Excellence in STEM with Dr. Amy J. Ko

IEEE Computer Society Team
06/06/2023
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In this Pride interview with Dr. Amy J. Ko, part of our Excellence in STEM series, we delve into the concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the context of computer science and engineering. Dr. Ko’s definition of equity, diversity, and inclusion is rooted in a profound reimagining of the field.

It goes beyond merely acknowledging diversity as a fact of human existence and delves into actively responding to and designing for it. In her vision, computer science and engineering become spaces where everyone has the necessary resources, encouragement, and support to thrive in learning, teaching, research, and practice.

Join us and learn from Dr. Ko’s insights and recommendations from her personal experiences and her work to make the world more equitable through technology.

What is your definition and meaning of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the context of computer science and engineering?


Diversity is just a fact of human existence, one that we often ignore. In computer science and engineering, this would require a complete reimagining of the field. It would be one where everyone has the resources, encouragement, and support they need to thrive in learning, teaching, research, and practice. It’s one free of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. It’s one in which the curriculum talks about more than just technical ideas, but social and political ideas that intersect with and shape computing. It’s one where the diversity in students’ identities, abilities, cultures, values, and communities are viewed as assets, not as threats to “productivity,” “excellence,” and “merit.” It’s one where the goal is learning computer science and engineering is not strictly to serve for-profit enterprises, but also communities, government, and not-for-profit goals of human rights and dignity. Inclusion is not enough, because it doesn’t require achieving any of these visions; I just imagine tweaks to the existing cultures of computer, science, and engineering help people feel belonging, but belonging isn’t possible without equity.

 

What barriers to inclusion have you experienced throughout your career?


I have experienced racist, sexist, and transphobic microaggressions. The research I do with my students that tries to study and envision more equitable futures is regularly rejected for trying to imagine change that is too “radical.” My calls for equity and justice in computer science has led to senior faculty writing me messages telling me to stop talking. Science has led to senior faculty, writing me messages, telling me to stop talking, to stop making conflict, to “know my place.” Conferences are held in locations where it is illegal for me to use the restroom, seek medical care, and in some cases in the Middle East, illegal for me to be alive. Most of my colleagues in my academic communities are wonderfully supportive allies, but all it takes is one or two bad actors to make me want to avoid entire communities. And, of course, I’m not alone in this. So I spend hundreds of hours each year supporting and mentoring other trans, non-binary, and queer academics, helping them navigate all of these and other worse challenges, such as being denied tenure for being trans, or having to narrow their job searches to the small subset of US states and countries that are safe for trans and non-binary people to live. This is work that many in academia don’t have to do and aren’t even aware is happening. And I must do it on top of all the other work I’m expected to do, just to survive and help my community survive. All that said, it’s better than horror stories I have seen in industry, because our motives in academia can freely be ones of equity and justice, instead of profit.

 

What are 1-2 ways the computing community can work together to prevent these experiences from occurring to future professionals?


Abandon strictly technical views of computer science. Listen to Black, Hispanic, disabled, queer, and trans people in CS. Don’t question their experiences or resist their demands. Invest your service time in implementing more equitable structures, practices, processes, and policies instead of activities that only serve to reinforce the status quo. You don’t need to understand why change is necessary to make change happen. You just have to trust people on the margins in computer science and engineering know what they need.

 

A lack of understanding of others’ experiences may sometimes lead to unintended consequences. What recommendations can you make to the community to help them increase their understanding of your culture and/or background that would help individuals feel more welcomed?


There are hundreds of thousands of resources on the Internet for learning basic facts about queer and trans people, and countless books that painstakingly lay out basic knowledge about our existence across the entirety of human history. Go read all of them. And don’t ask us to teach them to you, unless we offer; we need to spend our free time surviving the dominant culture that doesn’t make space for us — a culture we didn’t create and have asked for decades for people with power to change. It’s only fair that allies spend their free time learning how to make space. And, of course, being on the margins doesn’t free one from having to learn. No one knows everything about everyone, so we’re always learning, making mistakes, and growing. I spent most of my allyship and learning time these days on disability and race, where I still have much to learn.

 

Can you share an example from your education or career experiences where diverse voices had, or could have had, a significant impact on a project?


Most of the opportunities I see are in asking better questions. Dominant groups tend to ask questions that serve dominant groups, often at the expense of those on the margins. When marginalized groups lead, we end up with software and systems that better serve everyone. There are many great examples of this in accessible computing research; natural language processing, speech synthesis, captioning — all these things stemmed from projects to serve people with disabilities but ended up serving all of us. When we ignore people on the margins, we end up with horrible systems like a mostly inaccessible Internet, racist machine vision, algorithms, binary gendered TSA body scanners, and classist loan application approval algorithms. Focus your research and product design on people in the margins, and everyone wins.

 

Given the importance of computer science and engineering becoming and being a more diverse and inclusive community, we strive to hear the perspectives of persons from equity-seeking populations. What are 1 or 2 ways in which such diverse perspectives and experiences can be solicited and heard without making the persons who share them possibly feel tokenized or otherwise made uncomfortable?


Put them in charge and give them the resources, support, and space to make radical change without constant resistance. Anything else is a low-order bit that guarantees burnout and a continued status quo. If that sounds like too much, ask yourself why you’re resisting. Is it because you benefit from the status quo and fear losing something? What? And if not, is it because our systems aren’t giving you the resources you need to create more equitable communities? Why aren’t they? Quite often, the reason is that the people in charge simply don’t care; they might be racist, they might be sexist, they might be ableist. And even if they aren’t, their inaction reinforces systems that are racist, sexist, and ablest, making them complicit, as all of us our when we do not act. None of this is about blame; it’s just the reality of the immense power of indifference to do great harm.

 

More About Dr. Amy J. Ko


Amy J. Ko is a Professor at the University of Washington Information School and an Adjunct Professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. She is the director of the Code & Cognition Lab, where she and her students explore various aspects of CS education, human-computer interaction, and the challenges individuals and society face in understanding and utilizing computing for creativity, equity, and justice.

In the early stages of her career, Amy focused on developing techniques to automatically answer questions about program behavior, aiming to enhance debugging, program understanding, and reuse. Later on, her research shifted towards investigating the interactions between developers and users and exploring methods for aggregating user intent on a web-scale through help systems. Inspired by these ideas, she co-founded AnswerDash, a startup that sought to commercialize these innovative approaches.

Amy’s current work centers around fostering effective, equitable, and inclusive methods for people to learn computing. She delves into exploring how data, algorithms, APIs, and AI can both empower and oppress individuals, particularly examining ways to mitigate oppressive aspects. Through her extensive research, Amy has contributed to over 120 peer-reviewed publications, including 11 best paper awards and four most influential paper awards.

Amy received her Ph.D. from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008, and she holds degrees in Computer Science and Psychology with Honors from Oregon State University, where she benefited from a supportive environment as a student.

While accolades and recognition are appreciated, Amy’s true motivation lies in following her curiosity, exploring the world’s mysteries, and sharing her findings. She cherishes the opportunity to work alongside fellow inquisitive individuals, particularly her students, as they investigate how code intersects with people’s lives.