How to prepare students for bias in industry



I teach at Mills, a women's college near Silicon Valley with a high number of students of color. We do a great job of preparing students technically -- they do very well on the job market and then in their jobs. What I am unsure of is how to prepare students for the transition from a nurturing, feminist liberal arts environment to industry, which is not only more rough-and-tumble for everyone but can include bias based on sex, race, age, etc., which may cause them to leave the tech industry.

How can I prepare my students to not have their careers derailed by mistreatment in industry? I don't want to just scare them out of the major or make them fearful by mentioning discrimination without providing a solution.

Ellen Spertus

Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 4 408


This question isn't specific to CS in any way and really belongs on

– Wildcard – 2017-06-26T19:43:16.773

6@Wildcard You raise an important issue. There's been so much attention lately on the environment in tech that I've been thinking of it as a CS education issue, but you're right that people face bias in many fields. Some of the answers mention CS-specific resources, while others are more general. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-26T19:48:17.227

3A small suggestion: edit the title to make it explicit that you're referring to social, rather than technical, bias? Given the topic of the site, the first time I saw this question, I assumed it was going to be about, like, people who were biased in favor of using one programming language over another. Normally I'd change it myself, but I don't want to "steamroll" the post as an outsider. I have chars left, so: I 100% agree this is on-topic here. While it's true that many types of biases exist in many different places, there are definitely challenges that are unique to CS and CS education. – Pops – 2017-06-27T20:11:21.507

1@Pops Thanks for the suggestion. I've also been considering changing "bias" to "mistreatment", since that's more general (and less controversial). – Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-27T20:13:45.523

1I don't think that would achieve your goal; regarding generality, you can be biased against someone (consciously or otherwise) without taking any action against them, and as for controversy, "mistreatment" sounds more contentious than "bias" to me. – Pops – 2017-06-27T20:17:46.567

@Pops The reason I say that "mistreatment" is less controversial is that some people deny the existence of bias (or think that it is over-emphasized), while I don't think anyone disputes that people sometimes get mistreated in the workplace. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-27T20:28:51.250

That's true, but this post is still (I'm assuming; please correct me if I'm wrong) going to be referring to mistreatment stemming from or having to do with bias, so I don't foresee the distinction helping. This is getting pretty speculative now though. Good question, in any case! – Pops – 2017-06-27T20:37:37.387

1@EllenSpertus What concerns me about this approach is creating a situation in which people feel the need to assess issues in the wrong light. Person A and person B are likely to experience many of the same issues, but person B may be inclined to process these issues in such a way that it leads them to inaccurate or detrimental conclusions. I feel as though people are quite intuitively aware that 'there are some jerks out there'. I simply fear that people who insist commonplace issues are related to their sex/race/etc. are not always confronting issues in a meaningful way. – pay – 2017-06-29T17:16:41.533

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– thesecretmaster – 2017-07-01T15:33:31.530

2Frieze and Quesenberry argue in Kicking Butt in CS (2015) that the key reforms at Carnegie Mellon (which is achieving even M/F ratios in CS major and in career persistence) were abandoning difference theories (backing off the belief that different ideas appeal to men vs. women) in favor of valuing diverse people and people with diverse interests and raising awareness of bias. – Bennett Brown – 2017-07-03T04:21:48.653



[I asked the question. Even though I don't have the full answer, I want to share what we do, in case it is helpful.]

Role Models

Throughout the entire graduate and undergraduate programs, there are female professors and guest speakers, including women of color. In lecture, I highlight the work of all types of people.

Connecting Students to Support Communities

When surveying students at the beginning of the semesters to get their preferred name, contact information, pronouns, etc., I ask them to optionally provide demographic information that can help me match them with conferences and special programs for which they are eligible.

We encourage students to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, Lesbians Who Tech summits, AlterConf, etc., and we subsidize their attendance. In some cases, faculty attend with them.

Fighting the Impostor Syndrome

I educate students about the Impostor Syndrome, repeatedly. I tell them that it is normal to feel overwhelmed and incompetent at times. It does not mean they don't belong in CS; it means they're being challenged. When I correct students' mistakes, I let them know that I've made the mistake too.

Direct Discussion

When an event is in the news and on students' minds, such as the publication Susan Fowler's essay about Uber, I mention it in class and provide context. (On the negative side, her experience was awful. On the positive side, people are listening to her, which would not have been the case in the past.)

In the capstone course this spring, I assigned students the following readings (which, in hindsight, were overwhelming):

I asked them to write a one-page essay with their reactions to the readings and suggested the following optional questions:

  • Are you concerned about your work environment after Mills?
  • Have people ever told you it will be easier or harder for you to get hired because of your sex, race, age, or other non-work-related characteristic? Do you think they are right?
  • Why do you think people sometimes stay so long in bad work situations?
  • Have you or anyone you cared about experienced mistreatment in the workplace? Was it remedied?
  • Have you ever negotiated a job offer or raise? How did you feel about your experience?
  • Are there other articles on these topics that you've read and would recommend? If so, cite and summarize them.

Their answers allowed me to discuss their specific concerns with them individually and in class. For example, some women of color worried that they would be given jobs for which they were not qualified, either directly from companies or through special programs targeting minorities. I let them know that I (a white woman from an upper-class background) got my first programming job through family connections: I was qualified for it, but there's no way I would have been considered (fresh out of high school) without connections. If their families lack connections (which is overwhelmingly the case for my students), they should take advantage of other ways to get a foot in the door, paying it forward later.

Alumnae Examples

On the day we discussed the above readings, a recent graduate came to speak about her job and how she successfully advocated for herself, such as not letting herself get interrupted and telling people when they attributed to someone else an idea that she had originally suggested.

Pre-coaching for Industry

I advised students that they should maintain a network inside and outside their company, keep their resume up-to-date, and save some of their money (if possible) so they can move if necessary. If a bad situation arises, they should consult their support network for perspective/affirmation, document everything offsite, and not blindly trust HR or management. I let them know they could also come to us any time for advice.

Career Counseling

When students are considering accepting jobs, I steer them to companies with good reputations for their treatment of people like them and where we have alumnae or friends in mid-level or senior positions who can help them. If a student gets an offer from a company I don't know, I use my network (LinkedIn, Systers, etc.) to find out the company's reputation.

Ellen Spertus

Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 4 408

2Alumnae (I thought it was spelled alumni o.o) Are often a good source of experience. – ItamarG3 – 2017-06-26T17:53:58.710


Female graduates are alumnae. "Alumni" is for groups that include men.

– Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-26T17:59:20.777

1I did not know that. Thanks! – ItamarG3 – 2017-06-26T18:00:16.587

While it's used correctly, "alumnae" is a bit esoteric (and arguably archaic). "Female alumni" would probably be more accessible. – Nat – 2017-06-26T23:58:12.813

9I'm a white man and I have been in the computing industry since I finished my doctorate in 1991, but I still feel like an impostor. +1 for teaching your students about Impostor Syndrome – dumbledad – 2017-06-27T09:16:15.693

5@Nat "alumna/alumnae" is the commonly accepted term used by most women's colleges today - not archaic at all. – hairboat – 2017-06-27T16:14:59.127

1"If their families lack connections (which is overwhelmingly the case for my students), they should take advantage of other ways to get a foot in the door, paying it forward later" really spoke to me. So many people get their first job through some connection (networking, family, fellow alumni), so if you don't have that network, it makes perfect sense to use a different method (outreach program etc.) to substitute for the same leg up many people get. – AlannaRose – 2017-06-27T23:35:36.633

1Funny that in a language where there actually is a neuter form, we still cling to gendered forms. – None – 2017-06-29T15:48:07.797


@nocomprende: "alumnus" and "alumni" are both gendered male (, so I don't see what's odd about using the female alumna/alumnae when referring to all-female graduates. Are you suggesting using the neutral alumnum/alumna for all graduates? That seems reasonable to me, but your comment is rather vague.

– AlannaRose – 2017-06-30T00:05:01.977

1@AlannaRose What is odd is that we find it necessary to distinguish male and female when it basically only matters in one very limited circumstance. I sincerely hope that this is an error that will just quietly go away and die. Maybe if people stop resurrecting it, it would. – None – 2017-06-30T00:17:00.860


In addition to using your network to find out a company's reputation, I think it important to pass each student individually from you as a mentor to their next mentor in the field. Bill Massey describes Black mentor networks as playing a key role in Bell Lab's success producing so many highly successful Black STEM professors. . HS teachers need to identify post-secondary mentors for their top students from under-represented groups. Donna Brazile: Fight your way into a place at the table and then elbow to make room for others.

– Bennett Brown – 2017-07-03T04:57:16.233

1I am reading the articles. Strange stuff. In college, 30 years ago, half of my peers were female. I got a job with a software company of about 100 people, the great majority were women. I now work in a department of a US state, all of my superiors up to the very top (until just recently) are female. I have never seen the kind of bias described in the articles, perhaps many people have not, which is why it might be hard to garner support to change it. I definitely agree that unconscious bias exists (and is unavoidable) but the only solution is self-awareness. That is not likely to happen. – None – 2017-07-05T01:51:02.783


As part of our department's colloquium series, we've started holding an annual free showing of a movie that depicts bias, and encouraging all of our students to attend. This showing is in the evening, publicized, and open to the community. We invite local high school students, especially those from under-represented groups.

Last September, we showed "CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap", and followed it with a panel of female software developers from local tech companies discussing their experiences, and fielding questions/comments from the audience. It was quite successful -- 10pm came and people didn't want to leave.

We are still deciding what we'll do this year, but are leaning toward showing "Hidden Figures". Back in December, several students and I saw it in the theater, and it is very engaging -- there were audible gasps from our students during some of the scenes. The only downside is that because it depicts events that happened 50+ years ago when bias and discrimination were more overt, it will likely take some extra work to show the students that it is still an issue today.

The companies in our industrial-advisory board are very interested in increased diversity; one of them generously sponsors these showings by purchasing the DVD with the necessary public-viewing license (as opposed to the home-viewing license that comes with normal DVDs).

Joel Adams

Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 941

I think that Hidden Figures was made and became popular because people can relate to it. Quest For Fire didn't do as well. – None – 2017-06-29T15:49:44.203


While not a member of your target group, I've thought about this for years. One of the best things you can do is make sure that the students have both strong ties while students (duh), but also a permanent way for them to communicate, form communities, and take action throughout the rest of their lives. Long ago, Carnegie Mellon, I think, promised every student that their university email address would never disappear. They would be able to communicate with each other and the U in perpetuity.

At my institution we did something similar with one group (doctoral students) but for a different reason. We provide an email distribution list that every student belongs to and that is always available. The students have formed incredibly strong bonds across the country and across graduation years. They mostly use it to help each other find more satisfying employment when needed, but also to ask for and get supports of various kinds. Community can be a powerful thing.

Such an online community also makes it easy to find previous graduates to return to talk to students as well as to mentor one another both personally and professionally. Faculty should also be involved in this, not just the alumni office. Nor would I limit it to a subset of students. Given the age of the college, I'm sure you have many graduates in positions of power and influence. Get them into the picture. Wellesley College has been good about this, I think.

Long term, however, discrimination dies hard and rears up from the dead, so work to put and keep the zombie in the grave.


Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 21 033


As a male high school teacher in a gender-mixed school, there are certain limits to what I can add here, but it is an issue that I care deeply about.

My first source of information would be the girls themselves. I would create a poll for graduates of the program, because they will have the most insight into whether they were really prepared for whatever obstacles they encountered. I would ask them:

  • how they are faring generally
  • whether they are still in the field of computing, whether they were well prepared technically
  • whether they were well prepared to handle bias in industry, and
  • (most important) I would ask them follow-up questions for suggestions on how to improve the program, especially with regards to being prepared for bias.

These follow-up questions presumably have the potential to be the single most important source of actionable information for you and for your program. These are really the only women who know how effective what you have done thus far has been.

What I currently do with my very few female and minority students is simply to emphasize to them that they are needed in this field, and to offer support if they ever feel that they need it. So far, no one has taken me up on this offer. This could either indicate that they feel comfortable, or that they do not feel like I could help them, or that they do not wish to approach me specifically. (I hope it is the first option, and I certainly hope it is not the last one.)

These are tough issues, and they're getting a lot of national attention, but I have not seen many good answers. I am hopeful that the discussion here will bring new insights.

Ben I.

Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 17 660


If your students excel in what they do and in their careers, treating them in a biased way would hold significantly less ground. There may well be 2-3 people who mistreat them, but their supervisors won't care about their background simply because they have seen that they get the job done.

If your students are prepared to make an effort to prove that their gender\age\race or anything bias being thrown at them is completely irrelevant. By doing so, not only will they better themselves, they completely invalidate bias arguments thrown at them. Even if at first their supervisors are the biased ones, sticking to their goal and excelling at their careers would either get them higher than the supervisor (perhaps by switching work places to a better position somewhere) or the supervisor would change their minds.

The core of my suggestions is to explain how being dedicated and motivated often solves the bias people in the industry, and as an added bonus, they gain from it regardless of the bias people.

Teaching the value of hard work should do the trick. For a highly dedicated person, very high performance requirements (such as ones that dispute any relevance of one's age\gender\race or anything bias being thrown at them) are more a motivator than a discouraging factor.


Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 4 569

2I wasn't the downvoter but can guess why someone might not have liked your answer: You suggest that bias is rare and that it can be overcome through hard work. Many people consider that point of view to be backwards. I encourage you to read the articles linked to in my question (or answer), if you haven't already. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-26T17:54:54.763

2On what basis do you claim that mistreatment will be rare but that "supervisors won't care about their background [if] they get the job done"? That's not what I hear from people who have spent significant time in industry. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-26T17:57:08.310

@EllenSpertus I am literally reading them now. I do believe that hard work can often do the trick. But I might be backwards in this. I'll finish reading the articles. – ItamarG3 – 2017-06-26T17:58:51.593

2The problem (active, rather than the more normal subconscious bias) seems most likely to occur when the management group comes from a narrow social group. Science and Medicine claim to suffer significantly too. I've not observed first hand, but even in 'good' companies, you can find examples of discrimination. – Sean Houlihane – 2017-06-26T18:38:01.060

@SeanHoulihane That may be, but could you tell me how it relates to my answer (I mean no disrespect, I simply didn't understand :)). – ItamarG3 – 2017-06-26T18:41:14.330

1Hard work doesn't help when results are not the cause of the problem. Problem is (crudely) insecurity from the clique. In some environments this might be the norm, but it's not something I regard as acceptable. Perception of this topic might vary depending on your context though, the Q seems rather US biased, UK may be better (but I have no evidence to justify that). – Sean Houlihane – 2017-06-26T18:47:42.353

6This is easily the best answer. Yes, some people are biased. The best solution is to excel so well that biased people only hurt themselves by settling for second best (i.e. they don't get service from the best—you—they do business with someone else not as good). Having the mindset that the deck is stacked against you and if you don't make it it's someone else's fault is a 100% certain route to failure regardless of your race or sex. This is the best advice you can give anyone inclined to be a victim—but victim-minded people will undoubtedly label it as "insensitive." – Wildcard – 2017-06-26T19:42:12.193

1@Wildcard Thanks you. The general idea should work if done correctly (by students) but it is still rather backwards. If applied more widely, it can bring some change of perspective. But there are more effective ways. – ItamarG3 – 2017-06-26T19:48:05.100

6@Wildcard I agree that every student should try to excel, and our students do. I think you misrepresent the view you disagree with by saying it attributes all failure to someone else's fault. Being aware of the possibility of discrimination can cause someone to avoid internalizing disrespect shown to them and to consider moving to a more hospitable environment. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-26T19:56:05.077


@ItamarGreen, that's a good distinction to draw: yes, I definitely meant the most effective approach from an individual student perspective, certainly not that no one should combat discrimination! Discrimination against minorities (religious, ethnic, whatever) is sadly very mainstream and I fully support eradicating bigotry and prejudice. I just meant that using it at an individual level as a reason why you didn't succeed is a way to...not succeed. :)

– Wildcard – 2017-06-26T20:20:15.797

5@Wildcard Bias puts people in really tough situations. It's pretty important to learn how to deal as well as possible with those situations (it's not as simple as just "excel!"), and how to cope with the fact that sometimes despite one's best efforts, things may not go as well as they would've for someone else. That's really not the same thing as deciding that all failures are someone else's fault. – Cascabel – 2017-06-26T20:30:42.737

3FWIW, I've seen white males mistreated and their confidence battered, even when they should have been secure (had a CS PhD, hired and promoted at a top company, etc.) Knowing that some people are just jerks (whether or not due to bias) can help anyone. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-26T20:35:04.133


ob. xkcd:

– Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-26T20:42:36.163

1If I read this correctly, your suggestion is to let the market forces work against biased employers. If an employer does not retain the best, they can only harm themselves in the long run and help competitors that hire purely on merit. There is an uncomfortable side to this though: this has the possibility of also eventually revealing statistics that show correlations between ability and race/gender/ethnicity/etc. We’re not afraid to find out, right? – Kevin Li – 2017-06-27T01:13:16.520

1This is incorrect. Employers will very often turn a blind eye to blatant harassment. Susan Fowler's account at Uber is a prime example of this. She is a talented engineer yet when she was faced by blatant harassment that was well documented by her and other women at Uber, HR and management (all the way up to the CTO) completely rebuffed her. Inherent bias doesn't go away when you're good at your job and women shouldn't have to change jobs in order to be free of harassment. – Rob Rose – 2017-06-29T20:59:58.463


Another suggestion in addition to the many great suggestions provided above would be to encourage them to define where their line is in terms of what they feel is unacceptable behavior. Ask them to think about how they would respond to grey-area discrimination (e.g. a supervisor hasn't said anything discriminatory about women/POC but appears to go out of their way to avoid giving them challenging/interesting tasks or responsibility/autonomy). Encourage them to not just sit and worry, but to be proactive and prepared. Doing so can increase confidence in these situations.

You can also encourage them to put themselves in "role model positions" for younger women and people of color. When I was in university I worked on our local science fair committee as a project mentor in software engineering and electronics. I made connections with high school girls who were passionate about science. In doing so I unintentionally gave myself more purpose to succeed and be successful in science so I could help conquer that bias for them.

Keltie Murdoch

Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 231


First, tell them that it happens.

I can tell you I have had one awkward conversation with someone on stack exchange in chat in terms of nerdy interests and gender; thankfully someone I know (from SE) stepped in and helped me out. And that was a minimally offensive sort of conversation.

Letting your students know that they are not alone is a good first step, and will encourage them to reach out to others who probably have had similar experiences. Just talking about it, and not feeling like maybe it is just you is important.

Second, tell them that it's not right.

Reassure them that what's happening isn't because of them. There's people out there that for some reason (background, personal belief, whatever) are of the mindset that gender (or age, race, etc) does play a role in ability in certain fields.


  1. Tell them about role models - people who have experienced it, but pushed through. Think the movie/book Hidden Figures, or colleagues of yours, or even you yourself.

  2. Give them people to contact (like yourself, or other students) that are role models or who have gone through it.

  3. Encourage them to not care what other people think. They chose to go into computer science for a reason - because they enjoy it, probably. Don't let other people stop you from doing what you love. Of course, this doesn't mean that words or actions aren't painful - it's to encourage them to push through that and just do what they've trained to do.

  4. Give them ways to respond, i.e., going to HR/management/something within the company, documenting it, things to say, etc.

  5. Tell them that they are part of the group that's working toward stopping it. Get them angry, and ready to do something about it if they encounter it, not just blow it off

  6. Seek a good environment. With so many companies needing programmers, they can pick the good ones.


Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 3 623


I would remind them, there are many CS jobs out there. Actively watch out for a bad environment and seek a good environment. You can always leave a job and get another if the environment is bad. (It might be worth trying to manage but it might not - don't discount the penalty of a stressful job in terms of health and happiness).


Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 61


Cheap and dirty trick: dress to fit in as much as possible. Nerdy glasses, geeky t-shirts, short-sleeved shirts and other staples of the computer geek uniform show that you belong, and work to diminish the perceived otherness that the average developer/programmer might attribute to those who do not look like them.


Posted 2017-06-26T15:50:11.917

Reputation: 15

There is some truth to this. – Ellen Spertus – 2017-06-27T19:23:51.057

3Unfortunately. I'd like more commentary here that doesn't in some way imply that the victim is responsible for the problem, or for "solving" the problem. Racism isn't caused by POC. Nor is sexism caused by women. – Buffy – 2017-06-27T20:51:14.253