By Grace Mottley and Jillian Atelsek
The University of Maryland’s computer science department is changing its teaching assistant handbook after students pointed out that it contained misogynistic guidance about TA conduct.
The handbook, which was removed from the department’s website Monday evening, had separate sections addressed to male and female TAs.
“Your students may experience some difficulty accepting you fully in a scientific field which they may, for whatever reasons, associate with male activity,” the handbook’s section for female TAs read. “Male students especially (but not exclusively) may try to challenge your authority, to trip you up, or (more subtly) to try to compromise your status by flippancy or suggestive remarks.”
Female TAs should assert themselves in such situations and remain “friendly but firm,” the handbook said.
“That such [an] assertion should even be necessary is admittedly annoying, but be patient,” the handbook read. “Besides, it’s unfortunately the kind of practice you’re going to need at some time in the future; students may not be the only ones who will have difficulty accepting you as a professional.”
The handbook then addressed male TAs, warning them that some female students may attempt to “capitalize on the male-female dynamic to their own advantage.”
“Most of these attempts are fairly transparent, unless you are particularly susceptible to flirtatious or provocative behavior,” the section read. “Lest you be too flattered, it’s very likely that it is the lure of your position or (even more callously) a grade that they’re after, not you.”
Annie Bao, an undergraduate TA for CMSC250: Discrete Structures, posted screenshots of the handbook on Twitter and wrote, “Why do we accept and normalize this discriminatory behavior?”
Straight out of UMD’s handbook for TAs:
Female TAs should expect to have their authority challenged more than males, yet they have to be “patient” and tolerant and constantly have to prove their worth. Why do we accept and normalize this discriminatory behavior? pic.twitter.com/egjuhrOark
— annie (@_anniebao) April 16, 2018
Computer science department chair Ming Lin wrote in a statement that the handbook had been removed because it “contained highly inappropriate, stereotypical characterizations of women,” adding that its origin is “not immediately known.”
“[The handbook] does not reflect our department’s values or beliefs,” the statement read. “We denounce all misogynistic attitudes toward women and will continue to work diligently to provide all students a warm and welcoming environment to learn and succeed.”
The department was unaware that the statements were on its website and is researching their origins, according to a statement by Lin and Amitabh Varshney — the computer, mathematical and natural sciences college dean — that was released Wednesday.
University President Wallace Loh said he was not aware of the handbook, noting he thinks its language is “totally inappropriate.”
“The reality is, when we have literally thousands and thousands of websites, and people sort of routinely just press a button and out it goes, we were in fact talking about it whether we need to have somebody go through and look at the content of every single website,” Loh said. “And maybe that needs to be done.”
As of Tuesday night, Bao’s tweet had more than a thousand retweets, as well as dozens of replies expressing frustration with the handbook’s contents.
“By telling the TA to cope as opposed to reprimanding the student/telling the student not to behave that way you’re furthering the behavior,” one reply read.
Bao labeled the language “backwards,” and said expecting female TAs to accept and prepare for future discrimination sends the wrong message.
“That’s really sad to put in a TA handbook, or anywhere,” the sophomore computer science major said. “This is what I have to look forward to, over and over again — having to constantly prove that I deserve the job that I earned.”
Sophomore computer science major Sasha Miller said the language perpetuates self-doubt among women in the department. During the 2016-17 academic year, less than 20 percent of computer science majors at this university were women, according to the institutional research, planning and assessment office.
“When you promote this viewpoint that females aren’t capable, even if you’re doing well in the major, you’re doubting yourself,” she said. “It’s just shocking to be on such a liberal campus, and be the biggest major on campus, that such a horrible thought is still there.”
Jake Cassell, a freshman computer science major, said the language was “disappointing,” but it didn’t match his experiences. While women are a minority in the department, he said their male counterparts treat them as equals.
“I don’t think [the TA handbook] is fairly representative of the student body — the culture of the students,” Cassell said.
Eliot Melder, a sophomore computer science major and a TA for CMSC250, said he’s seen male TAs question the competency of female TAs. Students in the class that’s held in the room before his section will often hang around to ask him questions rather than approaching their female TA, he said.
While the handbook has been removed, Bao said the department should work to educate students on discrimination and gender dynamics within computer science, adding that this kind of behavior only widens the gender gap in computer science.
“[This major] comes with the preconceived notion that most females will fail because of the stigma that boys are smarter,” Bao said. “I should be able to feel like I belong in my major.”