to students with visual, hearing, or other physical impairments as well as to students beyond the neurotypical. Grinnell is clearly working hard to provide better support for such students, and I’d hope that we could be seen as a particularly supportive department.

What do I do as an educator? What can I do? I feel fortunate that I’m not alone in prioritizing diversity. As I’ll write in a separate essay, my colleagues and students at Grinnell have collaborated to do a number of activities to attract and retain students in CS, from restructuring our curriculum to thinking carefully about the design of our spaces and support services. Diversity is also an issue of interest to many computer scientists nationwide.

Where does this all lead? Well, I hope my efforts lead to an even more diverse group of computer scientists coming out of Grinnell and going on to make a difference in the world. And I hope this essay leads to more people supporting me in my efforts. We’ll see.

Yeah, this is one of those essays that might have been better as a single paragraph. Oh well. That’s how it goes sometimes.

Note: In case it’s not clear from this essay, I think we diversify the discipline by bringing in more people and a wider variety of people, not by reducing the number of majority people who study. Things I do to make CS more inclusive usually support everyone.

Version 1.0 released 2016-09-21.

Version 1.1 of 2020-04-29.