News | New position addresses equity in computer science

Since the creation of the Computer Science Undergraduate Society (CSUS) VP Diversity position last September, the current co-holders of the position, Computer Science students Pascale Gourdeau and Gabriela Stefanini, have been aiming to make the program more inclusive for individuals of all identities and backgrounds through different events on campus.

The new role was created after a CSUS Facebook post proposing a VP Diversity position turned into a long thread with more than 200 comments. The suggestion initially came from an article on women in technology that was shared earlier in the same group.

“The position was put into place in order to create a space where there could be dialogue about [diversity] issues outside of Facebook, and because there was little mutual understanding [in the comments] about those issues,” Gourdeau said.

The co-holders of the VP Diversity position still rely on Facebook to promote their events, share resources, and receive feedback. They created a new Facebook group called “Diversity @ SOCS [the School of Computer Science],” on which they have successfully advertised four events so far.

While their first event served as an introduction to the position and a discussion of future ideas, their second event tackled the issue of inclusivity in the hacking community.

The attendees ended the meeting with a list of suggestions to McGill’s own hackathon, McHacks, an event that gathers programming enthusiasts to create small programs, such as computer and phone apps, in a limited amount of time. Suggestions included the use of gender-neutral pronouns in the conduct of these events, as well as the introduction of forms for attendees to fill out anonymously at the end of a hackathon to disclose how inclusive they thought it had been. “This creates accountability,” Gourdeau said.

The third event, on integrating humanities into computer science, also led to some new tasks. Computer Science students now add the names of researchers that they find in the Montreal area who are integrating computer science and humanities to a shared document. Researchers chosen from this list will be invited to give a talk about their work at a Computer Science Colloquium, a SOCS-organized event series.

The most recent event that the VPs co-hosted, the Computer Science Women Mixer, was organized by U3 Computer Science student Lei Lopez.

She said she got the idea when a professor pointed out that a lot of female students who are interested in computer science don’t end up pursuing it.

“[T]he female-male ratio in COMP 202, the introductory computer science class, is around one to one. However, in the actual program, the ratio is more like one to four. I think that having female peers and role models can encourage women in those classes to stay in computer science,” she told The Daily in an email.

Gourdeau is currently working on making graphs for women’s enrollment numbers in computer science.

“Sexual orientation, gender identity, race, and ethnicity [information] is not available. That’s a challenge,” she said.

Another challenge is the future of the VP Diversity position. U3 Computer Science student Emily Sager expressed concern that the position could be taken over by a hostile CSUS member.

“It is a little dangerous to have a VP Diversity position, because when it first came about, some people popped up saying, ‘I’ll be VP Diversity and do nothing,’” Sager told The Daily.

To mitigate the problem, the current VPs have made attending at least one anti-oppression workshop mandatory to hold the position in the future. Anyone who fails to fulfill this requirement will have to step down.

During their time in office, Gourdeau and Stefanini want to change the name of the position to Equity Commissioner to reflect the pattern on campus, and organize new events, including a diversity tech talk with Google engineers and a recruitment event targeting different underrepresented groups.

Stefanini told The Daily in an email that “writing news articles about technology companies in Montreal, both corporations and startups, and finding how they [are] tackling diversity issues and creating a more diverse workforce” is also on the VPs’ agenda.

“Bringing the [diversity] discussion to the forefront helps us inform people, decreasing discrimination at McGill, and hopefully also in both industry and academia,” she added.