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May 132009

I am now in the midst of hiring the next class of Stanford CS106 section leaders for the fall quarter. Section leaders (SLs) here at Stanford are typically undergraduates (and occasionally graduate students) who teach a small section of a larger lecture class. These classes often also have a head TA who will help coordinate the high-level academic aspects of the class.

CS106 is Stanford’s introductory computer science sequence, and includes CS106A, CS106B, CS106X, and CS106L. The enrollment is so high that we now maintain an active pool of around 60-80 SLs who will teach every quarter. The entire teaching program even gets its own course designation: CS198. You can read more about the semi-complex structure of the teaching program on the CS198 web site.

I am one of the co-coordinators of the CS198 program, and as such am responsible for hiring SLs to try to maintain an appropriate number of staff every quarter. Most SLs return quarter after quarter, so we only typically hire between 10-15 now per quarter out of a pool of around 80 applicants.

This puts me in an interesting position. Stanford’s CS department has around 4 men for every woman. [Please correct me if this statistic is incorrect or outdated.] Many of the students who go into Computer Science, especially girls, cite the CS106 courses, and especially their amazing section leaders, as their initial impetus to pursue the subject. Many women especially see female SLs as role models in their pursuit in a field so dominated by men, and with a culture so defined by men. So, an obvious question is, should I pursue a policy of affirmative action?

I have always been completely supportive of efforts to fill in the gender gap in engineering, but have always been against affirmative action in hiring, admissions, and other similar decisions. The main problem is that the affirmative action can cause the fallacy that women are bad at computer science to become a self-fulfilling prophecy much too easily. Imagine an admissions scenario. A woman is accepted to fill some gender ratio quota, whether implicit or explicit, but otherwise would not have been accepted. She may do well, but statistically, she will likely do worse than her male peers. Then, the proportion of women in the program doing badly will be greater than the proportion of men doing badly, and this gets noticed by people both within and outside the program. The prophecy is fulfilled.

Yes, I know the whole argument of affirmative action is that, if you believe it, if we give many women a chance, some will overcome the barriers and encourage other women to pursue the field. But realistically, unqualified women will just reinforce the gender fallacy, and successful women will inspire, but successful men will inspire as well, and overall, affirmative action does more harm than good. What we really need is something that is much more difficult to implement than a quota. We need to change the culture surrounding engineering, as well as to encourage those women with high potential to pursue engineering.

This is what I am doing now in hiring. The final hiring standard for both sexes are exactly the same, but during the application period, I try especially hard to seek out women who would make great section leaders and encourage them to apply through personal emails, and even allow slightly longer extensions on the application. But, once past the application stage, the entire interview and decision process is gender-blind.

Using this strategy, the ratio at the final round of interviews last quarter was almost 50%, and the final pool of SLs hired was 30% female. We hope that this quarter, we can push even closer to breaking that 50% mark.

  2 Responses to “Affirmative Action in Computer Science, A Hiring Perspective”

  1. Hire on talent. Women are talented, and as you said, the problem is finding them and encouraging them to apply. At some point, almost all the women in the CS major were section leaders :].

  2. Then it probably shows some improvement if (1) a larger percentage of section leaders are now women, AND (2) there are more non-SL female CS majors. :)

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