Why Does Diversity Matter

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Why Does Diversity Matter

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One of the things I make clear in a lot of talks and meetings is that I want to see more women and minorities in the computer field. Surprisingly a lot of people ask me “why?” I get that question from women and minorities as much if not more than I do from white males. I’m not sure if they wonder why “I” care or if they wonder why anyone should care. Certainly a lot of women and minorities are under the impression that they are unwanted or unneeded in computer science careers. This is sort of surprising to me. I think most people understand that different groups often view the world differently, from different perspectives and want different things. Clearly many fields in the market place have gotten serious about targeting products and marketing to different groups. But computer science? Not so much.

I found this message on Twitter the other day and it serves as a great example of the problem of having a majority men in the field.

Why is the "default" image on most sites a male silhouette? I find it offensive when women are represented as a shadow of a man. http://twitter.com/zephoria/status/4372118486 by danah boyd

Well that should be an obvious problem right? Apparently not to a lot of men. Frankly I never thought about the impact on a male silhouette on women. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that BTW. But frankly I am a middle aged white male and that means there are some filters that I have grown up with. We all have these filters and I’m not convinced that is necessarily bad or good. But I am convinced that it exists and that we have to find ways around that to make sure that products, career fields and society in general is inclusive. I think you require diversity of participation to make that happen.

As I explained to a young African-American female at one talk I gave “I’m very good at knowing what middle aged white men want but figuring out what African-American teenage girls want is a little outside of my experience.” As a selfish capitalist I want/need a society where products, services and opportunity are open to everyone and where everyone at least has a chance to have their needs met. The way I see it, to paraphrase a commercial I have heard for decades, “an educated consumer is our best hope for a bright economic future.” I believe that an education in computer science is an absolutely critical piece of that education.

I’ll leave you with one example of how diversity can change things. Once upon a time almost all business travelers were men. Suitcases might get heavy but the male attitude was “I can carry it.” Then women started to enter fields in which business travel was a big thing. The attitude over heavy suitcases by women was more along the lines of “I’m not carrying that thing. Put wheels on it.” Most suitcases today have wheels on them and men happily drag them behind rather than carry them. Women made a difference. (Thanks BTW :-) )

You have to wonder what sort of differences we’d be seeing in computer user interfaces (besides a default male silhouette) if more women were in the field and having both the ability and the authority to make changes. Maybe there will be the next “wheels on suitcases” idea that will transform how we all use computers. We can hope.

  • My belief, which I profess every year in every CompSci class I teach, is that science and engineering (including programming) is a field where it does not matter what gender / race / background a person is, as long as they can think creatively. So we as a society are robbing ourselves of potential solutions to problems by encouraging (even tacitly) only one particular gender / race / way of thinking to participate.

  • I heartily agree. Every chance I get to work with anyone with a perspective other than my own has taught me something; and in the many cases when everyone was engaged in making the result better those different perspectives have allowed us to catch problems and make improvements that any single individual would have missed. More of that would undoubtedly be a benefit.

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