Inaugural Celebration Showcases CSE’s Diversity 

Apr 30, 2019

It all began with a Red Chair. Through its Sit With Me Campaign, the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) asks people to sit in a Red Chair and share their thoughts on the importance of women in STEM.

CSE’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee’s Awareness Subcommittee ran with that idea, and the Celebration of Diversity was inaugurated on April 12. This was the first of what will now be an annual event celebrating all diversity.

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“I'm very proud of how our department has taken ownership of these issues,” said UC San Diego Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) 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. This event is a tremendous opportunity to celebrate our people and all the great things they do, as well as increase awareness about how we must continue to improve.”

Initiating honest, and sometimes difficult, discussions is one of the events main goals. But it’s also about inclusion.

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

The group wanted to increase STEM diversity and make higher education more equitable. But most importantly, they wanted CSE to set an example.

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

 

The Nuts and Bolts of Inclusion

The Celebration of Diversity kicked off with Professor Pamela Cosman’s keynote, which examined counterintuitive trends in STEM and computer science. For example, women have increased their representation in many STEM fields, particularly biology and math. However, the number of women entering computer science peaked in 1985. 

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“Why would computer science be going down when math is going up?” asked Cosman.

She pointed to a number of possible social – rather than biological – factors: portrayals of “geeky boys” in blockbuster movies, such as War Games; women feeling economic downturns more severely than men; and even home computing.

“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 pointed out that women earn more STEM degrees in Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other conservative countries. Single-gender classes, as well as more scholastic and career choices for women in Western nations, may account for this discrepancy

“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.”

Cosman also highlighted her research on job talks, the departmental presentations faculty candidates make during the interview process. Cosman and colleagues found that women are disproportionately interrupted for questions before they even get to the Q&A, which can force them to rush their delivery or edit on the fly.

The day proceeded with a variety of workshop sessions. Inclusive Design: Access for All drove home how important it is for computer scientists to design accessible programs for people with disabilities. Other sessions included: LGTBQ+ at UCSD; Recognizing and Responding to Microaggressions; Collaborative Approaches to Support Diverse Students in STEM and Curriculum Design and Challenges.

 

Red Chair

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The event drew a who’s who of UC San Diego leadership, including Professor Emeritus, Jeanne Ferrante; Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Elizabeth Simmons; Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Robert Continetti; Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Alysson Satterlund; Jacobs School of Engineering Dean, Albert Pisano; and CSE Chair, Dean Tullsen and Vice Chair, Sorin Lerner. 

Many of them came to the impromptu television studio, set up by UC-TV, to sit in the Red Chair and share their thoughts on diversity. Among other insights, Elizabeth Simmons commented, “the university’s entire strength derives from the diversity of the people and ideas here.”

When asked why he came, Albert Pisano responded, “I’m sitting here because I can’t stand it when my students don’t have the opportunities they should because of wrong thinking.”

The Red Chair was available to anyone who wanted to participate. Undergraduate Moraa Ogamba said, “I sit for all the black girls who love to code.”

UC TV will be editing the Red Chair interviews into a short video.

In addition to the annual event, the Celebration of Diversity sponsors an ongoing lecture series. The organizers believe this combination will engage people throughout the university to advance diversity.

“I hope 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 Sorin Lerner, faculty lead for the event. “Hopefully, we are starting an ongoing conversation about issues and possible solutions.”

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