How a Tech Sector Friendlier to Women Can Start in the Classroom

August 31, 2017 • by Steven E. Franklin
Women students in the classroom. Photo by Marsha Miller.

Photo by Marsha Miller.

With recent talk of a “bro culture” in Silicon Valley and accusations of sex discrimination in the technology sector, some in the College of Natural Sciences’ Department of Computer Science are taking it upon themselves to build a culture of inclusion.

Last year, the department was selected as one of only three in the country to win awards from the National Center for Women & Information Technology for “excellence in recruiting and retaining women in computing education” at the undergraduate level. Meanwhile, outreach programs and camps in the department are helping to make computer science more inviting to students from groups that are underrepresented in tech.

Alison Norman

Alison Norman is one of the faculty members striving to create a better environment for underrepresented students in computer science—and beyond. A UT Austin alumna, she joined the faculty of the Department of Computer Science in 2011. In only six years since, she has earned both a President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award and a College of Natural Sciences Teaching Excellence Award. Next month, she is one of several outstanding faculty who will participate in the College’s Teaching Discovery Day, where award-winning instructors invite fellow faculty to observe their classes or engage in discussions about teaching.

This past spring, Norman was named also as a Provost’s Teaching Fellow. The Fellows program is designed to empower faculty to improve education across the University campus in two ways: by helping promote education through campus-wide events and by implementing an individual initiative that advances learning in an area of their choosing. We sat down with Norman to learn about how she is using the fellowship to create a more inclusive culture in computer science.

What is your Provost’s Teaching Fellow initiative about, and what challenge do you hope to address?

My initiative is all about changing the climate for women and other underrepresented minorities in our department.

Compared to other institutions, we’re doing a decent job at recruitment. We have summer camps, which I’m involved with, that help with that. Our freshman class tends to be more than one-quarter female, which is very high for a public university with limited control in admissions. We’re also doing well on retention. About 90 percent or more of female students who begin as computer science majors stay with the degree. (We understand that some people will decide computer science isn’t for them, so you wouldn’t expect 100-percent retention.)

In my mind, now the focus changes to improving the experience of women in the department. I’m the faculty advisor for Women in Computer Science (WiCS), and I also teach a very large required upper-division course. As such, I know a lot of the female students, and I hear about their experiences.

What issues do these students face?

The way we describe it — and it’s been described this way by other people in the computer science world outside of this department, too — is death by a thousand paper cuts. …For example, I had one female student tell me that [a fellow student] said to her, “You know, you’re one of the pretty ones. You could just get married, you don’t have to do this.”

The difficulty we have as faculty is changing these kinds of behaviors. The first step is making sure that when it does happen right in front of us, we can recognize it. We can understand what it is. We can see that it’s probably offensive and not helping our female students feel welcome in the department, and then we can figure out how to step in and improve the situation.

How will your initiative tackle these problems?

My project is going to try to change the climate in the department in two ways.

The first is general education for all of our faculty, addressing the low-hanging fruit like: “What is a welcoming environment? And what are you doing in your classroom to make sure you’ve got one?” We’ll talk about microaggressions, what they are, how you respond to them, how you can step in. We’re going to talk about implicit bias, how it shows up, and its effects.

As faculty, when we are providing this sort of leadership and not exhibiting any of these behaviors ourselves, we can make sure that our students know that these behaviors are unacceptable. The faculty become leaders for this change….

The second thing we are going to do…is hold a focus group with the women who took specific classes last year and talk to them about their experiences. I’m going to talk to the faculty member in charge of that class, and we are going to adjust the class as necessary to make it more welcoming to women. Then we’re going to do a focus group with the women who go through the adjusted class and see if their experience was different. We aren’t confident there are easy answers, but until we know what the problem is, we can’t try to fix it.

What do you have planned for future semesters?

After this year, we’ll evaluate and see how we did. My goal for this project is to be able to expand it to other departments on campus. Hopefully, after we expand to other departments at UT, we can also publish this through the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) or the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. We can get out the word about what works – and we can change the world.


Two small white robots crouch next to a tiny soccer ball on a table in front of students wearing orange shirts that say Texas Robotics

Texas Engineer