Could CS departments be legally forced to change their practices?

June 17, 2013 at 1:08 am 17 comments

The latest Freakonomics podcast is on tipping and whether it should be banned, i.e., made illegal.  One of the arguments for banning tipping is that it’s discriminatory.  White servers get more than Black servers, for example.  Professor Michael Lynn cited a Supreme Court case that I found described below.  If a neutral practice disproportionately affects minorities or women in an adverse manner, then the practice is illegal.

I’ve raised the question here before, whether CS departments could be forced to change their teaching practices in order to comply with Title IX provisions so that more women might participate.  One of the arguments I got in response was that no one adopted any practices to explicitly exclude women.  This ruling says that the motivation for the practice doesn’t matter — even if it’s a “neutral” practice, if the effect is discriminatory, it has to go.  We certainly have evidence that implicit bias exists in computing classrooms and that CS teachers allow their classrooms to develop a defensive climate. Further, we know a lot about how to improve women’s participation in computing.  If we have a legal requirement to make computing education available to women, my guess is that we could be required to make change.  For example, could we be forced to give up MOOCs as a discriminatory practice, since MOOCs have a measurable discriminatory effect?

In Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the Supreme Court decides that where an employer uses a neutral policy or rule, or utilizes a neutral test, and this policy or test disproportionately affects minorities or women in an adverse manner, then the employer must justify the neutral rule or test by proving it is justified by business necessity. The Court reasons that Congress directed the thrust of Title VII to the consequences of employment practices, not simply the motivation. This decision paves the way for EEOC and charging parties to challenge employment practices that shut out groups if the employer cannot show the policy is justified by business necessity.

via Selected Supreme Court Decisions.

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The White Geek’s burden Misunderstanding MOOCs and Computing Labor Shortage: Andy Kessler of

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thinkingwiththings  |  June 17, 2013 at 9:04 am

    This is a fascinating idea, that Title IX should be invoked to cause us to alter our teaching practices. People focus so much on inequities in sports; this is a more important inequity, and one also governed by Title IX (which, if I recall, never mentions athletics specifically.)

    Poor teaching practices–in any discipline–disproportionally affect the under-represented, who may already be questioning whether they belong in this classroom. There is a clear moral argument for improving teaching; a legal lever is an intriguing thought!!

  • 2. Title IX  |  June 17, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Curricular materials are explicitly excluded from Title IX.

    “The Title IX regulations provide that the content of textbooks or the use of other curricular materials in any education program or activity are not actionable under Title IX. 65 Fed. Reg. 52873.”

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  June 17, 2013 at 10:59 am

      None of the changes that people like Jane Margolis and Joanne Cohoon talk about in their research are curricular.

  • 4. Paul Buis  |  June 17, 2013 at 10:32 am

    I’m not sure how to increase the persistence of women who initially declare a CS major. I haven’t seen anything that has had long-term success with this. All I recall is a SIGCSE meta-study that showed all reported short-term successes were just that: short-term. I don’t recall seeing any studies that showed any female-specific persistence enhancing techniques. In particular, everything I’ve seen about enhancing persistence has been gender neutral (with similar enhancements for both genders). Please point me in the direction of studies that show particular techniques are reproducible, long-term, and female-specific.

    I’m not in a position to deal with increasing participation prior to the college level. Many of the problems in the US seem to be pre-college and specific to the US. We have a good gender balance among our international undergraduate and graduate students here.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  June 17, 2013 at 10:57 am

      Leo Porter and Beth Simon’s paper, with data over a 12 year period, is a good example of long-term success at drawing more women into computing:

      • 6. Paul Buis  |  June 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm

        Again, this is generically about improving persistence for students independent of gender. In fact, while there was improvement in the retention of females, it was not statistically significant, whereas the improvement in retention of males was statistically significant. It is a great article and we’ve already begun to push the kinds of practices outlined in this article on our faculty (who are generally resistant to change).

        • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  June 17, 2013 at 5:54 pm

          It’s true, Paul. I’m sorry that I missed that you wanted female-specific interventions. Why? We know from work like Jane Margolis’s that women and under-represented minority suffer the most under poor teaching. Improve the teaching for everyone, and you end up doing better for women and under-represented minority.

          IF a case were brought under Title IX, demanding change in CS Department’s instructional practices, I don’t know what remedy the courts might demand. Something female-specific? Something that improves quality for everyone? I’m not a legal expert, and this post is merely conjecture on my part.

          I am not familiar with the meta-review in SIGCSE that you reference (could you be more specific?), but I am skeptical about the findings. Very few interventions have even been tried longer-term. How can we possibly know yet (or have enough studies that one can do a meta-review) that the interventions don’t work long-term?

      • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 17, 2013 at 2:33 pm

        One problem with any before and after comparison like the one by Porter and Simon is that the pool of students is decidedly different from year to year. The fraction of students continuing in CS is subject to huge variations even with no change in instructional form, and it is hard to separate these fluctuations from the changes due to the changes in instruction. The statistical significance only rules out the null hypothesis (that there was no change), not alternative hypotheses about why the change ocurred.

        • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  June 17, 2013 at 5:50 pm

          I completely agree. We will never get the kind of confidence about education than we will about the physical world. There are too many variables (e.g., did the student have a hang-over when coming into class? Did the school team just score a big win the night before, so many students have hang-overs in class?) to control all of them. That’s why we use methods like grounded theory and design-based research.

          I have a paper coming out in ICER in the Fall that is a ten year retrospective on Media Computation research. One of the claims I make is that we can say with some confidence that Media Computation has a positive impact on retention because of peer-reviewed studies from multiple institutions (Georgia Tech, Gainesville College, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of California San Diego) showing the same kinds of results. Multiple institutions is one way to gain more confidence, though never the same as F=ma

          • 10. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 17, 2013 at 7:31 pm

            I agree that studies involving different institutions at different times helps considerably to reduce the effects of extraneous variables.

            One other problem with generalizing from the Porter and Simon study is that they did 3 simultaneous interventions, so it is a little difficult to say which are drivers for the effect and which just “passengers”. Again, multiple studies with different combinations of the interventions can help tease that apart.

  • 11. Lloyd  |  June 17, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    In order to win a Title IX case, you have to convince the court that there is a demand on the part of the under-represented gender that is not being met due to discrimination, intentional or otherwise. I don’t think you can convince anybody that there is an unmet demand on the part of women for higher education in computer science. If we can find some way to get women to want to study computer science – whether it’s changing societal attitudes or modifying K-12 education or whatever, then we can consider Title IX. Until then, it’s a red herring.

    • 12. Mark Guzdial  |  June 18, 2013 at 9:39 am

      Lloyd, can you point me to a reference for that, please? I’m interested in how Title IX cases have been constructed and what makes them successful. Are there articles on successful Title IX cases that have this characteristic that you’re describing, that there was a demand from the under-represented group?

      • 13. Lloyd  |  June 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm

        Universities can show compliance with Title IX by satisfying any one of three conditions ( Conditions 1 and 3 are relevant to our discussion. The first is that the university is providing equal opportunities for both men and women in the sport (subject) in question. Most of us would say we are providing equal opportunity but you’re suggesting that is not true because of the way we teach, and perhaps you’re right. The third condition is that “The institution is fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.”

        Expounding on the third condition, the AAUW ( says ‘an institution must prove that “no” is the answer to all of the following questions: “Is there unmet interest in a particular sport?”…’ (the other two questions are specific to fielding a team and finding competition).

        More information about compliance, and meeting the third condition, is at

        • 14. Mark Guzdial  |  June 18, 2013 at 4:43 pm

          This is really great, Lloyd! Thank you! Barb and I have started talking about how we can measure the gap between (a) the interest that female students have in computing and (b) the disinterest female students have for computer science classes. We actually have a bunch of data that point to such a gap (e.g., from the girls in summer camps vs enrollment in high school CS classes, from students who express interest in “Media Computation” but say they don’t want “Computer Science” classes, from the 30% female population in our “Computational Media” degree but 12% female in our “Computer Science” degree). Maybe it is possible to make this case.

          • 15. Lloyd Smith  |  June 18, 2013 at 8:03 pm

            You’ll make history if you can do it. But you might talk to a Title IX attorney before you get too deeply into it, or wander over and chat with your athletic compliance officer. There are a lot of nooks and crannies in Title IX interpretation.

            1. I don’t think you can use data from your students to show noncompliance at my university. You might show G-Tech is not compliant, but my university would have to do its own study with its own students. And somebody would have to bring suit against my university, unless you can do this as a class action.

            2. Even though the law makes reference to particular sports, I think it’s usually applied in a general way. So for example, you might see a university cut men’s tennis and cross country (as mine did) and add women’s field hockey. We might see universities cut computer science and add nursing programs in order to provide more opportunities for women. I don’t really think that will happen, but…

            3. If you take a global view, most universities have more women enrolled than men. We might see universities have to add computer science to get more male enrollments!

            • 16. Mark Guzdial  |  June 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm

              Thanks for the advice, but I’m not interested in fueling a suit. I’m interested in the research question you raise — is there more interest in computing among women than enrollments indicate? Can we find evidence that there is untapped interest among females in computing?

  • 17. Mike  |  June 20, 2013 at 4:48 pm

    I hope I’m not too late, but I had two quick thoughts:

    1) My impression is that the way to solve the problem of gender inequality in sports is pretty straightforward: fund more women’s sports teams. I’m under the impression that the same is not true for solving gender inequality problems in CS. Is it reasonable to require a department to solve a problem when it’s not clear how to do so?

    1.1) If I’m mistaken and this is a problem that has well-understood solutions I would love to get directed to explanatory material (i.e., books, articles, maybe a lit survey) 🙂

    2) My impression is that colleges solved the problem of gender inequality in sports by creating women’s sports teams, but not necessarily in the same sports as men. I.e., there’s a men’s football team and a women’s field hockey team, but not vice-versa. Would it be acceptable for CS to solve the gender inequality the same way that the athletics department did (i.e., by creating another major that women will enroll in, instead of getting women to enroll in the traditional BS in CS)?

    Regardless, it’s a fascinating question – thanks for posting this!


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