I Sit in the Red Chair Because…

Computer Science and Engineering Department’s Celebration of Diversity highlights challenges, points towards solutions
Nov 21, 2019
Computer Science and Engineering Department’s Celebration of Diversity highlights challenges, points towards solutions

They came in droves to sit in the Red Chair–graduate students, undergrads, faculty, staff, deans, the chancellor. They came to express their thoughts on diversity—and the results were powerful.

“I sit so that one day every student can look at their classroom and see people who are like them,” said undergrad Joyaan Bhesania.

"I sit for my ancestors who could not,” said Becky Petitt, Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. “And I'm grateful that they opened doors for me to be able to sit here.”

“I am Moraa Ogamba, and I sit for all the black girls who love to code.” Ogamba is a student with the Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) Department.

The Red Chair was a central component in CSE’s first annual Celebration of Diversity. The idea came from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), part of their Sit With Me Campaign. When CSE’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee’s Awareness Subcommittee started planning the celebration, they started with the Red Chair.

“We wanted to show everybody in our department and community they belong, they’re welcome, they can succeed and we are supporting them,” said CSE staff member Margaret Ramaeker, who co-led the event.

Embracing Diversity

The Red Chair, and the Celebration of Diversity that surrounded it, grew out of CSE’s strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion. By implementing the plan, CSE hopes to further embrace all identities, empowering the CSE community to drive change and elevate inclusiveness.

To translate the plan into action, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee has organized seminars, including a recent presentation by Colleen Lewis, McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science at Harvey Mudd College, who discussed Researching CS Education to Drive Equity and Effectiveness.

The department is also enhancing diversity through the Early Research Scholars Program, fee waivers for graduate school applicants, the Alan Turing Memorial Scholarship and other vehicles. CSE faculty have been honored with the UCSD Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Diversity Award for their commitment to promoting inclusion.

“I'm proud of how our department has taken ownership of these issues,” said department chair Dean Tullsen. “We are attempting to address equity and inclusion throughout the department, seeking to improve diversity at every level with specific initiatives and being honest about how far we still have to go.”

The Celebration

As people shared their truth from the Red Chair, the Celebration of Diversity kicked off with Professor Pamela Cosman’s keynote, which examined why women have increased their representation in many STEM fields, particularly biology and math, but not computer science. She pointed to several social factors, including the rise of home computing in the 1980s.

“Prior to that point, boys and girls were equally unprepared for CS101,” said Cosman. “However, when PCs came into the home, they may have gone preferentially to sons over daughters.”

She also described how, proportionally, more women earn STEM degrees in countries from former Eastern block countries, such as Bulgaria, and countries seen as conservative, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arabic Emirates. Single-gender classes, as well as more scholastic and career choices for women in Western nations, may account for this.

“None of these are providing evidence for biological factors,” said Cosman. “These all provide evidence for social factors, and I think, in a way, this is good news. We can do something about this.”

The day proceeded with a variety of sessions. Inclusive Design: Access for All drove home how computer scientists must design accessible programs for people with disabilities. Other sessions included: LGTBQ+ at UCSDRecognizing and Responding to MicroaggressionsCollaborative Approaches to Support Diverse Students in STEM and Curriculum Design and Challenges.

The Work Continues

The first annual Celebration of Diversity was an emotional day for presenters and participants. In particular, the videos from the Red Chair are poignant and honest, capturing people’s concerns, fears and hopes for the future.

“Making this something we do in our department sets the tone for who we are, what we’re doing and who we want to become,” said Ph.D. student and event co-lead Steven Rick. “That’s the ethos of the event.”

These events provide a self-sustaining push to enhance diversity throughout the department. The organizers are already planning the next Celebration of Diversity, which will be held on May 15, 2020.

“I believe there will be a permanent display that will come out of this that shows off the diversity in our department and engages people on campus,” said CSE Vice Chair for Graduate Affairs Sorin Lerner, faculty lead on the event. “Hopefully, we are starting an ongoing conversation about issues and possible solutions.”