Computer science department accused of sexist comments by male students

by Peter Houston-Hencken | News Editor

The computer science department has made efforts to increase diversity within their program. These initiatives include an outreach program where students speak to high school students about a career in computer science. Photo by Peter Houston-Hencken.

A letter drafted by female students accused the computer science department’s male students of sexism.

Junior Marissa Moffett and senior Kat Duarte composed the letter addressing sexist remarks made by male students in computer labs as well as offering suggestions of how to fix the issue.

Instances of accused sexism in the letter include rape jokes made by male students and remarks directed at female students such as “make me a sandwich.” Those who have taken a stand against those remarks have been told to not be so “stiff” by those who have made the jokes. A list of numerous sexist instances were compiled by Duarte and Moffett from both current and former female students.

“Since [the computer science department] are the ones facilitating this environment, [that] makes Whitworth faculty, in turn, responsible,” Duarte said.

Computer science professor Pete Tucker said he had no knowledge that those comments were being made in the labs.

“If I had heard it, I would have pulled [students] aside,” Tucker said.

According to Duarte and Moffett’s letter, many of the alumni that contributed their experiences to the letter had assumed that they were the only ones targeted by those comments.

Another issue that Moffett and Duarte address is the lack of female speakers the department brings in.

Moffett said that there had been no female speakers brought in by the department in the last year.

Tucker however, said that this year the department brought in female speakers to address individual classes. Ten speakers, three of whom were women were brought into the software engineering class last year, Tucker said.

“That matches the industry,” Tucker said.

According to the National Science Foundation, women made up 24 percent of the computer science workforce in 2015.

However, according to the Fall Factbook in 2016, women made up 16 percent of computer science majors at Whitworth.

The computer science department has made an effort to encourage high school students to study computer science regardless of their race or gender. Computer science majors can take a one-credit class called CS outreach where students go to local high schools and advocate Whitworth’s computer science department. The students that make up CS outreach are about 50 percent male and 50 percent female, Tucker said.

In terms of the alleged sexist remarks in the labs, Moffett and Duarte proposed several solutions in their letter. Those include discussing sexism in the department’s ethics course, a faculty workshop and increased transparency of the diversity statistics for the department.

“I think it’s a good refocus onto how we communicate in the tech world,” senior Joseph Flinn said. “Because it is an important issue especially in the tech world where it is mostly a male-dominant field and I hope that changes.”

The computer science department is committed to fixing the issues addressed in the letter, computer science department chair Donna Pierce said. The math and computer science departments have consulted with Whitworth’s Title IX Coordinator, Rhosetta Rhodes, on the issue. Additionally, the department is looking into curriculum changes that would address diversity and gender in the department’s ethics course and the freshman seminar, Pierce said.

“We don’t tolerate this,” she said.

Flinn believes that sexism can be stopped in part by the actions of individual students.

“I think the biggest thing is to ask students to be courageous enough to step up when these things happen,” Flinn said. “Both men and women. Ask the men to have the courage to stand up and defend their women counterparts and the same for women; stand up for their friends and themselves if need be.”

Moffett made the point that sexism in computer science departments is a widespread problem.

“It’s not just our school that has this issue,” Moffett said.

However, the department is working on initiatives to see more underrepresented demographics in the computer science major.  

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