Nearly 50 students and computer science faculty members gathered at Arthur K. Watson Hall Tuesday to discuss the department’s current state regarding diversity of faculty, resources available to students and potential ways to improve moving forward.
Computer science professor Holly Rushmeier approached the student organization FloatYale, which supports women in computer science on campus, to ask for help organizing and hosting the event, Float President Payal Modi ’17 said. Attendees were encouraged to ask questions or submit them anonymously through an online form. The event’s discussion, which was led by FloatYale organizers, largely focused on the recruitment of diverse faculty members and students, and also included topics such as making classroom material more accessible for those less experienced at coding and fostering a more inclusive culture for both racial and gender minorities in the department.
“We hope to open up a dialogue about something that has been a quiet struggle for underrepresented students in the department,” Float events chair Saran Morgan ’18 said to the News. “There’s a certain level of miscommunication between students and professors that we hope starts to dispel. In the long run, we’d like to see increased transparency and increased active support for minority students in the major, which can take many forms.”
The town hall-style discussion addressed a wide range of concerns and inquiries about gender and racial diversity at the department’s various levels. Students highlighted the small number of women in the major — of the 119 computer science majors at Yale last year, about 100 were male students.
Attendees agreed that many male students often collaborate with each other and not female students, which helps perpetuate a “bro culture.” Female students said they sometimes feel uncomfortable in this type of environment, making them hesitant to ask questions during peer tutoring sessions.
“Whenever there is a study group with both guys and girls, the girl’s contribution will be ignored in favor of a guy that says the exact same thing,” peer tutor and computer science major Dylan Visher ’16 said at the town hall. “The peer tutor should have to go in and be very explicit and help in that type of situation.”
The same gender disparity exists within the computer science peer tutor community. The majority of tutors are male, and female students often feel unprepared to apply for the positions — even though there are no specific selection criteria.
On top of the gender divide in the major, conversations also focused on the topic of race.
Students questioned why the department’s diversity statistics were unavailable, and some suggested an informal survey about the ethnicity and gender breakdown of the undergraduate majors, graduate students and faculty applicants.
Computer Science Department chair Joan Feigenbaum said she did not have a breakdown of students in the major by race. Still, Morgan said that she could only think of one black female student in the major other than herself.
Professors present at the event spoke about a similar need for diversity in the faculty. The Computer Science Department, which currently has four open faculty positions, is actively pursuing minority candidates, Rushmeier said at the event.
Students also brought up the topic of socioeconomic diversity, which can separate the experience of students in the computer science major. Amelia Holcomb ’16 said the University should provide funds for students who cannot afford transportation to be able to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, which this year will be held in Houston, Texas.
“But the department does not have a budget to spend,” Rushmeier said. “We have one, but it is very small. We are trying to apply to places within the administration and look for other sources. Maybe we can find a few hundred dollars here, a hundred dollars there. We have to work on trying to raise the money.”
At the end of the discussion, the event’s organizers highlighted that the conversation should be extended beyond this first town hall.
“The computer science major is bigger than this, but the fact that the male students are not here is a big issue,” a female student said at the event. “Our male counterparts not being here says something, and bringing the conversation to them is important.”
Holcomb said she found it “heartening” that so many faculty members attended the discussion, but said her main wish was that more male students had shown up to the town hall.
“It’s disappointing that so few of them seemed to find the issue important,” she said.
Of the nearly 40 students in attendance, fewer than 10 were male.
Apurv Suman ’16 said that while he found the discussion educational, he wants to push for more actionable steps to make the department more welcoming and inclusive.
“One thing I learned is that the heavy use of jargon can be exclusionary. I didn’t know this before and I only started using jargon because I wanted to fit in. I did not know I was perpetuating this culture,” Suman said. He added that the department should raise awareness about the issue of culture and inclusivity among male students in particular.
Other issues discussed at the meeting included departmental training of student peer tutors.
Though students present recognized how helpful their peer tutors are — often being more approachable and understanding than graduate teaching assistants — multiple professors noted that there is no developed process to train or monitor these peer tutors.
“I’m just winging it,” computer science professor Daniel Spielman ’92 said. “If people have any other ideas of how to train [peer] tutors, let me know.”
Over a year ago, Yale’s Computer Science Department became a part of the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science and received $20 million in anonymous donations.