Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Up until Monday, the University of Maryland’s computer science department TA handbook instructed female TAs to remain “friendly but firm” and “patient” when dealing with sexist students. Effectively, they were supposed to coddle them. The department removed the handbook from their website after a student pointed it out on Twitter. Nevertheless, as a young male who has rarely been challenged beyond strict academics, and who has experienced near constant affirmation of his own entitlement, I can tell that the handbook’s language was written with me in mind. Its pandering language implies that I don’t need to challenge my biases or grow as a person. My only responsibility is to learn to code, so I can sell years of my short life to some ambitious tech startup for an absurd quantity of money.
This university’s failure to revise the handbook sooner suggests a tacit endorsement of that ideology — treating students as unfeeling vessels of computer science knowledge. To be fair, the university has responded to the criticism. The computer science department released a letter denouncing the language in the handbook, touting its record on improving gender equality, and acknowledging that it could do more. But computer science’s sexism problem eclipses any individual document. The instructions in the handbook value the comfort of sexist, but presumably talented, students above the dignity of TAs. This university cannot meaningfully address sexism as long as it prioritizes talent over decency.
I have to note that the handbook does not represent the attitudes of most students or faculty in the computer science department. My close friends majoring in computer science were uniformly disgusted by the handbook’s language. That’s to be expected. People don’t pursue computer science because they’re sexist. Rather, sexism is systemically ingrained in the field. This university is not an exception.
According to this university’s data, women only account for about 20 percent of computer science students. They haven’t made up more than 20 percent since fall of 1994. That disparity hasn’t always been the case. In the mid-1980s, women made up over 30 percent of computer science majors nationwide. However, advertisers quickly developed a narrative of marketing computers almost exclusively to boys and men. That’s when the percentage of women in computer science started to plummet.
Obviously, a lot has changed in computer science since the ’80s, but at least one thing is strikingly similar: The field gives off the impression of a boys’ club. For example, every computer science student has a horror story about that guy who couldn’t stop hijacking class to show off his brilliance. While there’s no hard data, in my experience these students are almost always male, and their behavior is worse around female TAs. That’s why the handbook is relevant. It prioritizes the comfort of those students above the learning experience of others, especially women. Sexism isn’t an external force to fight. It’s internal, springing from the field’s acceptance of toxic men.
The computer science department needs to reevaluate their attitude towards sexism. Fighting this lack of diversity in the computing field requires more than just recruiting more women to the major. The department needs to actively fight the perception that computer science is a playground for toxic men by explicitly rejecting sexism. Rather than being “friendly,” “firm,” and “patient” with unacceptable behavior, instructors should use that time to develop and elevate the female voices computer science lacks.
Nate Rogers is a freshman physics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.