Good Intentions, Poor Execution

Joanne McGrath Cohoon

I wanted to hear about "Saving the World with a CS Degree." I eagerly anticipated this talk because someone was going to tell undergraduates about the link between computing and helping people. A former student would describe his experiences with creating information technology to serve humanity. He had lived in several third world countries, worked to build a system that contributed to Tsunami reconstruction, and provided data entry skills and jobs to the formerly unemployed.

Girls are more likely than boys to say they want a career that allows them to do social good. Our failure to demonstrate how computing offers this opportunity may be one reason women are underrepresented in this field. So, I was very excited to hear a speaker describe how he had used his knowledge of computer science to make the world a better place.

I was disappointed. An outstanding idea was poorly executed because the speaker seemed to assume he was only talking to the guys in the audience. Why else would he have opened with stories about his delight with discovering the meaning of the Vietnamese word "dong," or with seeing public signs printed with the name "Hung Long"? I doubt that he would have told the same jokes in front of a room full of women. This kind of humor, which the speaker admitted was juvenile, is not something men tend to share with women they don't know. It seems that the women who were present didn't count. He wasn't talking to them.

When a senior woman applauded the speaker's humanitarian work, but pointed out that the jokes were inappropriate, she got no support. The young women in the room said they were not offended. But that isn't the issue. The issue is whether women, especially women not yet committed to computing, felt included in the invitation to join this good work. Or like the jokes, was the invitation really only directed at the men? And if the women really did feel included, were the people enjoying the juvenile jokes really people they want to hang out with?

It is not my intention to complain or seem humorless. There are important lessons here. Getting the word out about how CS degrees make it possible to help people is a very good practice. But poor execution can make a good practice go bad. To avoid this problem, speakers should be vetted or tactfully sensitized to diversity concerns, perhaps by recounting this story as a contrast to how good you know their talk will be. We can't assume that speakers know their words could make women feel they don't belong in the field, especially if women in IT don't know it. The women who are in computer science might be much less sensitive to this type of negative experience than those women who leave or never enter the field.



Dr. Joanne McGrath Cohoon is a professor of Gender, Technology, and Education at the University of Virginia. She researches, publishes, and speaks on women's under-representation in IT for the National Center for Women & Information Technology.