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Sexist Computer Science TA handbook found on University of Maryland website

Sexist teacher assistant handbook found at UMD
Posted at 9:55 AM, Apr 18, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-18 18:15:03-04

A teacher's assistant handbook is causing some controversy at the University of Maryland. 

The handbook was meant for Computer Science TA's and had separate instructions for both men and women. Now, some people are saying the comments made inside are sexist.

"We shouldn't be expecting that females will be treated differently than males," computer science TA Annie Bao said. 

Bao, a sophomore, first came across the handbook on the department's website in January. She read it over to prepare herself for her new job as a TA this semester. 

"I thought it was odd but you know, I didn’t really want to bring it up because I just got the job," Bao said. 

It tells the women their students may have trouble accepting they are in the scientific field because it's a male associated activity. The handbook continues to say this is good practice for the real world because students may not be the only ones having trouble accepting women as a professional.

"To female TA's: your students may experience some difficulty accepting you fully in the scientific field which they may, for whatever reason, associated with male activity. Male students especially, but not exclusively, may try to challenge your authority, to trip you up, or more subtly to try to compromise your status by flippancy or suggestive remarks. Friendly but firm and repeated assertion of your competence and authority to direct their study of computer science (asserted through deed and attitude, as well as through word) will probably take care of the situation. Such challenging behavior should fall off rapidly. That such assertion should even be necessary is admittedly annoying, but be patient. Besides, it's, unfortunately, the kind of practice you're going to need at some time in the future; students may not be the only ones who will have difficulty accepting you as a professional.

It then tells the men they will have less of a challenge than their woman colleagues, but to watch our for female students that may flirt with them for better grades. 

To male TA's: You may also experience some degree of testing or challenging of your authority, but on the whole, it'll be to a lesser extent than that experienced by your female colleagues. For some reason, male students seem reticent to ask questions (admit ignorance) in front of their peers -- especially with a male TA in charge. You may need to sensitize yourself to the apparent fact that your male students may have a harder time seeking the help they need. A few female students may attempt to capitalize on the male-female dynamic to their own advantage. Most of these attempts are fairly transparent unless you are particularly susceptible to flirtatious or provocative behavior. Lest you be too flattered, it's very likely that it is a lure of your position or a grade that they're after, not you. Common sense should tell you this is a potentially damaging situation for you if you don't recognize and avoid the dangers."

After 4 months on the job, Bao decided she needed to say something. 

"I was having some of these things happen to me and having it in the handbook was just an excuse for those things to happen," Bao said. "It was small attitudes that added up. It's like walking into an office hours room and having students question whether you are the TA or ask you a dumber question than one they would ask a male TA, or ask you a question and then go to a male TA just to make sure your answer is right."

She posted screenshots of the handbook on Twitter Monday. Later that day, the department removed the handbook and posted a statement saying they do not tolerate misogynistic behavior:

"The TA Handbook posted on the CS website contained highly inappropriate, stereotypical characterizations of women. The handbook has been removed from the site, and we apologize for its offensive contents. While the origin of this handbook is not immediately known, it does not reflect our department’s values or beliefs. We denounce all misogynistic attitudes toward women and will continue to work diligently to provide all students a warm and welcoming environment to learn and succeed."

That's not enough for Bao.

"Revise it. Edit the standards. Let it be known that behaviors and attitudes like that are not tolerated," Bao said. 

She wants all women to feel confident pursuing a STEM career. 

"I find the field super exciting. I want to continue in it, I feel like I can do it and I just want to feel like I belong," Bao said. "I just want all girls who have been feeling like this to not only speak out but to educate your male peers that it’s not okay to be casually misogynistic and just have confidence in yourself."

Bao said TA's in the computer science department are paid by the school and have to get an A in the class to apply. She said she has heard that the handbook has been online for two decades. 

Wednesday, the following message was sent to the computer science department from the Dean of the College and the Chair of the CS Department. 

"To our community: 

Many of you have seen on social media over the last few days a handbook linked to our department. This document was deeply troubling and made generalizations about our female students, in particular, which were offensive and unacceptable.

As the dean of the college and chair of the CS department, we want to make clear that this document is counter to the values of our department, college and university. This document is not an official department statement and we were not aware it existed on our website. Upon learning of the document, it was immediately removed from our website. We responded to the student who helpfully flagged it to make it clear this is not acceptable language or behavior.

We are researching the origin of the handbook to understand how it ended up on our website and why it was not removed before yesterday. Regardless, it should not have been posted, or promoted in any way.

We recognize that gender stereotypes and barriers exist for women in our fields. We are committed to building upon important initiatives that promote gender equality.

In 2013, we launched the Maryland Center for Women in Computing, which is committed to making computer science inclusive for people of all backgrounds. We support student organizations whose work has helped break down barriers, sponsor the nation’s largest women’s hackathon, and offer early computer science programs for K-12 students of underrepresented groups in computing.

As a department, we have made great strides in recent years to address the gender gap that science fields face across the country. Over the past five years, our number of female computer science undergraduate majors has tripled.

But we can do more, and we are looking to tackle the overall culture in our field. There is a learning opportunity here to examine gender and inclusion across the department and to educate members of the department on these issues. Can this help encourage dialogue about the type of learning environment we want to foster? We believe it must. 

A teaching assistant handbook that accurately reflects the values of this college is being created and we are speaking with the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to look into training sessions and community dialogues that will promote a more equitable environment.

Please help us spread the word that the handbook referenced in the tweet has been rejected, wholeheartedly, by the university’s leadership. And please reach out to us if you have questions, concerns or suggestions on how to improve our culture.


Ming Lin

Chair, Department of Computer Science


Amitabh Varshney

Dean, College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences"