Nobody Ever Says “You Only Got Into MIT Because You’re an Asian Man”

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 15 2014 11:33 AM

Silent Technical Privilege

As a novice computer programmer, I always got the benefit of the doubt—because I looked the part.

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Thinking about this story always angers me. Here was someone with a natural interest who took the initiative to learn more and was denied the opportunity to do so. I have no doubt that my friend could have gotten good at programming—and really enjoyed it—if she had the same opportunities as I did. (It didn’t help that when she was accepted to MIT, her aunt—whose son had been rejected—congratulated her by saying, “Well, you only got into MIT because you're a girl.”)

Over a decade later, she now does some programming at her research job, but wishes that she had learned more back in college. However, she had such a negative association with everything CS-related that it was hard to motivate herself to do so for fear of being shot down again.

One trite retort is “Well, your friend should've been tougher and not given up so easily. If she wanted it badly enough, she should've tried again, even knowing that she might face resistance.” These sorts of remarks aggravate me. Writing code for a living isn't like being a Navy SEAL sharpshooter. Programming is seriously not that demanding, so you shouldn't need to be a tough-as-nails superhero to enter this profession.

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Just look at this photo of me from a software engineering summer internship:

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Photo courtesy Philip Guo

Even though I was hacking on a hardware simulator in C++, which sounds mildly hard-core, I was actually pretty squishy, chillin' in my cubicle and often taking extended lunch breaks. All of the guys around me (yes, the programmers were all men, with the exception of one older woman who didn't hang out with us) were also fairly squishy. These guys made a fine living and were good at what they did; but they weren't superheroes. The most hardship that one of the guys faced all summer was staying up late playing Doom 3 and then rolling into the office dead-tired the next morning. Anyone with enough practice and motivation could have done our jobs, and most other programming and CS-related jobs as well. Seriously, companies aren't looking to hire the next Steve Wozniak—they just want to ship code that works.

It frustrates me that people not in the majority demographic often need to be tough as nails to succeed in this field, constantly bearing the lasting effects of thousands of micro-inequities. Psychology Today notes that according to one researcher, Mary Rowe:

[M]icro-inequities often had serious cumulative, harmful effects, resulting in hostile work environments and continued minority discrimination in public and private workplaces and organizations. What makes micro-inequities particularly problematic is that they consist in micro-messages that are hard to recognize for victims, bystanders and perpetrators alike. When victims of micro-inequities do recognize the micro-messages … it is exceedingly hard to explain to others why these small behaviors can be a huge problem.

In contrast, people who look like me can just kinda do programming for work if we want, or not do it, or switch into it later, or out of it again, or work quietly, or nerd-rant on how Ruby sucks or rocks or whatever, or name-drop monads. And nobody will make remarks about our appearance, about whether we're truly dedicated hackers, or how our behavior might reflect badly on “our kind” of people. That's silent technical privilege.

Ideally, we want to spur interest in young people from underrepresented demographics who might never otherwise think to pursue CS or STEM studies. There are great people and organizations working toward this goal. Although I think that increased and broader participation is critical, a more immediate concern is reducing attrition of those already in the field. For instance, according to a 2012 STEM education report to the president:

[E]conomic forecasts point to a need for producing, over the next decade, approximately 1 million more college graduates in STEM fields than expected under current assumptions. Fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. Merely increasing the retention of STEM majors from 40% to 50% would generate three quarters of the targeted 1 million additional STEM degrees over the next decade.

That's why I plan to start by taking steps to encourage and retain those who already want to learn. So here's a thought experiment: For every white or Asian male expert programmer you know, imagine a parallel universe where they were of another ethnicity and/or gender but had the exact same initial interest and aptitude levels. Would they still have been willing to devote the 10,000-plus hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in the face of dozens or hundreds of instances of implicit discouragement they would inevitably encounter over the years? Sure, some super-resilient outliers would, but many wouldn't. Many of us would quit, even though we had the potential and interest to thrive in this field.

I hope to live in a future where people who already have the interest to pursue CS or programming don't self-select themselves out of the field. I want those people to experience what I was privileged enough to have gotten in college and beyond: unimpeded opportunities to develop expertise in something that they find beautiful, practical, and fulfilling.

This piece is adapted from Guo’s blog.

Philip Guo is an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Rochester. Follow him on Twitter.

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