Monday, October 6, 2014

Perspectives from computer science: Silent Technical Privilege

On Friday, October 3 MIT hosted a symposium addressing the well-known story told by Virginia Valian in Why So Slow?  It was a big hit with the audience of more than 200 students, staff and faculty who came to hear an outstanding panel talk about the problems and solutions. Why did we hold this symposium and what did we learn?

Two years ago, computer scientist Tess Rinearson wrote a blog On Technical Entitlement in which she poignantly discussed the challenges of being a female student in a male-dominated field.  This is a familiar, distressing story, with a twist: namely, her story inspired a male computer science student to reflect on his own technical privilege - on how being an Asian male gave him unearned privilege that helped him to compensate for deficiencies.  As Philip Guo said, "Nobody every says you only got into MIT because you're an Asian man."  He spoke up about micro-inequities, stereotype threat, and silent technical privilege.  Man bites dog is news, so Guo was interviewed on NPR.

Philip Guo's story resonated with many of us at MIT (where he earned his bachelors degree), so we organized a symposium to bring visibility to the topic.  This was an interdisciplinary effort involving Women's and Gender Studies, the Institute Community and Equity Office, the Office of Minority Education, and Computer Science.  It was well attended, with more than 200 people present, to understand how bias and other factors lead to the marginalization and underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields.  I was the moderator and there were 5 panelists.

Jane Stout, Director of the Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline of the Computing Research Association (CERP/CRA), is a social psychologist who presented her research on factors explaining the underrepresentation of women in some STEM fields.  Her analysis was powerfully supported by two MIT students, Jean Yang and Tami Forrester.  They shared examples of explicit and implicit bias and how they coped with the challenges.  Every faculty member in a STEM field should hear stories like theirs, along with the advice offered by the rest of the panel on how to prepare our students to face social as well as intellectual challenges.  Intel's Gabriela Gonzalez shared with us how important it is to go beyond data to tell personal stories.  In Mexico, she noted, engineering is not regarded as a man's field; engineers solve problems, and this is a desirable profession for women and men.  In the US, engineering culture is different.  Donna Milgram, Executive Director of the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science (IWITTS), cited examples of schools that significantly increased the percentage of women in STEM, and noted the elements of their success: having gender-balanced outreach efforts, making STEM appealing to those who want to improve the world, and using an inclusive curriculum.

For me, the main lesson was this: our students have compelling stories of how to cope with the continuing challenges of inequity and exclusion.  Giving them voice, and supporting them with mentoring and sponsorship, is a great way to advance equality.  Speaking of which, Jean Yang has produced a wonderful annotated bibliography for those who would like more information.  You can also follow the conversations on twitter at #techprivMIT and read a news report of the symposium at