Diversity in Computer Science, Revisited

The closing keynote of SIGCSE 2016 was given by Karen Ashcraft on the subject of diversity in Computer Science. A perennial topic which I’ve seen discussed many times, but I felt this talk offered some convincing explanations and ways forward. Here’s my understanding of the talk — you may also be interested in Pamela Fox’s more detailed notes.

Ashcraft’s central argument was that professions take on an identity through a figurative practitioner. That is, software development has an identity which comes from the commonly imagined programmer: white, male, quiet, socially awkward, interested in games, comics and sci-fi, etc. This idea that professions have an identity is different from the idea that the workers have an identity that is transferred to the profession. She gave the example of pilots, where the identity of the profession was deliberately re-sculpted from “debonair daredevil adventurer” to “fatherly naval officer” in the 1930s, because passengers were much more likely to want to fly with the latter than the former. The identity of a profession is constructed and can be manipulated independently of who is actually a member of the profession.

Ashcraft had particular criticism for the idea of fixing diversity by “leaning in”: the idea that women should adjust themselves to fit into the male world. (I’m partial to the description of lean-in as “victim blaming”.) She argued that any attempt to solve diversity which emphasises the divide is bound to lose. That is, if you tell women “women can program too”, you’re emphasising the idea that women differ from men when it comes to programming, and are not going to be successful in eliminating the gender division in programming.

Ashcraft’s suggestion was that to increase diversity in a profession, you should not focus on messages about “more women”, but rather to emphasise the diversity already present in the profession which is not automatically tied to attributes like gender. For example, let’s take my imagined programmer. Rather than worry about “programmers don’t have to be white males”, we should start with “programmers don’t have to be quiet, or socially awkward, or interested in games”. Building this type of diversity will eventually encompass non-whites and non-males, if we can keep the identity of a profession broad and fluid, rather than pigeon-holed into something very specific and narrow. And this could benefit everyone.

It’s a well-known phenomenon in ergonomics and user-interface design that if you adjust your design for the extreme users, you often improve the design for core users. For example, kitchen tools were given extra-grippy larger handles to help the elderly but it also made holding them easier for everyone else, so it became the default for all tools. A few more examples are given here. (Closer to home, the interesting work of John Maloney, Jens Moenig and Yoshiki Ohshima on keyboard support in their GP blocks language arose from wanting to support blind users.)

I think that this design principle transfers into the diversity argument. Narrow stereotypes for professions harm everyone, not just those who are far outside it. There are already programmers who aren’t quiet, who aren’t socially awkward, who don’t like computer games, who play sports and rock-climb, who don’t chug coffee and code all night, who are not single, who have families. Just because you’re a white male doesn’t mean you aren’t impacted by everything else that comes with a stereotype, that you can’t feel like something of an outsider when you meet few of the criteria associated with a stereotype. For example, it’s been suggested that for programmer types, World of Warcraft (or similar games) is the new golf: the social mechanism outside work where people meet and get ahead. Golf used to exclude women, World of Warcraft excludes non-gamers, or those who don’t have time to play because of family commitments. Exclusion can negatively affect any of us. There is often a shoulder-shrugging among programmers: yeah our diversity sucks, but we don’t really care whether more women enter the profession or not. But diversity and stereotypes can pinch for anyone. It’s worth trying to fix for the benefit of everyone.

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