What percentage of students feel supported in their academic spaces? A project spearheaded by Duke Women in Technology sheds light on the barriers faced and overcome by women and members of underrepresented groups in STEM fields.
The Percentage Project surveyed a total of 164 Duke engineering and computer science students from a variety of backgrounds. The survey data was aggregated by gender, sexual identity, ethnic identity, first-generation status, socioeconomic status and racial identity.
Questions focused on students’ experience both in the classroom and the broader Duke community.
Junior Emily Liu, co-president of Duke Women in Technology—formerly Wiring with Women—and a columnist for The Chronicle, led the Percentage Project this year. As an executive board member, Liu was tasked with piloting a project in line with Women in Technology’s mission.
Duke Women in Technology found that first-generation students were almost 1.5 times more likely to report feeling intimidated studying computer science or engineering than other students surveyed. The survey also reported that 47% of females said that they "have felt judged or micro-aggressed" because of their choice to study computer science or engineering, compared to only 6% of males.
Additionally, 55% of surveyed females and 12% of surveyed males reported having been told that their gender identity gave them an unfair advantage at getting a job. Of the students surveyed, 14% of low-income students reported feeling comfortable asking questions during lectures, compared to 34% of other students.
In addition to the survey data, co-president Cyan DeVeaux, a junior, explained that people signed up to get their pictures taken and matched to various statistics from the survey conclusions as part of the broader project. The goal is for the Percentage Project to help the Duke community to put a face to the disparities in computer science and engineering.
“When you’re able to have a picture or something visual attached to it, I think you can make it more impactful, and beyond just numbers, that these are actual students who completed this survey, actual people that you see on a day-to-day basis, actual students that you know,” DeVeaux said.
After researching some of the executive boards of other WiT clubs on other campuses, Liu found that the University of Pennsylvania’s WiT club created the Percentage Project as a way to collect data on students’ experiences in technology.
“Looking through the photos, I just felt really inspired," she said. "I was just like, 'Wow, it would be awesome to bring something like this to Duke.'”
The conclusions and the survey questions are publicly available, so that the data is accessible to the Duke community and, more broadly, to individuals involved in technology. The conclusions were unsurprising to Liu and DeVeaux.
“The problem is still here,” Liu stated. “We always knew it was there and now we have the statistics to back it up.”
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In computer science, the introductory class has near gender parity, but the percentage of women in the classes decreases deeper into the major, according to previous Chronicle reporting. The Fall 2017 CompSci 101 class was approximately 47% female, although that dropped to 27% for CompSci 230.
“Our goal is to make the department more diverse at all levels—faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students,” wrote Pankaj Agrawal, chair of the computer science department and RJR Nabisco professor of computer science, to The Chronicle in 2017. “We have made progress in this direction but much more needs to be done.”
Liu said that she hopes the Duke community will act on these results to actively reduce the disparities faced by underrepresented groups in technology. However, she said the burden is on groups in power to make spaces more inclusive of others.
“I don’t think that you should put the burden on the people who feel marginalized to make these spaces welcome to them,” Liu said.
Liu and DeVeaux said the WiT community is part of the solution with its in-group mentorship. DeVeaux came into Duke without computer science experience and credits WiT with providing her the initial support she needed to pursue her interdepartmental major in computational media.
However, Liu and DeVeaux both expressed concerns that although progress is being made, Duke and the broader technology community have much further to go in making sure that diversity in representation is actually occurring.
“You can have like 50% of your board all women, or you can have representation from different racial and ethnic groups, but at the end of the day, if these groups don't feel comfortable in these spaces, your organization is still not diverse,” Liu said.