In celebration of Computer Science Education Week, three female PhD candidates from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory hosted a Reddit AMA.
“We had done the AMA hoping to increase the visibility of female computer scientists and PhD students,” said Jean Yang, one of the hosts, in an email to BostInno.
What Yang, Elena Glassman and Neha Narula were met with, however, wasn’t the kind of commentary worth raising a glass to. Rather, some participants poked fun at this notion of the glass ceiling women have successfully started to break through.
“Are there any smudges or fingerprints on the bottom of the glass ceiling?” wrote one commenter, allegedly trying to make a “joke.” “Can you use a vinegar solution to compensate?”
Other comments, which have since been deleted, were far more sexist, yet Yang went in prepared for backlash.
“As I’d been thoroughly warned of the ‘trolls of Reddit’ — a floormate once described the worst of it as a ‘cesspool of human behavior’ — I actually expected worse,” Yang said. “I know many women who are afraid of putting themselves out there or calling attention to their gender because of negative responses they anticipate.”
The AMA ended up hitting the front page of Reddit, garnering nearly 5,000 comments and questions from readers in total. With the post’s popularity came far more than a derogatory dialogue; helpful questions around work-life balance, recruitment and the value of a PhD surfaced, as well.
“While there was a lot of trolling, there was a lot of thoughtful, productive discussion about the gender issues,” Yang acknowledged. “I hope that people learn from that, and younger women interested in pursuing STEM are able to focus on the good parts while ignoring the less relevant and productive comments.”
Yang said she was surprised by the number of people who actually asked why gender was relevant. Explained Yang:
I had thought it was an accepted fact that there are few women in computer science and that women get treated differently than men do, especially since I see so many articles about this daily. The AMA helped me realize that I live in somewhat of a filter bubble and that there is work to be done in raising awareness of this issue.
Of the undergraduate computer science degrees awarded, women earn just 18 percent. In 1985, that number was 35 percent, according to ReadWrite — reinforcing Yang’s statement. Although progress is being made, it’s slow moving and there’s far more to be done until there’s equality in the field.
The nature of the AMA actually helped highlight the problems plaguing science, technology, engineering and math. The social dynamics of the conversation served as proof that people treat men and women differently in STEM fields.
“One commenter pointed out that the discussion around gender — some people asking why it should matter, while others clearly harassing us because of our gender — was a ‘parody’ of what it is like to be in STEM as a woman,” Yang said.
But, through the discussion, the hope is that more females will be inspired to enter the computer science field and pushback against the stereotypes of women in tech.
“We hope that by being visible female computer scientists, we provide some more data points of possible futures for younger women interested in STEM,” Yang said, “and for the parents of girls who might want to pursue these career paths some day.”
Screenshot via Reddit