Complexity Theory: More work must be done to make the CS department inclusive

Oct. 28, 2019, 8:36 p.m.

Part of “Complexity Theory,” a new column on the tangled questions of our technological age.

The very first introductory seminar that I was enrolled in at Stanford was CS 56N: Great Inventions and Discoveries in Computing with professor John Hennessy. It was the class that gave me my first taste of CS theory (my current track in the department), and my first opportunity to engage with a professor that had made monumental contributions to the industry that I wanted to spend my career in.

The class was discussion-based and vibrant, and we explored a wide breadth of topics — from Turing machines to zero-knowledge proofs — with just enough detail to keep them scrutable to students completely new to the field, but spell-bindingly interesting. Although I was interested in the material, it took me about half the quarter to muster the courage to speak up and comfortably contribute to class discussions. 

A few weeks into my freshman fall quarter, after attending an event put on by the Stanford Society of Women Engineers, I was able to place a label on what I felt in that classroom. As the only black woman in the class, who on top of that was from a foreign country and had a strong accent, I was solidly in the grips of imposter syndrome. With time, I was able to overcome this as the professor and my classmates alike created an environment that was conducive to making all students feel welcome and valued, and I can honestly say that it has been one of the best classes that I have taken since being here.

During the fall quarter of sophomore year, I learned a bit more about imposter syndrome and other phenomena that can drive minorities away from tech, in another introductory seminar called CS 80Q: Race and Gender in Silicon Valley. This course was taught by professor Cynthia Bailey Lee. Microaggressions in the classroom, recruiting events that perpetuate harmful messages about what type of student fits into the ‘glass slipper’ of the tech industry and toxic corporate cultures are all factors that dissuade prospective employees from underrepresented groups from joining the industry. Though I wasn’t plagued with these cousins of imposter syndrome during my freshman fall, I became much more well acquainted with them as my time progressed at Stanford.

Stanford’s computer science department has done things to make tech spaces on campus more welcoming and inviting to students from all backgrounds. The Stanford Summer Engineering Academy, faculty support for student-led groups centered around people in tech with underrepresented identities, and the broader set of Equity and Inclusion Initiatives are ways in which the university has done work to remedy gaps in representation in the field. Additionally, from my experiences in classrooms, most professors, section leaders and teaching assistants are trained to respect the identities of different students and to foster conditions conducive to effective learning for all students.

However, there is one dimension in which Stanford has largely neglected to do work to foster inclusivity in the computer science departments. Stanford students who are not from marginalized backgrounds are often never made to confront the ways that they unintentionally make spaces unwelcome for students from marginalized backgrounds in tech. Students who occupy privileged spaces in tech classrooms are more likely to end up in positions of power in tech industries for the very same reasons that they take up disproportionate space in computer science classrooms. If they are not taught to be aware of their biases and privileges while in college, they end up making corporate spaces just as unwelcoming to people from underrepresented backgrounds as classrooms can become. 

There are many ways that non-minority students make STEM spaces uncomfortable for their minority peers. Last fall quarter, as part of CS 80Q, I worked with my other classmates as part of a team to interview students from underrepresented backgrounds in tech about their experiences feeling unwelcome. Issues ranged from being excluded from study groups, to being spoken over or ignored in academic discussions inside and outside of the classroom. On the more anecdotal end, I have heard of friends’ work being misattributed, their abilities being underestimated and their ideas being discounted in value.

The necessity of addressing these issues hinges on the premise that there is a need for diversity in tech in the first place. Outside of ethical reasons that learning spaces need to feel inclusive, the tech industry would objectively benefit from being more diverse. Studies have shown that workplace diversity is positively correlated to company productivity. Additionally, the increasing pervasiveness of technology in our everyday lives means that the products must be built with the needs of people with different types of backgrounds, limitations and idiosyncrasies in mind. If the creators of technology and the problems they tackle are not diverse, then there will certainly be gaps in the market that tech products will not effectively serve.

If all students learned more about the ways that microaggressions and exclusionary behaviors contributed to the broader problem of a lack of diversity in tech and how to abstain from perpetuating them, then as an institution, Stanford would be closer to ensuring that its classrooms feel welcome for all students. 

One proposal for how this can be done is by introducing sensitivity training classes similar to those done in the corporate world. This way, students will be at least aware of measures they can take to avoid making other students feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in tech spaces.

Another measure that can be taken is doing more to integrate lessons on the need for diversity and inclusion in tech in the computer science curriculum, either through the introduction of a class or through remodelling existing classes. While Stanford’s CS department has a class aimed at teaching students about ethics in tech that touch on the need for diversity, it is not mandatory. CS 181: Computers, Ethics and Public Policy fulfills the CS major’s writing requirement and spends all of two lessons tackling the lack of diversity in tech and discrimination that minorities in the industry face. CS182: Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change is a revamped technology ethics course, but it too spends only one class session on culture and diversity in tech. 

In addition to the fact that these classes are often taken far too late in the major (according to Carta, nearly half the students in the class are seniors), it is highly probable that a computer science student may leave the class without having internalized the need for diversity in the industry, or ways that they can take steps to foster an environment where underrepresented engineers feel welcome.

A concern that may be raised with this type of approach is that if students are forced to learn about inclusion in tech, then they may be completely put off from caring about the issue, in the same way that students sometimes tend to resent required classes. However, ignoring the problem is the wrong approach to take, and it is clear that students who are not affected by unwelcome tech spaces rarely take the time to learn about the problem on their own volition. If lessons on inclusion in tech are done in an efficient and engaging way that makes students more equipped to be agents of positive innovation in the tech industry, then students will come to see their worth.

The case for making tech spaces more welcoming to people from all backgrounds is a sound one, as it would lead to benefits to both consumers and producers in the industry. Spending time time to achieve this goal should sound reasonable to any engineer who genuinely wants to see the field reach its full potential.

Contact Ruth-Ann Armstrong at ruthanna ‘at’

Ruth-Ann Armstrong '21 is the News Delegate for the Daily’s Community Life and Inclusion Program, and a staff writer for the Academics beat. She is a sophomore from Spanish Town, Jamaica pursuing a major in computer science and a minor in economics. Between her classes and mid-afternoon naps, she enjoys learning about graphic design, laughing at SNL clips and getting to know the delightful people on Stanford’s campus. Contact her at ruthanna ‘at’

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