Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology probably doesn’t want you talking about how its culture marginalizes women in technology. And it probably doesn’t want you talking about how it has used a Playboy centerfold in its classrooms.
When TJ released its class of 2019 admissions statistics recently, many people voiced strong opinions on its diversity issues. What about TJ’s issues that haven’t been publicized?
I first saw a picture of Playboy magazine’s Miss November 1972 a year ago as a junior at TJ. My artificial intelligence teacher told our class to search Google for Lena Soderberg (not the full image, though!) and use her picture to test our latest coding assignment.
At the time I was 16 and struggling to believe that I belonged in a male-dominated computer science class. I tried to tune out the boys’ sexual comments. Why is an advanced science, technology, engineering and mathematics school using a Playboy centerfold in its classrooms?
Soderberg has a history with computer science. In the 1970s, male programmers at the University of Southern California needed to test their image-processing algorithm. They scanned what they had handy: the centerfold of a Playboy magazine. Before long, the image became a convention in industry and academia.
The use of the centerfold at TJ is consistent with the school’s lack of action in solving its women-in-tech problem. Students are afraid to speak up and risk ruining good relationships for college recommendations, and the administration is afraid to ask for public help and risk tarnishing TJ’s reputation.
As a result of TJ’s culture issue, some young women are deciding not to pursue upper-level computer science courses. If females were represented proportionally to their fraction of the TJ class, we would double the number of us in our advanced computer science labs. That’s a leaky pipeline.
I first met with the TJ administration in May in an attempt to fix the environment in our computer science labs. School officials didn’t stop using the centerfold image in the classroom until February, after I met with them again.
Why is TJ, a school that presents itself as an exemplar of STEM education, failing to create an inclusive learning environment? TJ tries to get ahead in everything from SAT scores to our number of Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists. Why aren’t we trying to get ahead in the women-in-tech movement?
Some students and teachers at TJ are trying to keep our female classmates engaged by organizing clubs and events. We have adapted many ideas from organizations such as the National Center for Women & Information Technology, Girls Who Code and Code.org.
To change its culture, TJ should also look to institutions with solutions. Harvey Mudd College and Carnegie Mellon University each have increased their percentage of female computer science majors from about 10 percent to 40 percent. The leaders of both schools are vocal in support of gender diversity. TJ administrators don’t have to do all the work, but they should be active and support their students and teachers in making change.
It’s time for TJ to say hello to inclusive computer science education — and say goodbye to Lena.
The writer is a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where she founded the Coding Lady Colonials, a club for women pursuing computer science.